Any project that changes construction route halfway through is bound to hit rocky ground, surely? Here’s how procure21 meant Oldbury’s care centre avoided trouble – and avoided the need for adjudicators …

At face value, Oldbury’s new intermediate care centre looks like the type of project that would have had contractors and subcontractors sharpening their pencils with glee at the prospect of a claims bonanza.

Not at first, of course: the project’s professional team was fully on board, all the necessary funding was in place, it had full business case approval, and all the traditional tendering information had been prepared.

But then, after all this had happened, the project decided to go into the ProCure21 pilot programme. It could easily have become a breeding ground for conflict with parties arguing over fees or who was responsible for what, and all the time playing into the hands of any claims-conscious contractor. That it didn’t, and that it came in on time and to budget, bears testament to the attitude of the Oldbury site team and the collaborative approach of the ProCure21 process. But how exactly did they manage to crack it?

Initially, the scheme was advertised as a conventionally tendered contract, with consultant Roger P Dudley & Associates winning the commission. The practice was engaged to undertake all the architectural, structural and civil engineering design, provide a planning supervisor and second a project manager to act for Oldbury & Smethwick Primary Care Trust in the West Midlands. Holbrow Brooks & Partners was appointed quantity surveyor.

The trust’s project director Daphne O’Connell recalls: “When the decision was taken to transfer the project to the ProCure21 programme, we stipulated that because the project was at an advanced stage, there was value in retaining the set of consultants on board.”

So when contractor Laing O’Rourke was selected as the principal supply chain partner, the existing design team was integrated into its framework. Holbrow Brooks switched roles to act as the trust’s cost adviser and John Bedford, a director of Roger P Dudley, was appointed the trust’s project manager.

O’Connell adds: “We also made it clear that the new team had to keep to our timescale and cost. We had £2.44m of funding in place and it had to be spent by the end of March 2004; there was no permission to carry funding over into the next financial year.”

It could have had difficulties, but it worked because of the confidence of those involved

John Bedford, project manager

Bedford says: “Laing O’Rourke agreed to take on our design, develop that design and agreed to split the fees proportionately to allow Roger P Dudley’s team to become its design team. It could have had difficulties, but it worked ever so well because of the confidence of the people involved.”

Although Laing O’Rourke was appointed framework contractor, it nominated Thomas Vale to take over the mantle of contractor. Thomas Vale’s operations manager Paul Clarke explains: “Our division has plenty of experience in projects of this size and members of our supply chain are also geared to contracts of the size of Oldbury. They know how critical it is to deliver on time and to budget.”

Transferring construction routes mid-stream did create the possibility of slippage, says Bedford. He comments: “At one stage, we thought it might take one month longer than if we had tendered traditionally, but we pushed and resolved the issues. We held many meetings to engineer out any problems that we could foresee and get everyone to a point where they we confident to sign a contract.

“On a traditional contract, it would have taken about six weeks to send out and receive tenders and a further two weeks or so to evaluate them and select a contractor. We used those six to eight weeks to value engineer the building, so we lost no time in the end.”

The value-engineering exercises were conducted with Laing O’Rourke, Thomas Vale, the design team and the trust all having an input. Bedford adds: “That’s what a PSCP can bring to the table by saying: ‘We build this every day. It might have a contemporary feel, but our experience has shown that by some value-engineering solutions, we will maintain the appearance. And you’ll save a bit of money’.”

Value-engineering workshops were used to examine all areas from foundations to finishes and O’Connell reckons savings of about £30,000 were made. Clarke says: “We examined both the capital costs and the whole-life cycle costs and this led to changes in the mechanical and electrical control and data systems. We were also able to reduce the depth of the foundations.”

Work started in july 2003 and was completed on time, to budget and handed over to the trust with ‘virtually no defects’

The foundations were affected by the presence of old basements on the site. After an initial desktop exercise, the exact locations of the basements were pinpointed by a radar survey and the position of the new building altered to avoid them.

The entire project team was also working in the dark because, although it had an overall budget, there was little in the way of cost and design information for an intermediate care unit. Bedford says: “We all went into this blindfolded because it is a bespoke unit that doesn’t sit within the cost models and doesn’t fit into the standard tick boxes for NHS buildings. And we had no design benchmarks to work to.”

Another peculiarity on the project was Bedford’s role as project manager for the trust while his firm was engaged on the design and was being paid by Laing O’Rourke. He says: “We had to satisfy the trust’s board that there was no clash of interests. I have an office next door to my co-director and head of the architectural team Gary Phillips, therefore the decision-making process could be speeded up considerably – but we had to prove that.”

Work on the 45-week contract started in late July 2003 and was completed on time, to budget and handed over to the trust with “virtually no defects”.

A vital ingredient in the ProCure21 process is holding a post-contract evaluation meeting, where issues can be raised to help lift performance on subsequent schemes. Bedford says: “One of the things that came out of the meeting was the possibility that the next generation of ProCure21 contracts might benefit from having the cost consultant work not only as adviser to the client, but also commercially for the contractor. It would be paid a fee by both. As ProCure21 is truly open-book, I would like to see that happen, as there could be benefits all round.”

The final thoughts on the ProCure21 process come from O’Connell, who was a reluctant convert because of the time constraints in place at Oldbury. “The principle is very good. We had a very good team and there were no personal dynamics and people were prepared to go the extra mile to get the job done.”

Good news, then, for the industry and the healthcare sector – and bad luck to all those would-be claimants …

The vitals: Oldbury

Intermediate Care Centre, Oldbury, West Midlands
Oldbury & Smethwick NHS Trust
45 weeks
Principal supply chain partner
Laing O’Rourke
Architect, civil and structural engineer, planning supervisor
Roger P Dudley & Associates
Building services engineer
White Young Green with Thomas Vale
Client’s cost adviser
Holbrow Brooks & Partners
Thomas Vale