The Design and Construction Phases of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao

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5. “The thing I personally look for is an architectural idea that stands a decent chance of surviving the planning system, clients demands, value engineering and all the other hurdles that it will face” Francis Golding

Research an example of an architectural project where you consider the idea has survived the hurdles faced in its development. Explain some of the challenges faced during the design and construction process. Consider the roles of the architect, the client and other members of the design and construction team in achieving this goal, consider whether other factors such as the budget and the type of procurement played a role in the success of the project.

The process when forming a building is divided into two key stages: The design phase and the construction phase, which since the 1990’s have been tightly linked through contractual arrangements. Depending on numerous factors, such as budget and the type of procurement chosen, either side can be dramatically affected by the other. As a result the finished product may not be to the satisfaction of the client, stakeholders or the companies involved. An example of a building in which both of these phases were completed successfully in every aspect is the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, by Frank O. Gehry and Associates (FOG/A).

The Client and Consultants

The Guggenheim was a very large scale project which was commissioned in 1993 by Consorcio Museo Guggenheim (CMG). This group comprised of the Basque government (Regional) and the Vizcaya Government (Provincial). They were responsible for funding the project, and the municipality of Bilbao (Local Government) donated the site (REF) The reason that the government proposed to build an art gallery of such importance, with an iconic architect, was due to the fact that the city of Bilbao was falling into decline. There was an urgent need to put construction projects into action that would regenerate the area. (REF)

Because a great deal of money was invested (£77m) a large quantity of people involved in both the design and construction phases were working for the government. CMG put together a team which oversaw the entire process, which included:

  • Legal Consultant
  • Financial Controller
  • Communications Director
  • Design Consultant (REF)

Their role, as a foundation, was consulting and making sure the project was meeting their objectives. They had “everyday decision-making power” as they were the client.(Harvard)

Also consulting on with the design and construction teams was the Solomon R. Guggenheim in New York. They needed somewhere to house their unseen art collection – they made a deal with CMG to loaned it (at a cost), and partnered with them to create an organisation called the Guggenheim Foundation. This gave them access to the brand name, Guggenheim. (Ref


Also involved in the project were IDOM, employed as executive architects. (ref) They had vast knowledge of large scale construction. The structural engineers were Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM), who also consulted in the project and formed part of the design team.


CMG established a clear set of requirements for IDOM to meet:

  1. "The Executive Architect (IDOM) shall be responsible for meeting the target cost, with a financial penalty if it is exceeded.
  2. The museum shall open to the public before the end of 1997.
  3. The museum shall be completed using the highest quality building standards.
  4. The Executive Architect shall maximise the use of local employees and materials for construction.
  5. The Executive Architect shall facilitate the Design Architect’s creativity.”(ref)

To achieve these targets, mainly the time restraint and strict budget, it would require careful thought into how the building work would be procured. Another factor that had to be considered was that Gehry’s design was ambitious, and using traditional procurement methods would not meet these goals, especially as FOG/A’s architectural language was “less and less derivative of current practice” (Tombesi, 2002) and the fact that “80% of the construction systems and materials used in the Bilbao Guggenheim project were totally innovative in the building industry.”(Harvard p5)

The design had been effectively modelled on the software program, Catia, previously used in the aerospace industry. This was another element that influenced the choice of procurement as it would significantly speed up both the design and the construction stage. It would improve design communication between all the companies involved, as the model could be constantly updated to feed information to all contractors. (REF) “One of the key factors in construction was the massive use of CAD technology, something fairly unusual in architecture. Without this technology, the Bilbao Guggenheim would still be under construction today” (Harvard p16)

FOG/A and IDOM decided on tailor making the contract for the Guggenheim. They required contractors input early on in the design phase so that an effective model could be created, that would be as close as possible to the architect’s vision, but could also be constructed exactly like the model. This would overlap the design and the construction processes, and would create more time to get the museum built. However, Tombesi (2002) cites that due to the fact that it was an institutional and grand-scale public building, by law they had to employ one general contractor. IDOM had experience in large scale projects and their method of managing them was by separating the contractual jobs. They managed to persuade the public commissions deputy in Bilbao that this was the best way (Harvard p3)

FOG/A and IDOM divided the contractual jobs, and called them ‘paquetes’:

  • Demolition
  • Foundations
  • Structure
  • Exteriors
  • Interiors and Installations
  • Urban Infrastructure
  • Furniture, Fixtures and Equipment

After this they began ‘the request for proposals’ stage. FOG/A prepared preliminary documentation which outlined the basics of the design and what was required for each of these paquetes, and sent these off to groups of contractors who could possibly perform these specialist jobs. The method of choosing who to send these to was a challenge for IDOM.

