Reebok was so set on making its flagship UK sports club the mirror image of its US chain that it insisted its fit-out contractor use American workers and materials. Cue much head scratching, jargon translation and getting used to strange building practices – like no tea breaks … Thomas Lane went along to find out what each side got out of the transatlantic union
Building international sports clubs is not dissimilar from selling hamburgers. Sports giant Reebok wanted its flagship UK venue at London's Canary Wharf to be a carbon copy of its top clubs in the USA. The client was so determined that every last detail was identical, it insisted that Kontor Skanska – contractor Skanska's specialist fit-out arm – imported American workers, materials and construction methods to build it.

Reebok had such high expectations that other contractors initially involved in the project walked away. They were not prepared to let the client dictate what specialists they used, and were unhappy about the exacting standards of finish required. But because Reebok is such a huge client and there was potential for repeat business, Kontor Skanska was prepared to go the extra mile. It also saw the club as a good opportunity to promote its work to a wider audience. However, importing workers and techniques from abroad and trying to integrate them with UK standards and workers has the potential to go disastrously wrong. So how did Kontor Skanska pull it off?

Standards certainly needed to be high. The club, situated above the swanky Waitrose superstore at Canada Place, is designed to appeal to well-heeled bankers and lawyers wanting to work off their big business lunches. It costs between £500 and £1000 to join, plus a monthly fee of up to £200. For this, customers get a massive 10,000 m2 of luxurious facilities spread over three floors, including a swimming pool with views of the Millennium Dome, a full-sized basketball court and a climbing wall.

Reebok was in control right from the start of the project. It kicked off by saying that the tiling in all the showers and changing rooms had to fit between the walls perfectly, so cut tiles were out. "They are not interested in whether or not you can do it – they just want you to get it done," says Chris Mason, project manager for Kontor Skanska. He admits that taking the job on was a calculated gamble for his company. And Reebok didn't mess around when it came to the specialist contractors. "They signed up the American drylining contractor before the main contract was even signed," Mason says.

Fortunately, Reebok played a straight game. Mason describes the client as "a man of his word" because the lack of contractual paperwork hasn't caused any problems so far; for example, Reebok pays up every month on the dot. "It's a two-way trust thing," says Mason. "That's the way contracting used to be done."

Reebok insists on using American specialist contractors for good reasons. They have all worked on Reebok's US clubs and are familiar with its standards and detailing. It also saves money; Mason says American materials are half the price of those in the UK, which offsets expensive wages and air fares. The floors were put in by American specialists using American materials for less than a UK company would charge. The drylining and electrical work is also being handled by US subcontractors. However, because these trades are involved in the project from beginning to end they have trained local labour to work the American way.

This American way has caused some head scratching on the part of the UK contractor. "They asked for details of 'the red metal'," says Mason. "We replied: 'What's that?'" The phrase refers to the red protective paint on a steel frame that they use to support items such as basins and granite surfaces. The idea is that all the fittings can be installed very quickly by bolting them to the frame, rather than having to spend time drilling holes in the walls.

It seems Americans also build things differently. For example, the drylined bulkheads covering up the ductwork are usually made in situ. But Reebok's US people made a template in the correct shape, then made the bulkheads on a bench – which is much easier than constructing a bulkhead off a stepladder. They also scorn the spending of money on things that are invisible, so they don't use cable trays to keep cables tidy under the floors. Shot-fired fixings get used because they are faster than screws; this has enabled just one man to install all the ceilings. Indeed the Americans are incredulous that UK workers don't take advantage of powerful tools to speed things up. John Waite is from California and heads the electrical team. He says: "You see guys using stone age tools. You would never see anyone back home chipping away at a stone with a chisel or cutting bricks with handsaws."

Predictably, detailing is not the same as in the UK either. Sean Hodson, also from California, asked British Gypsum to make thicker metal studs for his drylining work. He is scathing about British drylined partitions: "It is not strong; you can feel it give." He says the Americans would never use a 75 mm wide stud to build a partition wall higher than 3 m, but that here he has seen them used to build walls up to 6 m. Another difference is that Americans can't see the point of an access hatch in the ceiling just to enable the sprinkler system to be drained down. Their view is you might as well hack a hole in the ceiling, as the only time the sprinkler system needs draining down is if the building is going to be refurbished.

Incredibly, both Waite and Hodson think British sites are positively luxurious compared to back home. "Workers have luxuries here – like toilets, for instance," laughs Hodson. "In the States you don't have anything except the Roach Coach – a catering wagon where you can buy food. It has toilets if you're lucky." Both Americans are also complimentary about site etiquette. "People are very polite here – even if they are telling you to go jump, they are nice about it," says Hodson.

British Building Regulations get the thumbs up too. "Safety is outstanding," says Waite. "The electrical testing is really good. It's something the US could learn from, because we have a lot of electrical fires. It's expensive because it takes 20 to 30% longer to do, but it's worth it."

The British workers have had to adapt to all these differences, as well as an American-style 6.30am start, finishing at 2.30pm with just one break for lunch. So what do the Americans, who are famous for their work ethic, think about our boys? "I would take them home with me," says Hodson. "At first they would start at eight, have tea, do a bit of work, have another tea break and so on. It took a while to get this sorted, but once they realised they could get away earlier, they didn't want to go back to their old ways." Waite is equally effusive: "I have a great bunch of guys. Most of them have been so willing."

British dryliner Lee Churchman has been subjected to the American regime. "I can't stand the working hours," he jokes, before admitting that he does actually appreciate getting away early. He says he has to work harder, too, but is full of admiration for his American bosses. "They do know their stuff," he says. "They've taught me a lot. I will carry on using some of their techniques." He told his father who has been in the trade for years about a method that simplified putting up metal studwork, and he has adopted it.

Mason concedes the quality of workmanship is very good. For example, the quality of the drylining is great in terms of straight lines – there is no rippling. However, he reckons Americans lack English modesty: "They thought the standards of workmanship at Canary Wharf were good, but they said it as if they were choking on their words."

Overall, the American experience has been one that all UK contractors could learn from. In the USA the specialist contractors take on a much more active role, so the main contractor has less to do. Mason says the American specialists are very much part of the management team, and they all work out of the same site office. US specialists always have all the construction drawings and work out for themselves where they might clash with other trades, and also work out their own solutions.

The public will be able to judge for itself how successful the transatlantic collaboration has been when the new Reebok club at Canada Place opens on 15 November.