Canadian circus troupe Cirque du Soleil needed its tent pitched double-quick on a site without planning permission, in the middle of the storms. That meant no clowning around.
"It's not often you're asked to turn a bomb site into facilities in six weeks. It was one step beyond fast track," says Paul McMaster, regional manager of Dean & Dyball. That was the task the contractor faced in order to transform a patch of south London scrub land into a suitable base for Cirque du Soleil's big top in time for its Christmas show.

The site, a former rail yard in front of Battersea Power Station, had to be ready on 30 November, just one week before the circus would arrive and set up its tent – known as the Grand Chapiteau – for the first performance, expected yesterday. This meant levelling the whole area, providing access for the 2500-strong audience and casting concrete anchors to support the tent.

Dean & Dyball's involvement began four months earlier through a convoluted family connection between project manager Schofield Lothian and the circus. The sister of a project manager at Schofield Lothian had a friend who worked for the circus in Amsterdam, and who mentioned over dinner that the company was looking for a project management firm in the UK. Schofield Lothian chief executive Keith Kirkwood very quickly found himself in Amsterdam, and with a job.

Schofield Lothian was appointed on 14 August in full knowledge that the opening night was 14 December. There was just one small problem: the circus did not have a site.

The last two weeks of August were spent investigating the viability of the Millennium Dome and the Albert Hall as venues. However, Battersea Power Station developer Parkview, which has a stake in the circus, decided to stage the event in the grounds of the south London landmark. Eventually, Cirque du Soleil will form a permanent part of the £850m Battersea Experience. "The Albert Hall was too small for this show," says Kirkwood, with a smile.

At the end of August, Schofield Lothian started looking for a contractor to take on the £500 000 groundworks package. The project manager wanted the scheme to be an example of best practice; the firm had one employee seconded to the Construction Best Practice Programme. Partnering was felt to be the way forward. Kirkwood also wanted to deal with one firm rather than with a group of subcontractors.

Dean & Dyball had its own plant and labour, which won it the job. The firm is also familiar with the nuances of partnering from jobs with Anglian Water. But there was no time to have partnering workshops and draw up a charter alongside the contract. Instead, Kirkwood added the following to the contract: "All parties shall work together … to achieve the following goals: building a working relationship on trust, fairness and mutual respect; completing the project on time; delivering the works to the required quality; working together to accommodate the expected changes; working together to keep the project within budget and working together to ensure profitability for the contractor."

Both Dean & Dyball and Schofield Lothian found the client demanding. For one thing, the circus was not prepared to wait for Wandsworth council to approve the scheme before starting work. And McMaster remembers 120 variations to the programme. For example, the client asked for site cabins for its own staff from the beginning. But when the client representative arrived on site, he decided the cabins were unnecessary and had to be removed. "Cirque du Soleil is very artistic and reacts quickly to things, which is partly why there were so many variations," says Schofield Lothian's Kirkwood.

But the circus was also a phenomenally enlightened employer and very much part of the partnering process. There was no way the show could delay its opening night and Cirque du Soleil recognised that this meant risks for all parties. For the first time in McMaster's and Kirkwood's experience, there were no retentions and the client paid a lump sum upfront. "The client was new to the UK and they wanted us to trust them. We didn't agree that scenario with them. They volunteered it," explains Kirkwood. "I'd like to see more jobs like that," McMaster adds.

By Sunday 10 October, Dean & Dyball had plant and material from its Maidstone office ready to roll up the motorway to Battersea in anticipation of a letter of intent for the contract in Monday's post.

There was no time for a site survey, but McMaster found out that at the start of the 20th century, the site had been a reservoir. It was later filled with clay, topped with cobbles and used as a goods yard and railway siding. When Dean & Dyball started on 13 October, it had no idea what the levels were, how much material it would need or how many voids it would find when it started digging. McMaster puts it very succinctly: "It was suck it and see."

By the end of October, things were looking good. The council had approved the project and the money was in place. Dean & Dyball had cleared the litter and shrubs from the site and was ready to seal the new surface, made up of 12 000 tonnes of type 1 stones, with blacktop.

It was due to lay blacktop for an 11 500 m2, 500-space car park, a 3263 m2 show tent and a 20 000 m2 area where Cirque du Soleil could pitch its mobile "village" for performers.

Then the rains came. In the early hours of Monday 30 October, Britain was lashed by its worst storms in more than a decade. The most sophisticated of partnering agreements, commitments to best practice and money upfront could not protect the team from weather conditions so extreme they crippled the national rail network. "We sat in the site cabin and prayed," says Kirkwood.

The rain continued unabated for the next four weeks, but Dean & Dyball had to press ahead – the show had to go on. Apart from that first Monday, the 28 operatives worked through the downpours, employing special plant to suck the water from the site. The blacktop was laid, as was a new road entrance. Finally, the team installed 26 steel-reinforced concrete anchors, each measuring 17 m3, for the Grand Chapiteau. By Wednesday 29 November, the job was done, there were no puddles, and racing car outfit Mclaren, also part of the show, had put up its hospitality pavilion.

Kirkwood project-managed the schedule for the Grand Chapiteau's erection and Dean & Dyball will be on call throughout the show's duration. As a further sign of the client's commitment to partnering, Cirque du Soleil entertained Kirkwood, McMaster and other members of the team at a dinner to celebrate the finish. Something else clients don't do too often.

The village on wheels

Cirque du Soleil travels with its “village” carried in 54 juggernauts. The mobile village comprises three tents – the Grand Chapiteau, the entrance tent and the artistic tent for practice – plus a kitchen, a school and various offices. It takes eight days to set up and three days to dismantle. The Grand Chapiteau itself is 50 m in diameter, 25 m high and seats 2500 people. There are 134 side poles and 450 pegs are used to anchor the structure. It takes 100 people more than 12 hours to set it up. The village is powered by three 350 kW generators. The village is self-sufficient, except for water and telephone lines. A total of 28.5 m of cable is used for lighting, sound and electricity.