Finally the pre-match talk is over and work on the English National Stadium, the new Wembley, has kicked off. At times it seemed that the politically charged project would never get built - and there are a few people out there who still don't believe it will. But work on the world's largest stadium is now (literally) piling on. From the beautiful and complex design, which includes the world's longest span roof structure, to the challenge of installing more than 3,700 enormous piles, everything about this job is extraordinary. Our eight-page Wembley special begins by looking at the challenges ahead for the project team. Emma Forrest talks to Paul Gandy, the managing director of the Australian main contractor, Multiplex
LANDMARK schemes are getting thin on the ground these days. With the days of Millennium projects receding into distant memory, there are few jobs that really capture the imagination. There are fewer still that contractors are inspired enough to stick with when the world and his wife have little faith they will ever be built.
Wembley Stadium is the exception. One of the most long-awaited construction jobs of recent times, it engages two British obsessions - football and politics.
As rows raged over the inclusion of an athletics track and upgrades of the surrounding transport infrastructure, it sometimes seemed the stadium would never get the finance it needed.
But while newspaper headlines and columnists ranted, contractors and designers got on with the business of how the stadium was actually going to be built.
'We have been here in one guise or another for two and a half years and on our own [after an early joint venture with Bovis was scrapped] for two years, ' says Paul Gandy, managing director of Wembley main contractor Multiplex.
Mr Gandy is well aware that half the construction industry thinks Multiplex is barking mad for taking on the deal - and the other half is just waiting for it to fail. But talking to the Australian contractor leaves you in no doubt how committed he and his firm are to the project. In short, Multiplex is determined to prove people wrong.
'I've had people on the phone asking why we got involved. The British seem to love knocking something that's already down, ' he says.
He prefers the Australian 'can-do' attitude.
He dismisses the suggestion that Wembley should not be touched with a bargepole because it is a one-off client.
'All our clients are one-offs at the moment. We've only been in the UK for three years and we have always had a very good relationship with Wembley National Stadium [WNSL], ' he says.
While lengthy delays have led to considerable criticism for the project, they have actually helped the contractor.
'There has been so much delay, ' says Mr Gandy. 'We had two years to work on our proposal and our methodology and our price. Some of our subcontractors have been in place for a year.
'Remember, this job is privately financed [by German bank West LB]. There is a phenomenal amount of due diligence that had to go on. This wasn't a case of price and then run a job.'
Mr Gandy believes there were two selling points that gave his company the edge over indigenous contractors, and helped it win the Wembley project.
'Stadia are strange animals and you don't often get the chance to practice with them. We were lucky, we had just come from doing something similar and had a lot of knowledge to transfer over, ' he says, referring to the group's experience building Stadium Australia for the Sydney Olympics.
He also points to the contractor's experience on PFI projects in Australia. 'Our private finance experience was a significant part of getting this project of the ground.
There were teams working on this for a year.'
Clear commitment at Multiplex's board was also crucial to its appointment.
'This is still a family business and the owner knows what we are doing, let alone the managing director, ' says Mr Gandy, who spends several days a week on site.
'There can't be many £550 million jobs where the owner will come and shake the client's hand and promise them a delivery.'
Talking to anyone working on Wembley, it is evident that they want to leave the politics behind. What needs to be told now is the story of the how the new stadium is going to be built.
'Clearly this job is extremely important to us. But anyone who is interested in construction would be interested in this, ' says David Hendries, the Multiplex director who runs the firm's Wembley team. His team has been whittled down to a 'handful' as subcontractors have been able to start in earnest after getting the go-ahead.
The sheer size of the job is now becoming apparent to everyone involved and has to be seen to be believed. In fact, it is so large that a bus service has to ferry workers from one side of the site to another. The tangled remains of the old stadium only accounts for about half the new development, while the footprint of the new stadium includes the coach park that fronted the previous building.
Surprisingly little of what is going into the stadium is particularly complex; there is just an awful lot of it.
