It looked as if the Sikh community of Southall might never get its temple – let alone the biggest one outside India – until an adventurous project manager arrived to make it happen.
The skyline of Southall, Middlesex, is about to have a magnificent new addition – a giant golden dome. This gilded sphere will crown the Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, the largest Sikh temple ever to be constructed outside India. For the 60,000-strong local Sikh community, this temple will have an importance second only to the Golden Temple in Amritsar, northern India.

The construction of the Gurdwara (Sikh temple) is now nearing completion. Stained glass windows filter light into the cavernous prayer hall, gleaming limestone cladding lines the walls, and a series of cupolas rises up from the roof. With construction work running at full speed, the community expects to be attending services in the temple by autumn.

Two-and-a-half years ago, however, it was an entirely different story. The original budget for the temple had been £13m, but when the tenders came back the costs rose to a staggering £24m. This ambitious project – funded entirely from donations – was facing disaster, with spiralling costs and a repeatedly delayed start date. The Sikh community had almost given up hope of ever seeing its cherished scheme realised.

The woman who turned the project around is Parminder Mew, now the director of Darcy Management Services, who has been client representative on the project since February 2000. By bringing together the community, to which she has personal links, and the project team, she has successfully halved construction costs to ensure the temple could be built within budget.

Mew laughs when she tells how she first came to be involved, two-and-a-half years ago. "I was volunteered by my dad," she recalls. On site, she cuts a slightly demure figure in her hard hat and oversized high-visibility jacket, which she wears over a thick jumper.

She may be in charge now, but the Gurdwara project was conceived long before Mew arrived on the scene. In 1997, the community held an architectural competition to design a British Sikh temple, which was won by Architects Co-Partnership. Its design was for a contemporary stone-clad building with a domed first-floor prayer hall and gallery seating 2000 people. The building also contained a community centre, a library and a dining hall, complete with a kitchen capable of serving 20,000 meals a day over a festival weekend.

At the time she was volunteered for the job, Mew was working as a project manager for fit-out contractor Overbury on a scheme in the City. "Some of the temple committee members knew my father," she explains. Before long, she found herself being introduced, and on hearing their woes, she explained to them that if the scheme was to go ahead its costs would have to be halved. "One Sunday I sat down with them to sort out what was significant – the domes on the roof, the stone facade, and so on," she says. "It was also clear that the project needed a strong management. I said to them, you've got to get a project manager or a client representative."

In January 2000, Mew was asked to attend a meeting, at which she found herself being given 24 hours to put together a bid to run the job herself as client representative. Twenty days later, Mew teamed up with an old workmate, Peter Oliver, and Darcy Management Services was born. "I got sucked in," she laughs.

The new firm had no time to waste if it was to save the project. Its aim was to cut £11m from the costs while still creating a spectacular temple. It was a tough challenge for the fledgling practice, and a chance for it to make its reputation. "It was a big gamble," agrees Oliver.

More worrying still was the fact that the community had lost faith in the project starting at all, so donations had slowed to a trickle. "We had to show that the scheme was still alive," says Mew. She set a target of getting work started on site in less than three months – in time for the Vaisakhi festival, which celebrates the birth of Sikhism on 5 April. Her solution was to get the enabling works under way: "We wanted hoardings and machines on site – we had to make people think we'd begun to build." Contractor Interserve won the package. Mew hints that the client got a good price for the enabling works by dangling the carrot of a possible contract for the main works.

Releasing this package bought Darcy Management Services four months of much-needed time in which to value-engineer the project. Initial attempts by the team to bring the costs down had been unsuccessful: they got rid of the stone facade, the marble interior and the domes on the roof – all the things that gave the temple prestige – but that still saved only £2m.

Mew then took matters into her own hands. "We changed the way the project was procured," she says. The original tenders, procured under a traditional JCT contract, had come in extremely high. Mew says there were several reasons for this: fear of a one-time-only client; the belief that the community would give the project to an Asian contractor and that others were just being used as a price check; and worry over payment as the project was funded entirely by donations.

The payment issue was overcome by a funding package from Allied Irish Bank, and the contract problem was solved by changing to a management contract, which allowed the scheme to be split into 52 works packages. The team also separated the building's fit-out from the main construction works, so that Darcy Management could concentrate on getting the shell completed. "I said to the committee, you sort out the donations for the fit-out," Mew recalls.

While the committee was occupied with getting sponsors for the kitchen and furniture, Mew set about learning how the temple should function, both as a religious building and as a community centre. The research was necessary, E E despite Mew being a Sikh and having visited temples as a child, to make sure the value-engineering did not engineer out any of the temple's significant features. "I'm not a priest, I'm a builder," Mew points out. Her research was helped by her ability to speak Punjabi – and by her parents going on holiday to India. "I got them to take thousands of photographs," she laughs.

Armed with her understanding of the temple's various roles, Mew then set about scrutinising the different packages to see where money could be shaved from the project. "We looked at the material specification to see if there were cheaper and better alternatives available," she explains. Portland Stone had originally been specified for the building's facade. This was expensive as well as unsuitable; Mew says that pollution in Southall would have soon darkened the stone, but more significantly the spicy fumes from the temple's kitchen "would have turned it orange". Consequently, the specification was changed to a harder and cheaper German limestone.

On some of the construction packages where Darcy Management was unsure how to slash costs most effectively, Mew turned to subcontractors she and Oliver had worked with before, on the understanding that by giving advice on the best way of value-engineering the different packages, they would be included on the package tender list. The specialists advised on detailing and changes to the stonework and joinery to save money. "It was true value-engineering," says Mew. Often the design would have to be "tweaked" slightly, such as by using slightly thinner timber sections for the detailing, which made them much cheaper.

Oliver sounds as if he is reliving his relief when he says the tenders for the packages started to return within budget.

In addition to the subcontract packages, inserting an incentive clause into the management contract also saved money. The clause means that any costs the contractor saves will be shared between it and the client.

The changes have worked. In fact, so successful has Mew been in her value-engineering that the costs have fallen below the £13m budget. "The committee can now start to add things back," she says with pride. The project's funder, Allied Irish Bank, is clearly impressed. "They told a committee running a similar scheme in the Midlands that if they used Darcy Management Services, the bank would reduce their funding rate by 2%," says Mew.

Walking around the site, Mew is keen to show off where value engineering has been most successful. She points to the glulam timber sections that support the domed roof – the section's shape was simplified to save money. "You would never notice the difference from down here," she says. Other changes include specifying a terrazzo floor in the dining room in place of linoleum to cut down on maintenance, and in the ceiling the complex structure of the rooflights has been simplified. "I do take chances, but I think it will look OK," Mew says.

There have been one or two near disasters. The team originally specified a cupola for the roof, which was subsequently found to be of Islamic Mughal design. "We only just managed to catch that one in time," says Mew. Externally, the finish of the huge curved dome forming the roof of the prayer hall had been specified as copper. However, as it aged the copper would have gradually turned green, which is a Muslim colour. Terned steel has been used instead.

Now, on a small site next to the temple, the final and most spectacular of the domes is being assembled. Large, curved sections of fibreglass with a gleaming gold-leaf skin are being bolted together. When this dome is finally craned into position, it will signify the end of another chapter in the temple's construction. "It's all starting to fall into place," says Mew.