Cluster groups, co-operation and making the most of specialist subcontractors’ expertise has earned the team building an MOD sports centre spectacular cost and time savings.
“Because we designed it together, we designed out most of the problems,” says Richard Barnes, site agent of Jacksons Civil Engineering. Jacksons is just one of the many specialist contractors involved in the design and construction of a new sports complex for the army at Wattisham, Suffolk, as part of the Ministry of Defence’s Building Down Barriers procurement initiative.

Barnes is confirming what most specialist contractors already know – that if they get involved in a project’s design early, they can save cost and time. At Wattisham, 12 weeks have been cut from a 54-week programme – a saving of 22%. The team is already starting to decamp from site huts, ready for completion this week. As for money, early indications are that the project will also show a 10% reduction in whole-life costs.

The established way of procuring a building is for consultants to produce detailed designs based on their interpretation of what the client wants. These designs are then passed to the specialists, which price them and provide production information. The essence of the new approach being tested at Wattisham, and a similar project at Aldershot, is that specialists contribute to the detailed design, to discussions on buildability and to cost estimates throughout the project.

The specialists’ involvement began at the first client meeting. “We were involved from day one,” explains Dave Younger, project engineer at building services subcontractor Aqua. “It was very important that we understood what the client wanted and how the building was going to be used so we could make design suggestions.”

As a result, Aqua immediately proposed altering the way the water in the showers was heated, so that the system could cope with teams of squaddies bundling into the changing areas following training sessions.

Peter Whitmore, project manager of prime contractor Laing, says the specialists’ discussions with the client made a huge difference. “Once the client has explained his needs to the whole team, this makes them feel more accountable,” he says.

Laing organised the specialists into five clusters to reflect the project’s core areas. At Wattisham, these were the swimming pool, the frame and envelope, the substructure and external works, the finishes and the M&E work. Each cluster worked to find ways of cutting material and construction costs without compromising the functional design.

The groups also had a cluster leader who represented it at project design and site meetings, and took responsibility for detailing the design and improving construction processes within the group. Barnes, who led the substructure cluster, says: “We made a lot of changes from concept design to construction.”

The foundations were designed initially as a reinforced concrete ground beam, but, following the team’s input, they were changed to strip foundations. “This brought huge time savings,” he says. Another change his cluster proposed was that the floor slab should be fibre-mix concrete laid in one operation rather than steel-reinforced concrete laid in bays. This was only possible because the team was in place to carry out the elaborate preplanning. “The initial programme was for 18 weeks, but doing it this way we shaved off six,” says Barnes proudly.

Communication between the clusters was essential if all specialists were to have an input into the project. The groups had weekly meetings, and regular value-engineering sessions with the client. On top of this, Laing insisted that the site foremen meet every morning to discuss what they were doing that day. These meetings ensured that the detailed construction planning could be made to pay off, and that operatives could get on with their work uninterrupted. “Just by mentioning it in a meeting, the problem seems to go away,” says Barnes. In this new spirit of teamworking, one phrase Barnes says he has not heard on this job is: “You priced for it; you build it.”

Aqua’s Younger concurs. “By talking to each other, there was less wastage, and non-productive time was kept to a minimum. This means we get a productivity bonus, which is a great incentive.”

This arrangement earned many of the specialists a share in the savings generated, but communication was not just confined to individual clusters. “The services contractor does not normally have any contact with the civils team,” says Younger. At Wattisham, the civil engineer is installing heavy bases to the illuminated car park bollards ready for the electrical connection after the problem was raised at a team meeting.

However, there was a downside to the frequent meetings. “The problem with spending so much time in meetings is the cost in overheads,” says Younger. But, as Whitmore explains, cost-cutting was not allowed to affect the specification: “If I’m being brutally honest, on a normal contract, most specialists would downspec to improve their margins.” This did not happen at Wattisham. Levels of overhead and profit were agreed in advance and ringfenced; this meant that specialists’ recommendations were based on performance and not profit. The enhanced specification has resulted in a slight increase in capital expenditure, estimated to be in the region of 4%. However, as Whitmore is quick to point out, the project is 10% under budget on whole-life costs.

For Barnes, the new way of working meant integrating his own supply chain. “I had to select subbies I could work with,” he says. “I felt I could not go out to competitive tender and end up with someone more used to working in knock-for-knock relationships.”

This egalitarian way of working did not suit all the design consultants. The fact that the views of the specialist contractors, the designers and the prime contractor were all given equal weight at the design meetings proved too much for some of Wattisham’s concept designers: architect Foster and Partners and structural engineer Waterman Partnership both left before the detailed phase had begun. And the newly influential specialists were actually involved in selecting their replacements. Whitmore says medium-sized design practices were targeted because they were felt to be more adaptable.

For the specialists, this close relationship with the consultants brought a new and unexpected benefit. It meant that consultants were aware of the pressure on contractors. “A designer was never going to let you down; usually they responded to queries within hours” says Barnes.

The next three prime contracts have already been announced – although the winners will not be named until March – and the MOD will be looking to implement the lessons learned on the two pilot projects. For Barnes, the lesson is simple: “It was one team working towards one goal.”

What is Building Down Barriers?

The scheme was set up by Defence Estates, the Ministry of Defence and the DETR to develop a new approach to construction procurement based on integrating the supply-chain into the construction process. Two pilot projects were established in 1997: Wattisham and Aldershot. The schemes are of a similar size and involve the design and construction of a sports centre, with swimming pool, that has to last 35 years. The project brief was a statement of requirements, and users were involved throughout the design. In each project, the prime contractor was expected to integrate the supply chain into the building’s design, construction and maintenance for a trial period of up to two years. The projects are being monitored by the Tavistock Institute, which will produce a full report on the Building Down Barriers scheme.

Amec’s Olympian task at Aldershot

Amec is prime contractor for the second Building Down Barriers pilot, at Aldershot. Like Wattisham, the project involves the construction of a sports centre complete with swimming pool. However, unlike Wattisham’s 25 m pool, the brief called for a 50 m Olympic-sized swimming pool. There were problems early in the design phase. Amec tried to stick rigidly to the spirit of the Building Down Barriers philosophy by giving full design responsibility to the steelwork, cladding and M&E clusters. However, it soon became apparent that the specialists’ inexperience in making these types of decisions was causing delays. The situation was resolved by the architect prioritising the interfaces between the different specialists. Overall, specialist contractors on the Aldershot project have had similar experiences to those at Wattisham. Again, the specialists were involved from day one. “At the first team briefing the discussion was “where do we put the building on the site” said Jim Perry, business development manager for Condor Structures. This 72-week, £10m project is on course to finish six weeks ahead of schedule with whole-life cost savings expected to be in the region of 15%. Again, communication played a big part in cutting construction time, with the specialists working together to resolve problems. “The cluster groups all said there were problems with roofing installations,” said John Lindsell, commercial manager of Briggs Roofing & Cladding, “so we installed the roof from the centre out to allow work to carry on uninterrupted below.” Groundworks specialist Hiretech changed its programme to install drainage earlier in the project than usual. “Installing the drainage normally cuts everybody off, including the brickie and scaffolder,” says Jim Woodley, commercial manager of Hiretest. “We understand the problems other trades have now. It’s all about learning to work with people instead of covering your arse,” he added. Most of the specialists are looking forward to building on the skills learned from this project. “The development of the process was as important as building the project itself,” says Perry. “What we need now is more repeat work.”