Construction of the first entire garrison to be built in 100 years is being marshalled with the same discipline and tactical precision needed in times of war.

For a military garrison it is very quiet. The only people about are a man loading some building rubble into a van and an electrician testing components. They are putting the finishing touches to the first entire garrison to be built in 100 years, and it is quiet because the project team is in the luxurious position of having finished the first phase of this £2bn PFI project to rebuild Colchester Garrison three months ahead of schedule, leaving them plenty of time to vacuum the carpets and polish the windows.

A rare architectural flourish – the main headquarters has granite entrance cladding. The administration blocks have red brick and buff masonry to differentiate them from the living quarters
A rare architectural flourish – the main headquarters has granite entrance cladding. The administration blocks have red brick and buff masonry to differentiate them from the living quarters

After a welcome breather the project team will get stuck into constructing the second and final phase of the project. When it is completed in March 2009, 134 buildings will house 3500 military personnel and 700 civilian staff.

RMPA is the consortium made up of Sir Robert McAlpine, Atkins, Sodexho and HSBC Infrastructure that is undertaking the work. It will be responsible for everything from providing meals and changing beds to repairing soldiers’ boots for the next 35 years.

At first sight the garrison doesn’t look like anything out of the ordinary. Essentially, it is a student village with a bullet-proof vest.

But the bland appearance hides not only the jaw-dropping scale of the project, but also the project team’s feat of planning and control, executed to a level of precision that was, well … military. The Ministry of Defence applies the same discipline to building projects as it does to fighting wars. Wild imagination is rarely rewarded.

“Our principal risk was compliance,” says Val Evans, the design project manager for Atkins. “We had to be satisfied at every stage of the project that the design was compliant.”

For project manager Terry Starr of Sir Robert McAlpine, compliance was the biggest risk.”You can imagine if you had one small flaw in the design of 130 buildings … that would add up to a major issue at completion,” he says.

Non-compliance is a big deal because every single detail has to meet the MoD’s prescriptive requirements – from the general, such as how much space each unit and person gets, right down to the granular, laid out in a daunting slab of documents called the Joint Services Publications. Getting it wrong means massive bills putting it right.

“This was our biggest risk – making sure there wasn’t something tucked away in a JSP that we hadn’t complied with,” says Stewart Ness, chief executive officer for RMPA.

The officers’ mess buildings has these large, airy courtyards
The officers’ mess buildings has these large, airy courtyards

As in any good military operation, planning was crucial. The project team had to translate the MoD’s requirements into a fully worked up design. Atkins Design Environment and Engineering put 180 people on the project for more than two years, including a full-time compliance manager.

“It was quite a logistical challenge managing a team of that size and making sure we met our programme dates,” says Evans. The team was divided into six subgroups, each dealing with a different area. Roles and methods of communications were clearly defined to ensure the design process fitted smoothly into the tight timetable. Sir Robert McAlpine stationed 12 of its staff in Atkins’ office to review designs and ensure they were buildable. Fortnightly meetings between the design team, Sir Robert McAlpine, the MoD and the two facilities management providers were also crucial.

If the MoD had to deviate from its own guidelines to suit site-specific situations, Sir Robert McAlpine made sure there was a record of it so it would not get stung for non-compliance.

But something was bound to slip through the net, given the project’s size and complexity – and it did. The team designed the car parking for the site, then discovered that it did not comply with the MoD’s counter-terrorism rules.

“There was some ambiguity in the documentation,” says Evans. “We discussed this with the MoD and decided it wasn’t essential for counter-terrorism measures to be applied to car parks as these weren’t inhabited buildings.” In the end, the consortium provided some free sports facilities by way of compensation.

The construction phase had to be carefully planned, as RMPA had only 21 months to construct 70 buildings: that’s more than three buildings per month.

“One of the biggest concerns we had was getting people on site, as the London and Colchester markets are very hot,” says Starr. Sir Robert McAlpine did not have enough of its own staff to manage the project traditionally, so a pincer movement was planned to handle the challenges.