“I was looking for contractors […] who were willing to learn how to build the project rather than being rigid in adhering to their usual methodologies.” (Harvard)

The groups who were chosen were relatively small as “no contractor in the world had ever built a project like Bilbao Guggenheim.”(Harvard) In response the contractors would submit proposals with detailed technical information and how much they could do the task for. (Tombesi, 2002)

The contract was named the ‘design-assist process’ (Figure 1). (Tombesi, 2002) In the diagram, it explains the initial designs and preliminary documentation formed by FOG/A and IDOM for a single paquete. The next stage was to send out these documents to contractors (sub) and then choose which to employ after they have submitted their proposals. In the diagram it shows that FOG/A reimbursed the contractors who were not chosen. After they chose the contractor they had a period of 90 days to develop the design with the whole of the design team. If they fulfilled the contract by the end of this then they would be awarded their ‘lump sum’.

A problem that IDOM had with these custom-made paquetes was specifically to do with the exterior design. Five companies met the specifications/requirements which IDOM needed to make the construction of the complex exterior possible; These companies were sent bid documents and invited to submit proposals. Three of these companies responded, but all were over the set budget. The law restricted IDOM from choosing any of these proposals despite pricing, so a new request for bids was issued. IDOM also teamed up with the remaining contractors to clarify design and pricing so that making this bid was possible. Two companies matched the target cost this time around and the decision was made, with the help of CMG, to choose Balzola (a bit about the company?) (HARVARD)

The initial choice for the cladding material of the Guggenheim was hand-polished stainless steel, so the first bid documents were organised with this product in mind. However FOG/A were unsure that it was the appropriate material for the job, and were struggling to find alternatives that would perform well and look aesthetically pleasing. Leaded copper was an option but IDOM were anxious that lead would be washed from the rain into the surroundings. Therefore titanium became the perfect product to substitute the stainless steel. The only exception was the expense, as it was not an affordable material. Fortunately, large quantities of it had just been released onto the market at the right time for it to be used on the Guggenheim, dramatically reducing the price. This made it affordable enough to fit into the target cost.

The Budget

The budget or target cost of the Guggenheim Bilbao was agreed with the client to be 14,028M Pestas, or £77m in pounds. As a method of meeting this goal and controlling the money spent, IDOM established a system which tracked expenditure at regular intervals. This was a detailed cost estimate, calculated every six weeks so that the design team could compare their progress to it and access their design decisions. If their plans exceeded this estimate, then measures would be taken to quickly suggest alternative ways of doing the same thing.(HARVARD)

An example of where the cost estimates helped prevent a serious escalation in expenses was when SOM, the structural engineers, sent off to IDOM information on the structural capabilities of the geometric volumes. A communication error resulted in an underestimation of the weight of the steel frame, and this caused an increase in costs. However, because of the regular cost estimates, this increase was noticed quickly and early on. This made it possible for the design team to make a fast response, which involved altering the target cost and a few aspects of the design to keep within the budget and on schedule.(HARVARD) Without this process set in place, small inaccuracies would have been much harder to spot and would have possibly become much larger errors as the project continued.


In the construction stages, everything went smoothly as the clear communication of CAD drawings helped contractors and builders understand the design stage. As well as this, the overlapping of the design and construction phases had sizably reduced the time it took to complete the project.

However, during the final stages of construction, timing became a challenge. The exhibitions needed at least six months to be fitted into the building, and could not be installed without protection from the outside. The exterior and interior tasks needed to be complete for this to be possible. IDOM and FOG/A responded to this problem by overlapping the phases of the exterior and interior tasks even further and the schedules of the contractors involved were reviewed and reorganised to maximise the amount of time they had remaining. (Harvard) for example, “Balzola was expected to temporarily cover unfinished areas to shield the interiors.” (HARVARD) This response allowed work to be completed with synergy.

In conclusion, the Guggenheim Bilbao was an innovative project at the time it was built, an example of one of the first large scale buildings to include CAD in both phases. IDOM and FOG/A custom-made every step of the design to suit its formation, such as the ‘request for packages’ procurement route, and this is what ultimately granted it the status of an iconic building. It “demonstrates a way of interacting with trade specialists before the completion of contract documents, and without disrupting competitive tendering.” (Tombesi 2002) And this contributed to meeting:

  • The clients demands
  • The budget
  • The deadline
  • And making a high quality building

Also Gehry, as a result, had the design freedom to make his vision be constructed exactly as he saw it in his mind. On the whole it demonstrates that the system defines the quality, time and cost of the end result, as well as the input from people working as a team contributing towards the same goal. Although it was something no-one had ever tried before, and some parts seemed like trial and error, the building was successful in every aspect. Every hurdle they faced was met by a strong team of people.