Ford has helped turn its mammoth Dagenham car plant into a pioneering technical education centre – and its first customers will be the former factory's workers. Oh, and it looks fantastic, too. Who said history was bunk?
Aside from its cumbersome name, the £23m Centre for Engineering and Manufacturing Excellence in Rainham, Essex, has plenty going for it. An elegant crescent with high-tech innards gleaming through an outward-sloping window wall, the building is as eye-catching as one could hope for. It is hailed as Britain's first "vocational university", combining apprenticeship training with postgraduate industrial research. It is one of two flagship projects of Europe's largest and most ambitious regeneration initiative, Thames Gateway. And to cap it all, it was opened in style by prime minister Tony Blair and London mayor Ken Livingstone in October.

Taken together, these cutting-edge attributes should have been sufficient to blast CEME to the top of the national headlines. It radiates enough glamour in every sense to eclipse Thames Gateway's dismal image as a flood plane inundated by substandard, overspill housing. Sadly, the media attending the opening were too obsessed by the continuing political rivalry between Blair and Livingstone to notice.

But the media's failings do nothing to diminish CEME's array of special qualities. As well as being an elegant yet suitably industrial work of architecture by Sheppard Robson, the college marks a breakthrough in both adult education and urban regeneration.

Although the shiny building, erected on a windswept and barren stretch of Essex, gives no visual hint of urban regeneration, the college is the direct descendent of what was once the world's largest car manufacturing plant. This was Ford's works in Dagenham, which the company established exactly a century ago, and which it closed down last year. Yet rather than walking away from its history, Ford invested in a state-of-the-art diesel engine plant on the site – opened on the same day as CEME by Blair and Livingstone. More than that, the company earmarked £12.5m for retraining its workforce at the CEME facillity, as well as donating the plant's former waste dump as the site for the building.

Growing out of Ford's initiative, CEME was set up by a trailblazing partnership of public and private organisations, including the London Development Agency, Thames Gateway London Partnership and two east London further education colleges. In educational terms, the college offers 2000 part- and full-time students a full spectrum of vocational training in engineering and manufacturing. As one of the largest of the 400 strong network of centres of vocational excellence, the college is intended to supply a skilled workforce for the Thames Gateway regeneration area.

But that was not all. CEME took a big step beyond further education to include a higher education department within the college linked to Loughborough and Cardiff universities, and which will provide postgraduate courses and research programmes in business administration.

For the first time in England, a college has been built to provide further and higher education.

As for the architectural brief for this "one-stop-shop" learning environment, the idea was to combine all the facilities for skills training, higher education and business research not just on the same campus but within a single building.

The intention was to erode the hierarchy between further and higher education. Sheppard Robson responded by designing an elongated 13,000 m2 building of constant width, consisting of three parallel strips of accommodation that run the full 150 m from one end to the other. The strip building has been slightly curved into a crescent to mirror the A13 trunk road, which runs close by along the north side.

This deceptively simple arrangement manages to pack together the facilities of the college in an efficiently compact arrangement that, at the same time, suits the peculiarities of the site. The higher education department has been located at one end of the strip building, where it is barely distinguishable from the further education facilities that occupy all the rest. Elsewhere, the plan gives visitors a clear sense of orientation, and the close-knit layout encourages interaction between teaching spaces and departments.

Along the north side, shielded from the glare of direct sunlight, run the large, double-height engineering workshops and main teaching arenas. Just as in Nicholas Grimshaw & Partners' Financial Times Printing Works of 1988, which overlooks the A13 road a few miles further west, the brightly lit workshops are displayed to passing drivers through a continuous clear-glazed shop window. "The ethos is one of openness," says project architect Graeme Fisher. "So what we didn't want was a metal fence around the building."

The whole south side facing the sun is much softer in character than the crystalline curtain-walled north side. Here, a spacious double-height internal mall, or circulation route, runs from one end of the building to the other and is shaded from direct sunlight by projecting banks of western red cedar louvres. The mall is conceived as a 150 m long "interactive zone" and overlooks a garden oasis luxuriantly landscaped with grass mounds, copses and a curvilinear lake.

Finally, sandwiched in the middle of the building is a double-storey spine of classrooms, laboratories and other teaching spaces. These all conveniently open off the mall on the south side and look directly into the workshops on the north side. Air-handling plant is housed directly overhead, where it is masked from view by the shallow curving roof pitches on either side.

Thankfully, the straightforward strip layout of rectilinear spaces has not been allowed to dominate the building. Two large, drum-shaped forms add excitement by bursting through the smooth window walls on either side of the building. On the north side, a large gourd clad in shiny profiled aluminium encloses a 120-seat auditorium for the higher education wing. On the south side, overlooking the garden, stands an elliptical double-storey drum clad in cedar boarding. It contains a restaurant spilling into the mall on the ground floor with the college's open-plan offices up above.

Being a flagship urban regeneration project, the building demonstrates strong sustainable credentials. Starting with the reclamation of the polluted brownfield site, these sustainable features include high thermal insulation, external sun shading on south side, and natural ventilation to the mall and workshops. Most significantly, the shallow-pitched roof carries what is claimed to Britain's largest expanse of photovoltaic cells – enough to generate 115 kW of electricity.

The one weakness in CEME is its location, a curious oversight in what is promoted as a flagship scheme of urban regeneration. For a new college to play an important role in the community it serves, surely it should take centre stage in the town centre, where it would be most visible and accessible. Admittedly, the CEME complex includes a crèche for staff and students and a business innovation unit that can link into college research work. Even so, the college is located on a remote site a few miles beyond the city edge, where it is only visible to motorists on the A13, and much of the area is taken up by a car park for those who are forced to drive to and from the college.

Aside from its isolated location, though, CEME in Rainham stands up well as the flagship for Britain's renewed commitment to vocational training as a central plank of urban regeneration. Sheppard Robson's design is efficient enough to stand up to intensive college use and glamorous enough to entice school leavers and adults to reinvigorate their careers through state-of-the-art training. It also invites other colleges of employment training to pick up CEME's educational and architectural lead.

The spirit of shared responsibility: CEME’s fast-track procurement route

The £23m Centre for Engineering and Manufacturing Excellence conforms to the Thames Gateway procurement method, insofar as it involved bringing together 23 public and private organisations as client. As a rule in the Thames Gateway regeneration area, this procurement route results in endless earnest talking shops.

In stark contrast, CEME’s 13,000m2 premises, along with a crèche and a £3m business innovation centre, were built, fitted out and occupied within four years of the idea being floated by the Ford motor company.

The rapid development programme for CEME “set up an incredibly tight building procurement programme”, according to Neil Clemson, project manager at Faithful & Gould. “The only way to do it was to overlap design and construction. So we chose the New Engineering Contract [recommended by Sir Michael Latham], and this took a year out of the programme.”

Faithful & Gould ran the NEC as a loose management contract, in which design and construction overlapped. Then, as the project progressed, all the work packages were consolidated into a single lump sum contract, as required for a publicly funded project. “It was almost a guaranteed maximum price contract with the builder,” says Clemson. “And we managed to agree final accounts six months before completion.”

Peter Gregory, project quantity surveyor at Faithful & Gould, picks up the story. “The NEC sets up an early warning system which creates responsibility in everyone to come up with solutions to problems.”

Ground remediation, costing an extra £4.4m, started in May 2001, six months before detailed planning consent was granted, and the entire project was handed over 28 months after that.