Beijing Construction and Engineering Group gives Construction News an exclusive insight into its £700m Middlewood Locks project – and what it wants from its supply chain.
Middlewood Locks is vast. Standing on the upper floors of one of the as-yet-unfinished residential blocks, you are greeted with sweeping views of Manchester city centre, with the Beetham Tower flanked by a plethora of cranes.
Below, on what was once a massive derelict site just off the River Irwell, there is a buzz of activity. The site, which stretches across 9.7 ha in the shadow of Manchester city centre, is one of the largest regeneration schemes under way in the North-west.
It has outline planning approval for 2,000 homes and up to 750,000 sq ft of commercial space that will feature offices, hotel, shops, delis, restaurants, a convenience store and gym, all in one site. It’s intended to be not just a residential area, but a destination.
For any firm, delivering all that would seem like a daunting task. But for Chinese contractor Beijing Construction and Engineering Group International, which secured the deal for phase one of the £700m project, this was only the second job it had won in the UK.
As the first of the site’s residential towers prepares to top out, Construction News visited the site to see how the contractor is getting on.
Made in China?
In 2013 BCEGI announced its move into the UK by agreeing a partnership deal with Carillion to deliver the £800m Manchester Airport City development. Airport City will provide 5m sq ft of development space, with BCEGI and Carillion acting as construction delivery and funding partners alongside the Greater Manchester Pension fund.
But Middlewood Locks is an altogether different matter, with BCEGI being picked as sole main contractor by developer Scarborough.
Leeds-based Scarborough is developing the masterplan under the FairBriar International name, having formed a joint venture with Chinese firm Hualing Group and Metro Holdings, a Singapore-listed property development and investment group.
BCEGI Middlewood Phase 01 Landscaped Environment
Many projects are backed by foreign developers, but to appoint a sole contractor that has primarily worked overseas is less common.
The first phase of Middlewood Locks, which includes 571 homes and associated commercial space, shops, restaurants and new public realm, represents BCEGI’s first foray into the UK residential market.
Visiting the site, it’s clear work is progressing at pace, with two of the towers close to topping out already, despite the team only starting enabling works in April last year.
At the time of CN’s visit, the team was at week 36 of a 119-week programme. In August work is due to start on phase two, which includes four separate buildings up to 10 storeys in height that will provide a total of 546 apartments.
Assembling the team
As the firm approaches one year on site, BCEGI’s construction director Aaron Adams explains that the contractor is here for the long term. “We envisage the overall project to be between five and seven years, dependent on changes in planning, what the authority requires from us and what the client’s requirements are,” he says.
On paper, it might seem like a lot to build in a relatively short time, especially for a contractor working on what is its first large-scale mixed-use scheme in the UK. But Mr Adams is quick to point out the wealth of experience – and particularly local experience – his team has.
“Although we’re a Chinese company, we are BCEGI UK and we’re run like a UK company – it’s very much not BCEGI coming in and doing things in a Chinese way; it’s BCEGI coming in and doing things in a UK way,” he says.
Mr Adams left Carillion to join BCEGI in August 2015, after helping to complete the flagship One St Peter’s Square office project in Manchester city centre for his former employer.
“[When I joined] we were at stage two design,” he explains. “Scarborough was looking for a contractor it could partner with on a more negotiated terms. We weren’t at negotiated terms at that point – it was still there for us to win – but we did sit alongside the client from quite an early stage, which put us in a good position for future stages.”
“Although we’re a Chinese company, we are BCEGI UK and we’re run like a UK company”
Aaron Adams, BCEGI
And his background with Carillion is typical of the people sitting in BCEGI’s office both on Middlewood Locks and at its head office at Manchester Airport, with the majority taken from the industry’s leading main contractors.
“If you walked out into our office now you’d see some of my ex-Carillion colleagues, including commercial director Gary Bradwell, while [senior project manager] Ray Clarke on here is [formerly of] Morgan Sindall,” he says. “Without being dismissive of smaller companies, there aren’t many people from companies smaller than those [two].”
It is that experience, he suggest, that helped BCEGI secure the project initially and keep it on track. “I don’t think the learning curve has been very steep at all because we’ve got experience,” he argues.
“We’ve reduced that by the people we’ve employed. I’ve got resi experience, high-rise experience, city centre experience… a lot of the other people we’ve employed have got that experience too. I suppose the challenge is to maintain that with the recruitment process and make sure we’re employing the right people in the right areas moving forward.”
Finding the supply chain
The focus on experience also bleeds through to BCEGI’s procurement of its subcontractors, with Mr Adams reeling off a list of what he calls “top tier” subcontractors that are working on the project.
These include Oldham-based Heyrod, which is delivering the concrete frames; M&E subcontractor H E Simm; facades contractor FK Group; ACS, which is delivering the groundworks; and Elements, which is providing bathroom pods for the residential element. There are as many as 200 people on the site at any one time, including 22 staff from BCEGI.
Mr Adams explains that BCEGI considers these subcontractors “top tier” because they have the capacity to deliver at the speed and volume the firm requires at Middlewood Locks.
The company is working on six residential towers simultaneously, all of which are at varying stages of completion – the volume of work under way is massive.