The first move was to let half of the buildings to other main contractors as entire contracts. The contractor would take Atkins’ design, worked up to the design-and-build stage, and advance to the production stage, referring at every step to those all-important JSPs. “It was a tight thing to control,” says Starr. “It couldn’t go wrong at the end, as this would have big financial implications.” Sir Robert McAlpine constructed the rest of the project traditionally using designs fully developed by Atkins.

Scaffolding was erected prior to the modular units being craned in. Most of the units are bedrooms complete with furniture and en-suite shower
Scaffolding was erected prior to the modular units being craned in. Most of the units are bedrooms complete with furniture and en-suite shower

The second plan was to build as much as possible of the project off site. “This took work away from this hot area, gave us efficiency of build, and improved health and safety,” says Starr.

Prefab specialists Britspace and Terrapin constructed modules for the accommodation blocks. Each contains a bedroom and en-suite bathroom for each soldier, and they arrived fully fitted out with bedroom furniture ready for craning into position.

Work started on site immediately after financial close in February 2004. The plan was to complete infrastructure including roads, a bridge and services, while design progressed on the buildings. The presence of completed infrastructure then made it easier for the construction teams, as they had roads and services in place. The infrastructure was done by Christmas 2004.

The planning paid off. “By the beginning of 2005 we knew we had a compliant design and we knew who we were going to use to build it, so it was a case of pushing the button,” Starr says. “They are not complex buildings, but they could have been made complex if we hadn’t done what we did.”

As it happened, the construction phase lasted just 18 months. The MoD is about to move in and vacate the existing garrison, which will trigger phase two of the project, which consists of new buildings as well as some refurbishment.

According to Starr, the first phase went so well that little will be changed for phase two, except a switch to prefabricated ducts, as installing these conventionally on phase one was gruelling. As ever, the big worry is compliance but this time with a twist, as so much of the existing garrison, including buildings and roads, is being re-used. “We have made the assumption that they’ll meet the requirements, but we won’t know for sure until the army decants and we can check,” says Starr.

“It’s the scale of it. There are 40 to 50 buildings. That’s the difference between profit and loss.”

Key points

  • Ministry of Defence required all construction work to be done to standards set down in the Joint Services Publication
  • Sir Robert McAlpine co-located staff with Atkins to smooth over the design–construction interface
  • Half of the buildings were assigned to other main contractors to ease capacity shortfalls

‘We asked a paratrooper to go in and do his worst’

Mark Bielecki, the project manager for the Ministry of Defence, says the need was desperate. “The accommodation was substandard, in some cases just site cabins with no ablution facilities and eight people to a room,” he says. “We had an enormous amount of space but it wasn’t
being used effectively, as staff were on top of each other.”

The soldiers should be delighted. Each gets their own room with an en-suite shower. There is a common room on each corridor and a kitchenette complete with a drying area for wet clothes. There is a large canteen and officers get a mess building complete with bars and large entertaining spaces. There is an administration building for each of the five units stationed at Colchester, an HQ for the entire garrison, an education building, an armoury, a court building as well as technical buildings for housing and maintaining equipment.

It is all a bit spartan, at least until the extensive planting between the blocks grows and gives the eye some relief. But Atkins has tried to make it as visually appealing as possible. The buildings are three storeys or less, and all the non-technical blocks have been constructed from buff-coloured masonry blocks. These have a rough split face below the punched ground floor windows, with fairfaced blocks above. Non-residential blocks also have differentiating areas of red brick. Overhanging eaves give the buildings a more 3D quality. “The only extravagance is the granite surrounding the entrance on the main HQ building,” says Atkins’ Evans. “You won’t find it anywhere else.”

Internally, the functional theme continues. More money has been spent on the public areas to give these a more sumptuous feel – for example, the HQ has cherry-veneered doors and skirting.

“It gives a feeling of quality without being expensive,” says Evans. But the functional areas are pleasant enough. Stairwells have exposed red brickwork that contrasts nicely with the blue painted steel staircases. All the buildings are naturally ventilated apart from the courtroom. The technical buildings are more industrial park in style with a split face base and metal cladding above.

