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Getting it right when the sums went wrong

The e:volve project will give Edinburgh’s Jewel & Esk College two state-of-the-art campuses despite initial problems with funding. By Mark Alexander

ClientJewel & Esk Valley College
Value £53.5 million
Main ContractorMiller Construction
ArchitectRMJM Architects
Project managerDavis Langdon Mackenzie
Project and cost management consultantGardiner & Theobald
Civil and structural engineerWoolgar Hunter
Building service engineerKJ Tait Engineers

For Large images of the project click here

The path to enlightenment is never smooth. Along the way there are inevitable obstacles that test the resolve of the most meticulous planner.

But through adversity invention is born, and the redevelopment of Jewel & Esk College in Edinburgh is no exception. With a spectrum of potential complications, the £53.5 million rebuild presented challenges galore - although none was more likely to scupper the project than the thorny issue of funding.

A budget of £36 million was agreed with the Scottish Funding Council. However, when the design team was appointed, it was discovered that this amount was over £14 million short of what was required to meet the college’s needs.

The e:volve scheme is currently Scotland’s largest and most ambitious further education construction project.

It is split between two sites and has the aim of dragging the college’s facilities into the 21st century by replacing the existing buildings with two new purpose-built campuses due to open later this year.

The Midlothian campus is sited at Eskbank while the Edinburgh Campus is located at Milton Road.

While this physical division brought its own complications, the sheer scale of the task also tested the mettle of the construction team, main contractor Miller Construction, project manager Davis Langdon Mackenzie and the Edinburgh office of architectural firm RMJM.

When completed the 26,512 sq m project will have used around 8,500 tonnes of concrete and 1,000 tonnes of steel.

With scale and geography posing difficult questions, e:volve required painstaking preparation and precise execution, encapsulated in five separate planning applications.

In his welcome to students on the college’s website, Howard McKenzie, the principal at the college, outlines the challenge facing the team, saying that for the 2007-08 the college would continue to deliver the same courses, but all from one campus instead of two.

A major relocation

To deliver the extravagant makeover while maintaining a continuity of education, many of the college’s teaching activities were relocated to temporary accommodation at the Eskbank campus.

It was a decision that had massive implications says Steve Hudson, the client’s project director of the new-build programme.

“We took a bold decision to relocate our activities from the Edinburgh campus for one academic session. With all the associated fit-outs, it was effectively a separate construction project in its own right.

“It was logistically quite a major exercise to move 200 members of staff and 2,500 students up the road. But it was more than just physically creating space and moving people - it had an impact on the curriculum which had to be tweaked to ensure we secured student retention.”

Temporary accommodation

The college - formerly the Leith Nautical College - easily maintained the requisite student numbers, which is an achievement that shouldn’t be overlooked, says Davis Langdon Mackenzie project manager David Moore.

“The logistical elements of moving everybody up to one site has been huge,” he explains. “From the college’s point of view, the amount of planning and advanced warning they had to give students to make sure they were going to the right place at the start of the new academic year was staggering.”

“Getting the temporary accommodation was also a big construction challenge. Because the units were fabricated off-site, they all arrived and had to be pieced together. It was a tight programme that created 3,800 sq m of new space.”

The ambitious project consists of a number of new builds at both Eskbank and Milton Road and the redevelopment of the college’s current academic facilities which date back to the 1960s.

The new build is perhaps best exemplified by the 4,050 sq m steel-frame ‘Club’ building.

Continuous flight-augered piles and cell form beams were specified for the construction of the building, which will house a spa, gym, studio, treatment rooms and eateries and is where students studying hospitality, catering, health & fitness, beauty and hairdressing will learn their trade.

More than a college

It will have all the trappings of a top-end hotel, simulating the working environment students are likely to experience after graduation. It will also be open to the public.

Elsewhere on the Edinburgh site, the original Milton Road campus has been gutted, leaving a hollow shell that will house facilities for a modern, open-plan library, administrative offices and an expansive high-tech media suite.

