In the latest of our occasional series on best practice, Gazeley Properties reveals to Andy Pearson how it employed a tight supply chain, innovative partnering methods and a revolutionary steel frame to construct a brand new warehouse in 12 weeks – plus two industry experts give their verdict
The warehouse market as we know it could soon be at an end. At Magna Park in Lutterworth, Leicestershire, Gazeley Properties has done what was thought impossible and put up a brand new bespoke building in the time it usually takes to modify an existing one.

This is good news for companies who make their living in the frantic world of logistics. Typically, a firm only has a few weeks between signing a deal and getting the first 18-wheel truck out of the warehouse gate, which means that they have to convert existing buildings – and live with whatever hassles they didn't have time to fix.

Gazeley was able to get the job done so quickly because it had established partnering relationships with its consultants, contractors and specialist subcontractors. It was their specialist design and construction knowledge that Gazeley drew on to redesign the template for a distribution warehouse. The result was that a facility could be taken from conception to operation in 16 weeks, 12 fewer than the quickest design-and-build option.

The developer first proposed the idea of setting a new land speed record for warehouses in November 2000. It gathered its supply chain in its Milton Keynes office, split them into four competing teams and asked each to work out if it was possible to build a 17,000 m2 distribution centre in 10 weeks. "Every team reported back to us and said: 'We can do it'," recalls Lee Pettit, construction director of Gazeley. The developer thanked its suppliers, called the concept FastTrack – and then spent time thinking about how it could best be deployed.

Chetwood Associates is one of Gazeley's design partners. On Friday 13 April, some four months after the conception of FastTrack, Alan Macbeth, a partner at Chetwood, was in his office when the phone rang. It was Gazeley. "They said: 'We've just done a deal with TNT to build a 21,000 m2 fully operational distribution building in 12 weeks and we start on site in four weeks' time'," says Macbeth. "They were asking us to do something that had never been done before."

How the team was assembled
The giant warehouse was to be constructed in two phases: the first was a fully operational 21,000 m2 distribution centre, complete with heating, lighting, storage racking and sprinklers, to be ready by 6 August. This was to be followed by a 17,000 m2 extension, to be completed by mid-October. It was time to test the FastTrack concept and put the supply chain's claims to the test.

Having pre-positioned a crack supply chain, Gazeley could assemble a team in time to meet the tight schedule. "We picked the team early; we didn't tender," says Pettit. This amounted to a significant time saving, since as much as 40% of contract time can be spent negotiating tenders. "We cut out all the talking and concentrated on the doing," adds Macbeth.

Gazeley also included a member of the construction team that neither they nor their supply chain had partnered with before – the main contractor, GSE UK. GSE is a French firm, and the decision to use it was part of the developer's plans to expand into Europe. To familiarise the contractor with Gazeley's way of working, GSE was given the task of leading the construction team for this challenging project.

With a lead-in time of only four weeks, it was essential that the building's design be finalised early in the development process. All the members of the design team were co-located in an on-site office to enable easy communication between the different teams. TNT's group building surveyor, Steven Pickup, was brought into the team. With the need for design certainty, Pickup agreed to make quick decisions and stick to them. "Irrevocable, quick decision-making was essential," explains Macbeth. And, to ensure that the consultants' and subcontractors' design decisions were made quickly, GSE insisted on a management team composed of senior figures with the necessary authority and competence to make those instant decisions.

For large warehouses, the two most critical areas of design are the building's steel portal-frame – which has a long lead-in time – and the procurement of more than 50,000 m2 of cladding for the building's facade. The steelwork and the cladding specialists therefore had to be involved in the building's design from day one.

To speed up construction, steelworks contractor Barrett Steel Buildings re-engineered the way portal frames were constructed (see "Barrett's steel design revolution", page 58). Barrett's design innovation meant that the 1600-tonne frame could be erected in 3.5 weeks instead of the more usual 15. The redesign allowed the cladding contractor, FK Roofing, to start its package four days after the steel erector started work – no bad thing, given the area of cladding required.

Design development took place at the same time, with Chetwood developing detailed designs for five alternative schemes so that each would be ready to go if it was selected. To expedite the design process, Chetwood used a standard detail database and limited its choice of materials. The possession of a fully developed design also enabled a planning application to be submitted within 72 hours of the design being finalised.

To speed installation of the building services, engineer Kelly Taylor Associates designed the fire and electrical installation with single-fix runs of snap-together cables pre-installed in trays. Although this was more expensive than the conventional method of first installing cable trays and then installing the cables, time-and-motion studies found that this added capital cost was outweighed by the time saving in man-hours.

While the design of the building was progressing, cost consultant Davis Langdon & Everest was pricing each of the schemes. "We supplied information to the QS, and one hour later they came up with a cost plan," says Macbeth. In all, DL&E produced nine plans in fewer than two weeks. As well as working for the developer, DL&E also worked for the contractor GSE. Although unorthodox, the arrangement allowed costs to be produced on an open-book basis.