“We had to have one eye on that aspect of it: commercially, can they cope with the speed we want to build at?” Mr Adams says. “And it’s almost protecting the smaller companies if you like; with the volume of work each [of our] contractors is going to get through in a monthly period, they could put themselves at risk if they’re not large enough to cope with it.”
BCEGI Middlewood Aaron Adams 01
He adds that the company hasn’t had any difficulty attracting the right subcontractors to its job, saying that getting people on board “has been a very easy sell”.
“The first meeting kills any fears that a subcontractor might have had: they understand who we are, what we’re about and where we’re coming from,” he says.
His view is echoed by one subcontractor engaged at the site, who did not wish to be named. “They’ve hired good, local people that everyone knows, so immediately you’ve got the following-on of the supply chain,” the subcontractor says. “We didn’t know BCEGI, even though they’re a big company, but we knew the guys that were there, and we trust those guys.”
The subcontractor adds that BCEGI has been seen as “a disruptor” to the market in Manchester, particularly by poaching some of the region’s key people and forming a construction team of its own. “Beijing have really changed the market up here by saying, ‘We want that team, and we’ll get them,’ and most [competing] contractors have had to admit they can’t match [the wages],” the subcontractor says. “They’ve paid good money but they’ve got the right people.”
Keeping subbies happy
Mr Adams does admit to some teething problems at the start of the project, but says the team considers these as learning experiences on which to build.
He singles out the modular units that form part of phase one as being “probably [not] where they needed to be” when planning for the initial phases of the project, but is bullish on using offsite and modular units through further phases now the issues have been ironed out. “We feel that it’s catching up quite quickly and it’s something that we as a business will be exploring a lot more in the future.”
BCEGI has also paid extra attention to the setup of the site, engaging with plant and welfare firm Garic early in the process to get a bespoke solution for the project.
Ash Andrews, regional business development manager for the North-west at Garic, explains how he ended up working with BCEGI because of what he previously knew about the people who worked there.
“We were very conscious of the fact that it was our first ‘real’ job in Manchester”
Aaron Adams, BCEGI
“We already knew them from [Aaron’s] Carillion days which meant we were halfway there,” he explains. “I called into the office, got everyone’s details, and we invited Aaron and the site manager down to our head office to show them the different bits of equipment we could offer. We then worked with BCEGI to come up with the best and most cost-effective way of supplying their welfare on site.”
Mr Andrews adds that the team at Garic knew it would have to deliver the site welfare at pace, leading it to use a bespoke system for BCEGI – particularly at the main site office.
Garic part-constructed 36 of the modular site cabins at a yard adjacent to the site so that the initial batch of site offices could be delivered and fitted out in just one week, which cut four weeks off the programme. “Putting up a building of this size would usually take between four and six weeks,” he says. “But because of the bespoke system we used it took only two weeks.”
BCEGI Middlewood 9
Mr Adams explains that getting the site welfare right was part of BCEGI’s strategy from the start, especially given the speed at which work would need to progress. “We were very conscious of the fact that it was our first ‘real’ job in Manchester, if you like,” he says, adding that he wanted to make sure the supply chain’s first experience with working with BCEGI was positive.
“We entered into discussions with Garic about our requirements and what we needed, and they came up with what we think is a top-tier product. You treat subcontractors properly, and you give them what they need to be comfortable in what they’re doing, you find it reflected in the levels of respect you get out on site. We hope that by providing a facility of this standard, we’ve given our workforce the correct message that we’re here to look after them.”
A long journey
Part of the challenge for BCEGI has been building that supply chain up – but what happens when the next few phases of Middlewood Locks come online?
The firm is due to start laying the piling mats for the second phase of the project in July, with main works commencing in August. But Mr Adams refuses to be drawn on whether his firm would be looking at using the same supply chain for phase two as it has for phase one.
“We are working with our contractors on site, including Garic, and we’re looking for longevity with them all the way through the project,” he says. “[But] we have to take a practical view on people we use, so the same considerations we’ve had on phase one about who can cope with the volume and the speed – all that needs to be taken into account.
“Some of our contractors working on phase one… can they cope with working on phase two at the same time?”
Mr Adams adds that the second phase is being programmed to follow on “seamlessly” from the end of the first, with the last handovers for phase one being concluded as the first handovers for phase two begin.
“We’re looking for longevity with [our subcontractors] all the way through the project”
Aaron Adams, BCEGI
This has been helped by the team taking steps to de-risk the project from the outset, with enabling works taking place across the whole 9.7 ha site, apart from a number of small areas that are under Network Rail possession as part of its Northern Hub rail project. Again, this is all part of delivering the project at pace, with residents moving in while construction work is ongoing.
But Mr Adams says BCEGI has made sure residents won’t have the feeling of living on a construction site with a careful approach to phasing. “We’ll be landscaping both sides of the canal for each block as we hand it over, which means the customers are getting the experience they’re paying for,” he says.
“The routes and logistics of how they get in and out of their properties is also being well thought-out and managed to ensure that first experience of moving into their apartments is the right one.”
And like those first customers, BCEGI is trying to ensure its own experience with its second UK project is the right one.
With the firm also in line to deliver Gary Neville’s controversial St Michael’s scheme if it secures approval, Middlewood Locks looks set to be just the beginning for BCEGI.
China's town: On site with BCEGI at £700m Middlewood Locks