Richard Saxon - explains how Building Design Partnership became a PFI consortium
Why would a multidisciplinary design consultant want to own a 500-student secondary school? Drumglass High School in Dungannon, Northern Ireland is a modest £5m construction project, yet Building Design Partnership chose to bid for the PFI contract to provide it. We did so for several reasons:
  • To learn about PFI at first hand
  • To pioneer design-led PFI
  • To make a good investment.
The school opened on schedule on 1 September 2000 and the project has delivered everything we wanted, including lessons on how to improve next time – and there will be a next time.

In 1997, the Department of Education for Northern Ireland put forward six pathfinder school projects to trial PFI. Building Design Partnership formed Campus, a special purpose vehicle, and was awarded one of the projects. With the advice of the Bank of Scotland we leveraged a small amount of the firm's capital to fund it (10% of the total is usually needed) and hired a contractor and facilities manager. We kept our consortium down to ourselves alone in order to move fast and retain control, while Masons in Dublin was our legal team.

Campus closed the contract in June 1999, the first of the six school projects, and then built and equipped the school in just 14 months, opening it before any of the other schemes had even reached commercial close. This may make it sound easy, but in discovering how PFI works, we also discovered the effort needed to develop acceptable business proposals, often requiring late-night sessions with our advisers. The effort required by both customer and proposers is disproportionate to this scale of project.

Compared with the other pathfinder schools, we had the advantage of being designer-led as well as being a consortium of one. The old divided industry cannot easily focus on its customers' needs as contractors have little reason or ability to do so. Having the designer at the dealmaking table enabled briefs and dealmaking to be brought together. This meant that we could define the customer's best-value offering as a combination of the design benefits and the 25-year cost of providing them. We used whole-life costing to steer the design and after commercial close we formalised relationships within our team: the facilities manager took on its task for an agreed basis and the contractor signed a fixed-price design-and-build contract. Martin Group – H&J Martin as contractor and Martin FM as facilities manager – formed the rest of the small design-build-operate team.

Compared with the other pathfinders, we had the advantage of being designer-led as well as being a consortium of one

Martin took on BDP's Belfast office as architect and engineer. Our project managers and cost consultants stayed with Campus and we managed to prevent any short circuits between Campus and the design team, even when we had pressure from ourselves as designers to have an "interesting" roof that we as investors had to be sure would not cause problems later. Designers usually try their hardest to convince their client of an idea, relying on the client to moderate their excesses. When you are both client and designer, the checks and balances have to be internalised.

The building created does not look radical, although it is colourful. The performance provided is innovative in that the school is fully equipped for the IT needs of the future. It will be able to support all the planned "Classroom 2000" services, linking everyone to the internet and thus to vast educational resources and to the homes of parents, children and teachers. Another innovation is that the school has exclusive use of its building only until 5pm on weekdays. After that the separable wing with catering, sports and arts spaces can provide a rich community resource and additional income streams, while the classroom wing can be used for adult education. The quality of materials and equipment is specified to last in a punishing school environment. It is designed up to performance level, not down to first cost constraint.