The University of East London's new campus is the Egan demonstration project everyone is watching. With six months to go, the race is on to prove that its innovations work.
A month ago, Graham Aubrey was managing the construction of a £25m extension to Marks & Spencer’s Edinburgh city-centre store. Then, with a year to go, Tarmac pulled him off the job and moved him to the windswept docks of east London. Why? To finish a contract that the whole industry is watching.

One year into the 18-month contract, the Docklands campus for the University of East London features five stubby, double-barrelled accommodation buildings clad in Mediterranean-style render, and a 19 000 m2 steel-framed teaching block with sweeping roofs.

These oddly-shaped structures, designed by Edward Cullinan Architects, have to be completed within a £32m design-and-build contract. And if that’s not tough enough, the scheme is also one of the Movement for Innovation’s flagship demonstration projects.

The implications for Tarmac are enormous. As a demonstration project, construction performance has to be measured in nine key areas. Eventually, the results will be open to scrutiny by clients and others. So, if the Tarmac team misses its targets or performs badly, clients’ confidence in the company will be shaken. With Tarmac’s construction division about to split from the lucrative materials business, the contract could make or break the fledgling company.

Keeping cool under pressure

If Aubrey is daunted by the weight of responsibility, he doesn’t let it show. He says: “The Marks & Spencer job is more technically challenging. It’s tough trying to build without affecting the retail performance of the part of the store that’s still open,” he explains.

Brought in to replace project director Bob Vickers, who left to join Morrison Construction, Aubrey is glad to be back in London. He has a house in the north London suburb of Enfield and now gets to see his family every day instead of at weekends. He has also swapped a weekly three-hour car and plane journey to Edinburgh for a daily half-hour drive to Royal Albert Dock.

Tarmac was aware of the importance of the project right from the start and put its London A team, led by Vickers, on the job. Vickers, a veteran of fast-track Sainsbury’s stores, knew all about speedy steel-framed construction, as used in the construction of the main teaching block, and immovable deadlines.

Vickers, who joined Morrison Construction as southern regional director earlier this month, attempted to iron out as many potential problems as possible at an early stage. The first hurdle was to close the gap between how much the client had to spend and how much its requirements cost to build. The university advertised for accommodation for 384 people and teaching facilities for 3000 art, design and engineering students. Tarmac won the tender in December 1997 with a bid of £36m – the invitation to tender was advertised at £26m.

The contractor was due on site in January 1998, but Vickers took a gamble and delayed the start by three months so that he could carry out a value-engineering exercise. This allowed him to knock more than £3m off the tender cost and improve design and planning, but he had to be sure he could still hand over the project before the start of the academic year in September 1999.

With the assistance of its architect GMW, engineer Whitby Bird & Partners, in-house services contractor Crown House and Tarmac precast specialist Richard Lees, the main contractor cut the cost to £32.45m. This involved two major changes.

The business start-up units – originally intended for a separate building – were incorporated in the main teaching building. The other major change was to centralise the water tanks, with one giant tank to service all the blocks, so they could be lowered in height by about 1 m.

Edward Cullinan Architects also played a part in keeping the project tight. Director Robin Nicholson says: “We took the design to RIBA Stage E before handing over to the develop-and-construct team.” This advanced stage of design meant greater cost certainty for Tarmac.

By the time revised designs were complete, the campus project was cheaper than originally proposed and had to be built in 85% of the original time, so Tarmac introduced innovative measures to improve profitability. These mainly involve the disposal of waste.

All the on-site spoil is being reused, which eliminates the cost of removal. Vickers explains: “We treated the 20 000 m3 of subsoil with lime cement and it is being used as fill.” Tarmac also saved on mortar. Instead of bringing in ready-mixed concrete, Tarmac set up two dry-mix silos. When mortar is needed, the dry mix is simply “run off” and water added. “The capital costs are larger, but we save overall because there is less waste,” says Vickers. Waste concrete was crushed and used as aggregate for the window lintels.

Pledge to deliver on budget

These money-saving measures all contribute towards the demonstration project’s promise to deliver the project on budget. The other three Egan-inspired aims are: zero defects; using in-house supply-chain management for the procurement of the Termodeck cooling system; and cultural changes, which Aubrey describes simply as “everybody has to buy into the project”.

One of the Movement for Innovation’s nine headline key performance indicators is defects. Tarmac is attempting to achieve zero defects for every subcontract package at handover. Aubrey explains that Tarmac is offering early release of retention money for subcontractors that hand over work with no defects or that quickly correct them. “We have also removed the threat of financial penalties, so they don’t have to work with the sword of Damocles hanging over their head,” he adds.

To help progress, Vickers split the site into four zones, each with its own manager. “Each manager is responsible for delivering zero defects,” he says.

The cutting-edge architecture of the round, butterfly-roofed accommodation buildings does not seem at first glance to be the most cost-efficient way of meeting the client’s needs. Nicholson disagrees. “Circular might look ineffective, but it actually cuts down on circulation spaces,” he argues. Typical student accommodation consists of rooms off long corridors, as in hotels. Nicholson’s building does not have any corridors.

Five bedrooms radiate from the central hall of each semicircle. Each has a pod bathroom and its own vent fitted with a heat exchanger. The floors are timber with acoustic pads because these are quicker to build.

The Movement for Innovation judges will also be interested in the building’s energy efficiency. Nicholson was keen to use natural ventilation, but London City Airport is on the other side of the dock and the planes make too much noise when the windows are open.

So, Nicholson came up with the brilliant idea to use Termodeck – concrete floor planks with long snaking holes through them. When air is pumped through the holes, it picks up heat from the concrete slabs that is then vented outside. The result will be energy bills 25% lower than Energy Efficiency Office targets for education buildings.

Although a lot has been achieved on the project, it is stuttering a little. Aubrey says Vickers handed over the project in “good shape”, but that it is four weeks behind schedule. With Tarmac due to hand over the first batch of 35 student bedrooms in May, Aubrey is not worried. “With the longer nights, we should be able to pull it back,” he says. Tarmac bosses back in the City must be praying for a good summer.