Bristol University’s new, £12m Synthetic Chemistry Building embodies much of the construction industry’s post-Latham, post-Egan gospel. Two-stage tendering, a non-adversarial contract, off-site fabrication and value engineering may not be ground-breaking in themselves. But, taken together, they represent a large part of the construction industry’s New Testament.

The client wanted an 18-laboratory facility, built to above-average standards and a 50-year life span, that would be completed by autumn 1999 and for a guaranteed price. With unhappy memories of previous projects, the university realised that traditional contract forms were unlikely to deliver such a wish list. Encouraged by forward-thinking bursar David Adamson, the university’s buildings committee decided on an approach that would create the team first and develop the design afterwards.

Once the consultants – architect and project manager Percy Thomas Partnership, QS Gleeds and engineer Ove Arup & Partners – had completed an outline design, the university interviewed contractors for a first-stage contract covering site preliminaries and design detailing. “The bursar was very progressive – he focused on how to procure the building to minimise his risks,” says Paul Bates, construction manager of contractor Wates.

Design development during the next four months was assisted by co-locating staff from the client, consultants, Wates and key subcontractors to Arup’s Bristol office during the core working hours of 10am to 2pm. The arrangement meant that meetings ranging from “two to three people around a CAD terminal” to full, 20-strong strategy conferences could be called at a moment’s notice. Co-location also meant that value engineering took place on a near continuous basis. The result was virtual cost and design certainty by the time the main contract was signed.

The close communication also helped develop a strategy of maximising off-site fabrication. The best example is the four, 3 m diameter, 9 m high chimneys, which were fabricated and double-clad in spiralling timber and lead in a three-stage off-site process.

Value engineering went back to first design principles, in one case saving the client money by substituting blockwork risers for galvanised steel ductwork in parts of the building. Overall, on the design details and choice of materials, benefits in terms of life-cycle costing always won out over savings on capital cost.

In assessing both the consultants’ team and the contractor, the university used a quality/price scoring system that valued qualitative issues such as enthusiasm twice as highly as price. Wates’ tender was not the cheapest, but Bates says it won through since its “understanding of the culture the university was trying to create weighed more heavily than the bottom-line figure”.

The university chose to use the Engineering and Construction Contract, the successor to the New Engineering Contract that incorporates Construction Act innovations such as adjudication. This means that variations were not allowed to gather momentum and become a claim at the end of the project.

Since the main contract was signed in May 1998, the ECC’s provisions for settling disputes at site level have been actively used. The adjudicator has also been called in once to determine a client/contractor dispute but has not been asked to deliver a verdict – both parties hope that the atmosphere of open discussion will allow them to reach a settlement without his input.

Demonstration Project