A new logistics centre in South London offers the potential win win win for project teams – cutting costs, time and reducing the industry’s carbon footprint. Can it really take off?

Controlled chaos would describe my neighbourhood at present. There’s two major housing developments going up on my once quiet cobbled road, situated in what estate agents describe as the ‘city fringe’ area of East London.

One development has closed off the northern end of the road, sparking major logistical challenges for the 400-unit Berkeley Homes schemes underway as you wander down our street. The Berkeley site seems a pretty well organised one, but navigating a lorry in there requires military precision, a steady nerve and, at times, the patience to perform a ten point turn to back into a and out of such a tight entrance.

Such a site would be manner from heaven for those promoting consolidation centres. The principle is simple – instead of each supplier lugging bulk deliveries of materials and products straight to overcrowded sites they are first deposited to a nearby holding centre. Lorries are then sent on to the schemes with the exact material requirements for the day. So far it’s proving very effective – initial results from the Bermondsey consolidation centre show a 68% reduction in local journey, an average reduction in journey times to site of two hours and a resultant drop in CO2 emissions of carbon dioxide.

So why is this not the norm for construction? At an event to herald the success of the scheme last week the backers of the £3.2m pilot study, which include Wilson James, Bovis Lend Lease, Stanhope and Transport for London, explain why. It comes down to three Cs – cost, conservatism and cynicism. Introducing anything new to the industry has never been that straightforward, and this appears an especially tricky idea to get off the ground in the industry, despite the clear benefits.

The team behind the project have yet to quantify an accurate cost saving for the client, so for them it still appears to be an additional cost. At present there is a difficulty to really nail down the hard cash savings that come from the savings in petrol, man hours and wasted products and supplies. Bovis project director Paul Sims reckons one of the projects using the centre, the Unilever building in Blackfriars, was completed quicker by using the facility, but again that is fervent belief rather than a proven fact. “Without that type of information it’s going to be a struggle,” admitted Sims.

The team is hoping to prove this case with hard numbers soon. Yet they are up the murkier forces of culture as well. Wilson James joint managing director Gary Sullivan points to a “module in all construction degrees – cynicism” as part of the problem, adding that there is also the knee jerk reaction in the industry of throwing out new ideas if they don’t work first time. More particularly some flak was thrown at sub-contractors involved in the projects. “Some got great benefits out of it, others didn’t put the effort in,” said Sims.

I left feeling fairly upbeat despite such sentiments. There was an audience of upwards of 100 there and you sensed no-one there could argue with the logic of using such a centre. It seemed a physical embodiment of the Latham and Egan principles in encouraging new leaner ways to build, project teams to partner and more open book accounting. And the environmental benefits act as a strong carrot. But as ever it will take a leap of faith for traditional industry participants to make the idea really work.