'This is the type of project where you have to check you have your scales worked out the right way round, ' laughs Mr Gandy. 'The base is 330 m across - it's an enormous distance. When we were first setting out the perimeter of the job we couldn't believe it.'
Multiplex's first task was to deal with the considerable in-situ infrastructure. The power for the nearby conference centre and surrounding trading estates - all 11,000 V of it - was sourced from the site.
'Gas, water, sewage and drainage for our neighbours were all planned for six months before we took over and taken on concurrently with starting on site. Once it was done we could forget about it, ' says Mr Gandy.
With demolition scheduled for completion by the end of February (see box), the site will then be ready for structural work, starting with 16 slip-formed concrete towers to form the sheer cores for the stadium's steel frame.
'In a few weeks there will be a forest of them, ' says Mr Gandy.
'The next challenge is get the structure ready in time for the arch, ' adds Mr Hendries.
Erection of the giant steel arch that dominates the new stadium is critical to the job.
'Raising the arch is key. It will take four or five months from September to assemble on the southern side of the stadium. Once raised, it will allow us to complete the balance of the whole circular structure, the structural steel and the roof erection. We can then lock the arch in its permanent position, ' says Mr Hendries.
'We've done a few major landmark structures and hopefully we understand them, ' says Mr Gandy. 'This plays to Cleveland Bridge's skills. It is very akin to a bridge structure.'
Despite its size, the job to raise the arch should only take a weekend. Long before that can happen, though, careful planning needs to be undertaken on site logistics. Demolition, piling, concrete and earth works have all been given their own zones on a site that is large but has very little room left over.
'We have contractual rights to get in and out of the site and to get it built. That sounds simple but it's not when you have £5 million or £6 million worth of materials a month, ' says Mr Gandy.
Around 20 per cent of materials are delivered through a just-in-time system and constructed in situ. A further 25 per cent are prefabricated and over 50 per cent arrive in component form.
Surrounding areas are continually monitored for offsite storage facilities to store a year's worth of pre-cast material. A perimeter road has also been handed over for Multiplex's use and closed to the public.
'Having Quintain [the property developer charged with redeveloping the surrounding area] as our neighbour makes life much easier. They understand these issues, ' says Mr Gandy.
In days when partnership has become a buzz word often repeated but perhaps not too often followed, Multiplex believes in talking first and acting later.
Workshops have been held between main and subcontractor to thrash out problems. Perhaps more crucially given the current skills shortage in the UK construction industry, Multiplex managers also hold weekly meetings with at least one of the on-site union representatives.
With reports of massive wage deals being negotiated on Heathrow's Terminal 5, Wembley could be a target for similar action. But Mr Gandy believes working with the unions should alert the company to any potential problems.
'We have watched T5 with interest. We want our contractors to do the decent thing by their workers. In Australia, unions are traditionally very much part of the process. But you can never be relaxed about it. It is always an issue, ' he says.
'If you have a relationship then you can talk and be forewarned, ' adds Mr Hendries.
It remains to be seen if Wembley can stay a strife-free zone, but it has the advantage over other sites that plenty of skilled contractors and workers want to work there.
Working on the national stadium certainly seems to be a pull when it comes to attracting labour. And as work tails off in central London, there are fewer tower cranes competing for men with the four resident at Wembley.
One possible threat is Heathrow's Terminal Five, just around the corner. But the implication at Multiplex's offices is that, as big as T5 is, an airport is still just an airport - and being able to show your children that you helped build the national stadium will always have the edge over building an airport terminal building.
Although Mr Gandy credits the area's transport links and a scheme run in conjunction with Brent Council to recruit labour from the local area, he admits the scheme's pulling power is the driving force in attracting workers.
'We will peak at 1,500 workers in mid 2004. T5 is on a different scale in terms of volume of work but we are on a different scale in terms of interest. The guys love being on the job - as do we, ' he says.
'It already feels like we have been here for a lifetime but this is a once-in-a-career opportunity.'