Cambridge estates head David Adamson is determined to make the industry work together. So any firm that wants a slice of the university's record £528m build programme had better start listening …
David Adamson has twice served as a full-time member of the University of Cambridge. His first stint was as an undergraduate at King's College in the 1960s. More than 30 years later, he moved 600 yards along Trumpington Street to become head of the university's estate management and building service.

With a staff of 228 professional officers and operatives, the estates department is responsible for a stock of historic and modern university buildings valued at £870m. More to the point, it manages a building development programme worth £528m, making the university one of the UK's largest building client, up among serial commercial property developers such as Hammerson and British Land.

As if all this high-powered management and development were not enough, Adamson also finds time to campaign to improve construction's approach to training and interdisciplinary integration along Latham and Egan lines. He serves on major voluntary committees, including the Construction Industry Training Board and research panel CRISP. He has also been deputy chairman of the Confederation of Construction Clients and a member of the Construction Industry Board – he recently made a direct appeal for the retention of such a body to construction minister Nick Raynsford. Add to that a few visiting professorships, the most recent at the University of the West of England in Bristol.

Not bad for a person who left school at 16 to join the army. Now 57, Adamson's love affair with academia, and Cambridge in particular, is all the more remarkable when it transpires that he was a career soldier until 1987, attaining the level of commander of a construction engineering regiment.

After retiring from the army, he became bursar at Bristol University responsible for administration and estates. He returned to Cambridge to take up the estates job in October 1999. "I had been approached by other organisations, but I was waiting for the job at Cambridge," he says.

Although emphatically not in the ramrod-backed, order-barking mould, Adamson nevertheless exhibits certain military characteristics. Sitting in his first-floor office, surrounded by a large coloured wall-map of the city centre, antique engravings of Cambridge and Bristol and a few regimental crests, Adamson believes in attacking any construction job on a combined front. Whether talking about his own department or the industry at large, closer integration and teamwork are the constant refrains.

"I suppose the army gives you a sense of teamwork – and an unswerving determination to get the job done," he says. "That's because you're always in a different situation but dependent on the same team." Within two-and-a-half years, he has radically shaken up his estates department team, doubling the building procurement staff and intensifying its commitment to Latham-compliant procurement.

"Nearly all our projects over £1m are now procured through a two-stage tendering process. We bring in the main contractor and the specialist constructors at design stage and try to form a team, together with the designers and the quantity surveyors who are going to manage the work. We pay the contractor and specialist contractors a fee to cover their expenses.

"At the end of the process, once we have had most of the tenders in for the packages, we come to a lump-sum guaranteed maximum price contract with the main contractor. And then of course, it falls in that the specialist constructors become subcontractors. Because they've contributed enormously to the design, there should be no surprises, and we've got assurances of prices one level down."

The army gives you a sense of teamwork – and an unswerving determination to get the job done

The traditional contractor adage of bidding low and claiming high will not wash with Adamson. "What we can't stand are contractors who are secretly cooking up some sort of a claim and then springing it on you at a later stage. We appoint on quality and price. We did a review of last year, and nearly 80% of all our contracts were not awarded on lowest tender price. We have very few contracts that run over their budgets, and by and large they're roughly on time."

Where the Cambridge estates department differs from large property developers is in the variety of buildings and refurbishments it must cope with, from lecture theatres and research laboratories to sports stadiums, retail facilities, student accommodation and even urban infrastructure such as park-and-cycle schemes.

The upshot of such a range of work is that there is little scope for formal framework agreements with consultants or contractors. Architects on the department's books range from local practice Nicholas Ray & Partners to signature architects Edward Cullinan Architects, Allies and Morrison and larger mainstream firms such as RMJM.

When it comes to quantity surveyors, Adamson has kind words to say and favours the larger national practices. "There are a number of QSs who are particularly good at looking right through the project, managing risk and spotting the heffalump traps ahead." The other main difference from commercial property developers is that the university is by definition tied to Cambridge, with all its attendant conservation problems. Planning 15 or 25 years ahead for university expansion is a major concern, entailing regular liaison with the city council.

Like Dickon Robinson, development director of the Peabody Trust, Adamson is keen to harness the power of his department to initiate improvements in building industry practices. It has already won two research projects funded by the Higher Education funding Council of England.

One is about risk-sharing between the university and its consultants. He proposes to underwrite a project against design mistakes by some 3% of capital funding.

The other research project is to sponsor training on university projects, covering everything from trade skills to managerial supervision. "Over the next five years, the construction industry will be short of 350,000 artisans, managers, supervisors and indeed graduates," he comments.

Personal effects

Where do you live?
I have a flat in Cambridge, a detached house in Cheddar and a caravan in the other place [Oxford].
What forms of personal transport do you use?
I have a Citroën ZX diesel car, a cross-country bicycle and a street bicycle, which I use to commute the two miles to work.
Do you have a family?
My wife is a ballet choreographer, and my three children work in Peru, Norway and Ireland.
Do you join in university activities?
I attend university concerts, I’m a fellow of New Hall, I sit at high table at King’s College, and I read the lesson at evensong in the chapel.