GSE was allocated a design manager from Chetwood to help the consultants, main contractor and subcontractors to ensure design information was available when it was needed by the specialists. The contractor gave the project a French touch by persuading the specialists to take more responsibility for the design and installation of their packages than is usual in the UK.

How the construction was planned
Once the design was developed, the team had to think about how the building would be assembled on site. The solution arrived at was partly a question of brute force (Macbeth observes: "It was a bit like building the pyramids – you have to throw manpower at it") and partly of meticulous organisation: each operative had work allocated for every hour of every day. "Planning was absolutely critical; to be successful the operation needed to be planned with military precision," says Macbeth.

Gazeley employed consultant Key Project Services to mastermind the project's strategic planning. KPS interviewed everybody in the construction team to ensure their preferred method of working was accommodated. It then took the unusual step of allocating areas and times of work on plans of the building, rather than using organisational charts, which offered the consultant control over who was operating in which area and for how long. It also allowed delivery routes around the site to be established and space to be allocated for storage.

KPS planned the construction as a sort of conga, with the steel installer leading the other specialists through the building. Barrett Steel Buildings and FK Roofing, the cladding subcontractor, were followed by the teams that fitted the high-level services, the concrete flooring contractor and finally the company that put in the warehouse's racks.

The most problematic area of this timetable was the high-level services installation, when eight subcontractors and all their gear would have to jostle for room on the site. This is where Macbeth's military precision was called for:

KPS allocated areas of just a few square metres for each specialist contractor to work in; each firm was told exactly which area it had to be working on, when it had to start, and when it had to stop.

And the result?
The programming was successful. Once work had started "there was no area of the site without somebody working there", says Macbeth. To everybody's relief, the first phase was completed on time and to budget, and the second finished six weeks ahead of schedule, despite the client deciding to add a mezzanine floor to part of the building.

Gazeley will now share the knowledge gained from this project with the rest of its supply chain at debriefing workshops, which will look at how process can be improved. "We could do the next building in six weeks," says Pettit – although he concedes that eight weeks would probably be a more realistic target. However, Macbeth adds a note of caution: "The weather was absolutely brilliant for the whole 12 weeks we were on site. If it had rained constantly we would have struggled to meet the deadline."

Now Gazeley has thrown down the gauntlet to its competitors by announcing a plan to roll out the FastTrack product across all their sites. And the cherry on top was that FastTrack won the International Real Estate Committee's global innovator award at a ceremony in the USA.

Colin Gray

Speed and performance of this nature requires re-engineering every aspect of the process and its organisation. While there are many issues worth noting, the focus on designing the project for erection – overweight steel, plug-together connections, and so on – shows where the industry has to put its efforts. The scale of the warehouse enabled multiple teams to work at once. Focusing on work areas enabled a production-based form of programming to evolve. The organisational framework pre-empted many of the normal disruptive factors. Pre-existing supply chains and design removed many of the inherent delays. Whether this is transferable to others in the industry depends upon the risks that each party is willing to carry until the “go” button is pressed.

Rodney Howes

Gazeley’s approach is a good example of how to build a partnering structure within which dynamic decision-making can take place. Having a supply chain that can draw on its experience will be a prerequisite for future projects. Notable features are the use of standardisation of products to achieve concurrent working. The strength of Gazeley’s method is that it is open enough to allow a team to solve problems in its own way. The case study in question appears to have been fortunate in that the weather was good – despite the time saved here, we should remember that projects are subject to disruption from environmental influences, not to mention planning, shortages of materials and economic and community pressures.

Barrett’s steel design revolution

Barrett Steel Buildings re-engineered the 1600-tonne steel frame to cut erection time from 15 weeks to three and a half. This massive time saving was possible because Barrett changed the design emphasis from the traditional “minimum steel weight” method to a “speed-engineered design”, which maximised on-site production. To do this, Barrett re-orientated the frame design by turning it through 90°, creating seven roof pitches across the width of the building, rather than the usual four along the length. This increased the number of column bays, and entrances, from four to seven along the length of the building. Even more crucially, it increased the number of erection teams that could work through the building simultaneously by allocating one team to each bay. This redesign increased the amount of steel that was needed for the frame itself, but taking time savings into account, the developer decided this approach was the most cost-effective. Having reconfigured the building’s frame, Barrett set about rationalising its design by minimising the number of components. And with safety in mind, the designers attempted to reduce work carried out at height. The erector had six weeks before the first components were needed on site. In an example of how detailed supply-chain integration can be, Barrett used its own partnership agreements to obtain steel supply, erection, paint, bolts and transport without spending time tendering work packages. Pre-agreed standard details were used to speed up the design and to eliminate interface problems with the other specialists such as the cladding and delivery dock door suppliers. Finally, to ensure the efficient movement of materials on site, the frame was delivered in 85 truckloads, with the steel loaded in the order that it was required on site. Deliveries arrived every two hours to each site team of 30 men, four cranes and 16 cherry-pickers. On site, Barrett set up a satellite office with computer links back to its head office; it also had a team of designers and fabricators standing by on site to take on unexpected problems – which, John Cooper, Barrett’s project manager, admits, “is more than we normally throw at a project”.