The buildings may look a bit basic, but the standard of robustness is high. They have to be blast-proof, so steel frames and extra-strength windows were used. They also have to be soldier-proof – after all, RMPA has to maintain it over 35 years. According to Sir Robert McAlpine’s Starr, paratroopers are notoriously hard on buildings, so they devised a simple test.

“We asked a paratrooper to go into one of the modular rooms and do his worst,” he says. “We came back the next day to see what he had done.” That led to changes such as more robust fixing details, such as stronger door hinges and more robust window handles.

A PFI success story?

The Colchester Garrison project was a landmark for the PFI, writes Mark Leftly.

In February 2004, the RMPA consortium and the Ministry of Defence launched the biggest-ever public issue of bonds in the department’s history, and the largest single issue of bonds for a PFI project.

Within 30 minutes of the issue, all had been snapped up, giving RMPA just £51,000 shy of £680m to play with. This would easily cover the £560m construction cost, and the £100m it wanted in reserve to pay for any variations to the scheme. The latter sum has never been touched, and “enabling work started the next day”, says Stewart Ness, RMPA’s chief executive .

There are several reasons why the bond issue was so successful. First, only 6-8% of the garrison’s buildings were to be refurbished. Traditionally, PFI has had a high level of refurbishment work, which carries with it heavy risks. For example, estate surveys might be inaccurate or there might be undiscovered asbestos, leading to design changes, delays and cost overruns. As new-build designs start from scratch, they have less risk.

Then there was the land sale. The RMPA consortium concluded that the MoD only needed about half of its 300 ha estate in Colchester. It decided to sell 84 ha to Taylor Woodrow, and while no price has been made public it is known that this will eventually raise £50-100m, providing bondsmen with further guarantees that their money is safe.

But most important was the fact that insurer Ambac agreed to underwrite the deal. It figured that although Colchester Garrison was a large scheme, it would almost certainly go ahead as it was government backed. By insuring – or “wrapping” – the bonds, the project’s credit rating was improved from BBB- to AAA. In effect, this credit rating and wrapping meant that the bondsmen were virtually guaranteed their money back, no matter what problems were encountered.

Why PFI?

The success of the bond issue justified the use of the PFI. Many in the MoD have questioned the procurement route, including the head of Defence Estates, vice admiral Peter Dunt.

The MoD’s Mark Bielecki, project leader for the contract, says that PFI was vital as it secured consistent finances to build the project. The MoD’s estates’ budget typically varies, as resources are transferred in times of war or to improve more traditional military requirements. As a result, the timing of the build programme could not be guaranteed. Bielecki adds: “It’s a lengthy construction period. Normally this would take 18 years but under the PFI, it took just five. The PFI gave secured funding, reducing risk.”

And speed was of the essence, according to Bielecki: “The reason the garrison went through the PFI process was that the accommodation was deteriorating quite extensively. Buildings ranged from 150 years ago to the 1980s. In some areas there were just site huts.”

The consortium also bore the risk of construction, spending £8m-£10m a month out of the bonds, with the consortium receiving a further £2.2m in payment.

However, one potential criticism is that although the service contract is 35 years, the consortium will retain ownership of the land for 150 years. About 2040, then, the MoD will have to renegotiate the contract with the consortium, or face walking away or buying the lease back off the consortium.

While the last option is bound to fuel anger among critics of the PFI, any buy-back would be at a fixed-sum, index-linked for inflation.
Bielecki, though, says that the result speaks for itself: “The MoD is quite pleased with the way the project has gone – it has supported the original view of going down the PFI route.”

Project team

  • Delivery consortium RMPA
  • design-and-build contractor Sir Robert McAlpine 
  • lead multidisciplinary designer Atkins
  • hard facilities management Atkins Defence Asset Management 
  • soft facilities management Sodexho Modular
  • construction Terrapin and Britspace