On the Edinburgh campus alone, the process of removing the warren hole of dated corridors and offices in preparation for contemporary communal spaces and flexible classrooms ate into the project’s finances.

In fact, together with the new-build Club facility, the Edinburgh-campus refurbishment accounts for 36 per cent of the entire budget.

If the logistics of temporarily combining two campuses wasn’t difficult enough, imagine the dilemma facing the project team when the feasibility of the entire scheme fell into question after a funding discrepancy was unearthed.

Not only did it prompt a dramatic rethink, but it changed the course of the project and the future of the college.

“When you’re on site, you always expect little things to crop up,” says Mr Hudson, “but fundamentally there haven’t been any.

“The key problem on this project was funding, which was effectively a show-stopper back in December 2005.”

He explains that a business case was produced in 2004, with a development budget of £36 million providing 26,500 sq m of built or refurbished accommodation across the two existing campuses.

The proposal was put before the Scottish Funding Council and was approved.

Unfortunately, shortly after the design team was appointed, a cost-benchmarking exercise revealed some glaring oversights.

“We knew what our accommodation requirements were but we had to test the cost provisions set out in the business case,” says Mr Hudson.

“We did that and we realised it wasn’t even remotely conceivable to build that amount of accommodation within those cost provisions. It couldn’t be done.”

A subsequent meeting with the Funding Council in December 2005 confirmed the project wasn’t a £36 million build but was nearer to £50 million. “We were effectively short of somewhere between £14-16 million,” Mr Hudson recalls.

“We needed more help financially but there was no more money - the project was effectively blown out of the water.”

But by tweaking the design and relying on the buoyant Scottish property market the team was able to rescue the project.

Additional land was also released at the Milton Road campus and sold to a local developer for H2 million.

Imaginative use of materials

While the move secured the future of the project, it added additional weight to the goal of delivering cost efficiency.

“Given the constraints of the budget, we had to stretch our imaginations,” says Phil Gray, an associate architect at RMJM, “so we took standard materials and turned them on their head. We inverted the profile metal cladding on the Club Building which picked up on the nautical reference, given the history of the college.

“By using a typical industrial material in a totally different way, we’ve been able to lift it to a slightly nobler height.”

Applying the same methodology across both sites has also helped in the delivery of the project within budget.

“Duality, in terms of a metal cladding and a render system, has been driven through both campuses,” says Mr Gray. “But what’s more interesting is the substrate.

“It’s a Strongback system spanning directly between the main structural steels which has allowed us to sheen over the building as fast as possible in terms of accelerating wind and water tightness.

“But we’re also exposing the substrate internally which is normally a concealed system. So the liner sheeting is the internal finish.

“It gives us a different internal aesthetic and there are cost savings. It has become an efficient, cost effective, sensible build solution.”

The rebirth of Jewel & Esk College is a mammoth undertaking, certainly in terms of ensuring the continued delivery of education during the construction phase. But the project is far from simply being a logistical chore with a tight timeframe.

It also faced a potentially crippling funding shortfall that was overcome through ingenuity and gall.

With money as tight as ever, there’s lesson in there for all of us.

For Large images of the project click here

How clever use of planning consent filled the funding gap

Funding gaps had left the project dangling by a thread, but just as things looked irretrievable an innovative plan was hatched to raise the additional funds.

With their planning and agency consultants GVA Grimley, the e:volve team began looking at the college’s assets and how best to maximise them.

Outline planning consent was sought and granted across the entire Eskbank campus raising the land value significantly. Meanwhile a search for a new site nearby produced a remarkable result.

“Originally we were going to stay on the existing Eskbank site,” says Mr Hudson, “but we found a relocation site that just happened to be about the same size and on the other side of the road. That site cost us £3 million plus VAT to buy. Because we were successful in gaining residential planning permission on our existing site, we sold it for just under £23 million.

When we had it valued initially it was worth £15 million, so it was a fantastic piece of business for the college.”