Extra funding for scientific research facilities has boosted the higher education market, now worth £700m a year. Contractors and consultants with experience of the sector will get the big contracts, but there will be work for all on the smaller jobs.
Universities and colleges have proved GOOD hunting grounds for contractors and consultants in recent years. Changes in funding earlier this decade meant that universities gained more funding for greater numbers of students and this led to a boom in student accommodation. Meanwhile, advances in information technology led to a glut of computer-filled learning resource centres being commissioned. But just as it was looking as though the market was running out of steam, a government-led initiative to promote Britain's scientific standing is set to boost higher education spending by £200m a year for the next three years.

The main source of money is the Wellcome Trust and the Department of Trade and Industry's Office of Science and Technology. Together, they will spend £600m over the next three years on improving Britain's research buildings and on a massive building and refurbishment programme in laboratories.

To this £600m Joint Infrastructure Fund, add the £30m a year to be spent by the Higher Education Funding Council for England on refurbishing run-down buildings, and spending on housing and learning resource centres. Altogether, the higher education market is estimated to be worth £700m a year over the next three years.

A £600m appliance to science

The infrastructure fund, which is available only to universities and colleges, is split between two areas: £300m is earmarked for biomedical, biological and veterinary science; and £300m for other sciences. The Wellcome Trust is providing the £300m for bioscientific research, and is now accepting bids for building projects. The £300m from the government Office of Science and Technology will go to sciences such as chemistry and physics. Bids will be assessed by the government's six research councils.

Of course, just about every university and college in the country is applying to the fund. So, how do you ensure you're talking to the universities that might win? The fund says that bids must demonstrate a step forward in science or be of international significance. Industry insiders say this means older universities with well-established and accomplished research records will be favoured. So, keep an eye on Cambridge and Oxford Universities; Imperial College and King's College London; York University and Warwick University.

Another bid that may be successful is one in which a university consolidates its facilities, bringing scientists together from several locations. Non-campus colleges with sites throughout a town may be able to secure funds this way. Other opportunities lie with former polytechnics and colleges with expertise in engineering and technology, such as Sheffield Hallam University.

Contractors and consultants should exercise great care in selecting clients because they stand to lose a lot of money if they support a scheme that fails. The fund has stated that it will not reimburse costs incurred in unsuccessful bids. And, according to university estates directors, the bidding costs can be as high as £500 000 for a £10m project.

The right skills for the right job

So, what kind of skills are required to have a chance of winning work? According to MDA managing partner Rod Adam, who is working on a fund bid for the University of Leicester, architects and services engineers need a track record in building laboratories. Up to 50% of the cost of research laboratories is in services, so consultants need to know about providing high air flow rates to fume cupboards and venting toxic gases.

Designers must keep pipe and cable runs simple, as often there are many supplies in lab buildings. In addition to the usual gas, water and electricity, there can be oxygen, nitrogen and treated water. Keeping the runs simple reduces maintenance costs.

Ian Caldwell, director of estates for Imperial College, London, takes design advice from commercial researchers such as GlaxoWellcome and uses designers that have worked with such organisations. This means that firms with a track record in pharmaceuticals will be in with a good chance alongside those that have experience on university research labs.

Splashing out over next three years

Caldwell is currently putting together a framework agreement for preferred construction suppliers. Three of each of the following will be selected: architects, services engineers, structural engineers and QSs. These consultants will advise Caldwell for a three-year period on a spending plan of £15m a year that may rise to £35m if science fund bids are successful.

However, if you do not have experience, you may still be able to win a slice of this work. Rod Adam says there are opportunities on the smaller projects for those that have read up on the subject and are keen to learn, as many of the top designers will be engaged in large projects (the smallest fund grant will be £750 000).

As far as breaking into the market is concerned, contractors may have a better chance than consultants, says Adam. Although a track record in services co-ordination is needed, this does not necessarily have to be in laboratory work. However, Adam adds, if the project is being let as a design-and-build contract, a contractor with a track record will be essential. Typical building costs for laboratories can vary wildly. The Foster and Partners-designed biomedical research facility for Imperial College cost £1600/m2, claims Ian Caldwell. Mike Phipps, bursar of Bristol University, which is building a synthetic chemicals laboratory, says that new-build costs are typically £2000/m2 and refurbishment costs £1000/m2.

Percy Thomas Partnership has designed Bristol University's new £11m synthetic chemistry laboratory. Project director Peterjohn Smyth previously worked on pharmaceutical projects for Boots in Nottingham, which helped him during selection. Smyth says expertise in services design and surface finishes is vital. "It helps to know which surfaces are resistant to which chemicals, especially when you consider whole-life costing," he says. The lab is due to be completed by Wates under an NEC contract in August 1999.

Laing Management is building a £15m genetics laboratory for Oxford University and the Wellcome Trust in Oxford. Project manager David Head, who previously worked on projects for Glaxo and SmithKline Beecham, says a good contacts book is the key to success in this market. His is full of specialist subcontractors that he has worked with before. "We have established working relations and that helps the project go more smoothly," he says.

Key facts

  • Higher education market to increase £700m to more than £2bn over the next three years
  • Main opportunities are for new scientific research labs
  • Best-bet clients are old universities
  • Key skills required in services co-ordination and design
  • Clients are increasingly looking for development teams with sites
  • Opportunities exist on smaller projects for those with no direct experience