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Gurney goes back o n the road again

EARTHMOVING - With a head office in Norwich, it was unsurprising that local outfit May Gurney won a £22 million contract to increase the capacity of the A11 at nearby Attleborough. Alasdair Reisner reports on the firm's progress

YOU COULD say that for May Gurney the A11 is a road well travelled. Back in 1975, when the firm was involved in the £6 million Cringleford bypass project, staff were unlikely to have thought that they would still be there more than 30 years later.

But the road, which runs between London and May Gurney's home town of Norwich, has seen a continual growth in traffic volume, so the firm has been called back time and t ime again either to expand it or to bypass villages and towns on its route, such as Attleborough and Thetford.

The last time the firm worked on the A11 was to improve the road between Roudham Heath and Attleborough under a £33 million contract for the Highways Agency. As that job was finishing in March 2003 the agency was putting together proposals for the dualing of the next section along, the Attleborough bypass that May Gurney had built 20 years previously.

With such experience in the area, presumably winning the £22 million scheme was a shoe-in for the Norwich outfit.

Not necessarily, according to May Gurney site manager Ewan Barr, although he admits the firm's local knowledge certainly came in handy.

'With one exception, ' he says, 'May Gurney has built every bit of the A11 dualing from Thetford up to Norwich, so we have enough local knowledge and good relationships with the local farmers and communit ies. We also had knowledge of the ground conditions, so we had quite an advantage there.

'Also we know what realistic market rates are.

When we put our target price together we could quite easily stand up and account for it to the client.'

The scheme is the first Early Contractor Involvement deal run by the Highways Agency in the east of England. While there have been other ECI jobs elsewhere, Mr Barr reckons the A11 scheme shows the way forward for the procurement model.

He says: 'This project has been referred to by the Highways Agency as the model ECI project. Other ECI projects had problems with overspend and inaccurate target costs. What the agency likes about this job is that we are on programme and on budget.

That is a result of ECI and our ability to bring local knowledge on board.'

May Gurney was awarded the job in February 2003 but didn't actually start work on site until last August. As with all ECI deals, the time between contract award and start on site is taken up with the contractor team working together with the agency and its designers to get the project through its public inquiry and detailed design, allowing the contractor to bring its expertise to the job, hopefully bringing both t ime and cost savings.

'The big benefit of ECI is obviously programme, ' continues Mr Barr. 'It was a scheme that only came off the draft drawing board in 2003 but will be finished in the early part of 2007. That is four years.

A normal scheme of this size would take eight years.

'The excellent relationship between ourselves and local people was partly a result of the success of the earlier A11 Roudham Heath project.

'It's a measure of the strength of that relationship that we had a very small number of objections to this project at the public enquiry, which allowed the scheme to go forward quickly.

'The other big advantage of Early Contractor Involvement has been our input on buildability and choice of materials. It has been recognised by designers that the biggest input has been to drive the programme. When they haven't got an element of the design finished we have been able to say that we can drive on past that. Programme is king.'

If programme is king, then the site team had been put through a punishing couple of weeks prior to Construction News's visit to the site. At a key stage in the earthworks the heavens had opened, leaving the team unable to do much as the rain tu rned the site into a quagmire. Fortunately, time savings made previously in the project offered a bit of a cushion against the effects of this deluge and works are now cracking along again at a healthy pace.

'We were doing pretty well. We were two weeks ahead of programme but we have lost that in the last fortnight because of the rain. We had a very good winter but a very miserable May. But we now have a lot of resources out there, ' says Mr Barr.

With one eye on sustainability, it is becoming increasingly important to ensure that there is an earthworks balance on all major new road schemes; that is, ensuring that the amount of material removed in cutting matches the amount used as fill, thus negat ing the need to import or export more mater ial than absolutely necessary.

'We have to do a certain amount of cut and a certain amount of fill. It's a bit of chance and a bit of good luck that there was pret ty much an earthworks balance in the first case. What we have tried to do as the project progresses is to continue to refine that balance so that it is a complete balance. We thought from the outset that there was going to be a minor shortfall and that we were going to have to import a certain amount of fill. We have refined the design by changing construction depths and have tried to recover some materials.

'We have a thinner pavement design, so there is less impor t of black top. We have no import of sub-base material. We've created a few bunds on site. Through discussions with one of the local farmers we have created a screen bund. We are not obliged to do it, but he wanted it and we had material in that locality. We went to the planning authority and now everyone is happy, ' he says.

As a result of this work, the balance has been struck with the total amount of muckshift on the job coming out at around 108,000 cu m cut and the same amount of fill. One major movement of material was created by the need to establish a flood mitigation compensation area by the side of the road. This involved taking a 400 m by 300 m area of flood plain and digging it out to create extra capacity for flood waters.

Mr Barr says: 'In the process, we saw that there was some prime aggregate in the gravels, which we excavated out and reprocessed with plant on site.

Instead of importing sub-base we have used this type one material. It was something we picked up when we were calculating the target cost. Once we got in there and found it, we found the seam went further than we thought, so we negotiated to take as much as we could to use in the scheme.'

One might have thought that, given all the work that was done up-front to prepare the scheme, the team would have taken every opportunity to bring in innovation to further streamline the process, trying out new techniques to accelerate towards completion.

But Mr Barr says that this was not the case.

'We have tried to steer away from major innovation.

We have tried to keep r isk as low as possible. What we are trying to do is give certainty to the client, certainty of programme and certainty of cost.

'We had at one point proposed to use polyurethane fill for the permanent formwork for the Queenswood Bridge. It was seen as innovative. One of the first things I did on this job was to stop that. What we want is the certainty that. It has around the same cost and performance as more traditional methods - so why not stick with what you know?'

By sticking with what it knows, in an area that it knows, May Gurney seems to be doing pretty well on the A11 and is on schedule for completion in spring 2007.

With further sections of the road also earmarked for improvement it is possible that May Gurney may be working on the A11 for some time to come.