Rigorous pre-construction systems enable CWC to get the best from designers and trade contractors. Project executive Bob Phelan and vice-president Tony Jordan tell you how

In the 1960s, the Docklands site was desolate
In the 1960s, the Docklands site was desolate

Bob Phelan has been working on Canary Wharf since the start. In 1988, he was an architect at Skidmore Owings & Merrill and helped to prepare the original masterplan agreement and design guidelines.

Nine years ago, he “switched sides” to join Canary Wharf Contractors as project executive, design, and was charged with ensuring that the quality and design standards enshrined in the first phase were adhered to in subsequent projects.

Phelan says: “We have always maintained that commitment to quality even though the original design standards contained in the masterplan agreement with London Docklands Development Corporation have expired. We didn’t abandon those principles even though design trends have changed.”

The second phase of construction saw a rush of new architects and designers who interpreted the design parameters in a slightly different way.

Phelan says CWC worked with the new intake “to achieve best quality balanced with commercial return”. He adds: “We are very hands-on and some consultants, who are not used to us, may think we are interfering. But once they get to know us, they realise we can bring the best out of them by giving input into design quality and the operational realities of their design.”

Even before external consultants are employed, CWC gets its people together to prepare a “design testing” that outlines the key ingredients of the project. Phelan explains: “We have in-house people in all areas of design and construction.”

The group sits down with “a blank sheet of paper and assesses the appropriate building for the site and any tenant, the appropriate exterior design expression and floor plates with inbuilt flexibility to meet the tenant’s requirements”.

We are not necessarily looking to select less expensive solutions. we want the best results

Bob Phelan

During the design development phase, CWC undertakes regular “value enhancement” exercises.

“We get everyone to come back and review the design with us,” says Phelan. “We also look at the building services to make sure they are efficient and ecologically friendly.

“We are not necessarily looking to select less expensive materials or solutions. We want the best quality results combined with design efficiencies.”

The processes described by Phelan come from CWC’s 17 years’ experience of building on the wharf. Its expertise is evident in the work that went into securing planning consent from the London Borough of Tower Hamlets for the 279,000 m2 Riverside South development. The project comprises two towers (28 and 34 storeys) with a link building. Construction will start as soon as tenants have been secured.

Planning with a fine-tooth comb

The attention to detail in the planning application has to be seen to be believed. CWC vice-president Tony Jordan explains: “We decided to go further in terms of design than might be considered strictly necessary for a planning application – not just in terms of the architecture, but also in the structural and building services design. For example, strictly speaking for a planning application, it would not be necessary to design the core, but we have designed it fully.

In effect, what we have is a design package for the complete scheme.”

Strictly speaking for a planning application, it would not be necessary to design the core, but we have

Tony Jordan

As the design was honed, CWC produced various budgeting exercises, viewed the drawings produced by the consultants and gave continual feedback on how easy or difficult it would be to construct. Jordan explains: “We spent a great deal of time discussing the best way to approach the cladding with the architects and building services engineer. It was whether to go for double-glazing, triple-glazing or ventilated cavity walls. I don’t know how many hours we spent discussing those issues and it was round-table discussions, not the architect saying: ‘That’s what I want and it’s down to you guys to make it work’. ”

He adds: “In addition to a lot of design time, there was a lot of budget calculation time before we submitted it for planning permission. We wanted to make sure what we submitted was not going to have to change and made sense for us commercially.”

CWC holds another trump card: its sister company Canary Wharf Management, which operates and maintains the buildings on the estate. CWC and the design team get direct feedback from the management company on operational aspects. This includes information on gaining proper access into and out of the car parks, the size of the loading docks, where the property management offices and workshops should be located as well as details of energy use, cleaning costs and maintenance schedules.

Jordan says: “A lot of developers don’t have this third arm and don’t get the feedback from the property managers to make sure those aspects are taken into consideration early on in design.

“If we think back to the buildings constructed in phase one and consider, say, garbage disposal. Seventeen years ago, garbage disposal was simply a compactor and a skip where everything went into it for removal. Now, we separate glass, paper, metal, light tubes and any number of other items for disposal in particular ways. It means we are now faced with a much bigger requirement for separating waste and this obviously influences the design of the building and the way it operates.”

CWC offers a unique combination of construction know-how, detailed knowledge of tenants’ operational requirements and data on the maintenance and running costs of buildings. Small wonder, then, that it is optimistic about winning work outside its birthplace.

In the beginning

Since starting work on Canary Wharf in 1988 (see photograph below), CWC has developed a series of procedures to ensure it meets its targets on time, cost and quality.

The design has to pass two milestones: a concept design report then a scheme design report. Even after these documents are received, CWC will interrogate them for compliance with the design goals and, equally important, for affordability and buildability.

This evaluation process continues during the subsequent phases of tendering, procurement, submission of shop drawings and construction. It ends with snagging and the handover of the completed product.