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Bam puts together glass jigsaw in Birmingham

The contractor is tackling challenges on multiple fronts to keep a commercial legacy job on track.

Project: 3 Snowhill
Contract value: £98.1m
Contract type: 
JCT Design & Build 2011 with bespoke amendments
Main contractor: Bam Construct
Demolition: Coleman Specialist Cutting Services
Concrete and slipform cores: Thames Formwork
Steel frame: Severfield NI
Façade: Structal UK
Mechanical and electrical (self delivery): Bam Services Engineering
Start date: March 2016
Completion date: April 2019

Ballymore’s Snowhill project is located in a crucial site in Birmingham’s central business district adjacent to Snow Hill railway station and the Midland Metro tram line. Once occupied by Oppenheim’s Glassworks – the first documented glassworks in the city – the site was home to a surface level car park following the redevelopment of the railway station in 1970.

The final phase of Ballymore’s long running scheme, which has seen the completion of two commercial buildings (see box), has proven the most problematic. The original idea was for two towers: a 43-storey apartment building and a 23-storey hotel. Work started on the project, but was put on indefinite hold in 2008 as the global financial crisis took hold.

As a result, Ballymore went back to the drawing board and decided instead to try to emulate the success of 1 and 2 Snowhill, says Bam Construct construction manager Paul Avery.

“On the back of the success of Snowhill 1 and Snowhill 2, Ballymore decided to go back to the same philosophy and instead of building the towers, they would do the same as the first two buildings,” he says.

After several years of development hiatus, Bam was eventually appointed as main contractor on what came to be known as 3 Snowhill – a 90m, 420,000 sq ft office that will be the tallest building in the development.

Long-running scheme

The first phase of the project involved levelling St Chad’s Circus on the inner ring road to create a new square adjacent to St Chad’s Cathedral.

Then came 1 Snowhill, a 260,000 sq ft, 57 m-tall office building, which was completed by main contractor Kier in 2009. Occupied by KPMG, Barclays and DWF, the building was acquired by Commerz Real in January 2010.

2 Snowhill followed in May 2013, comprising 14 floors and 313,000 sq ft of office space and 8,000 sq ft of ground-floor retail units.

The building was acquired by Hines ahead of completion in 2011 and let to Wragge Lawrence Graham & Co and accountancy and business advisory firm BDO Global, among others.

Bam bid for the contract to build 2 Snowhill but was unsuccessful, with Balfour Beatty appointed. However, Mr Avery says the contractor learned lessons from the experience that it could use when bidding for 3 Snowhill. 

“We learned things about the project, but also set our stall out clearly in terms of how we wanted to win the job – the relationship we wanted to build with the client and the design team,” he says.

“Ultimately [on 2 Snowhill], we lost out on cost,” Mr Avery says. “That informed how we bid for 3 Snowhill, but we still followed our typical Bam path – we’ve never tried to buy work. However, we approached it more innovatively, so we were probably a bit more forthcoming with value-engineering ideas. We worked more closely with the design team so they could understand the value of what we were offering rather than just the cost savings.”

“We filled the existing basement structure with concrete to spread the load”

Paul Avery, Bam Construct

One of the first challenges of building 3 Snowhill was dealing with the legacy of the original, stalled scheme. After all, construction had already begun when work was abandoned in 2008, leaving the cores for the intended buildings substantially complete. Unfortunately, they were also in the wrong places for the revised scheme.

“We filled the existing basement structure with concrete to spread the load and enable us to reposition the cores in the locations where they were required for a traditional rectangular building, rather than two semi-circular cores for the previous scheme,” says Mr Avery.

“Then we had a whole host of technical works to allow us to slot through the existing five-level basement structure to bring the core walls to B1 so we could slipform from B1 to level 19.”

Overcoming bad intel

Unfortunately, he adds, not all of the legacy information on the project provided at bid stage correlated with what had actually been delivered, which added another layer of complexity.

“We struggled a bit because some of the information that we had from the as built information – the drawings – wasn’t quite as it actually was in the basement area,” Mr Avery says. “So we had to mitigate those issues and problems. But we worked our way through it and managed to deal with it in short order.”

The close proximity of both the railway and tram stations could have become challenges too, but Mr Avery says Bam worked closely with all the relevant parties to ensure the projected involved the minimum disruption possible.

3 snowhill bam 5

3 snowhill bam 5

“We’ve got three tower cranes and we’re right up against Network Rail land, so we worked closely with them from the very early days,” he says. “As part of putting together our detailed logistics plan, we had to have buy in from all parties. That’s in terms of where the tower cranes went and the specific requirements of having tower cranes next to railway lines.”

It wasn’t just the railway and tram line Bam had to consider. The site is also on the main A38 arterial road next to the main tunnels that feed in and out of Birmingham, meaning there was the potential for severe traffic disruption if works weren’t handled with great care.

“[People] will probably look back in the fullness of time at 2017/18 as a harsh winter”

Paul Avery, Bam Construct

“There were also highways permissions [to temporarily manage traffic] to do – we took out one of the carriageways on Snowhill and had a proper unloading area on the main arterial road.”

Another challenge on the project was delivered courtesy of Mother Nature. Quite simply, this year the UK endured one of harshest winters in recent memory, which sawt Bam down tools for days at a time in the interests of health and safety. “We’ve had what can only be described as a long, hard, windy winter period,” says Mr Avery.

“[People] will probably look back in the fullness of time at 2017/18 as a harsh winter – we certainly will. But we’ve worked through it. We complete in April of next year. It will be a challenge and we will be busy, but it’s still doable – I’m confident of that.”

Method in madness

Looking at the 3 Snowhill site from street level today, the installation of the fenestration seems almost haphazard – it certainly doesn’t seem to follow any logical progression up or around the façade. There is, however, method in the apparent madness: the installation of the glass is necessarily complicated owing to the building’s design.

“You’ve got a steel frame building and you’ve got a lot of different types of glass,” says Mr Avery. “A lot of that is because of solar shading and heat loss and heat gain, and how that links in with the heating and cooling system. As a result, you’ve got different types of glass and different performance criteria.

“The glass comes from Germany and was manufactured into the units in France. It’s quite specialist and complicated in how it comes together from a component perspective and how it’s installed on site. It’s a bit of jigsaw puzzle really.”

In terms of the next stages, the steel frame was completed at the end of May, which has represented a serious accomplishment – this is, after all, one of the largest grade A speculative office building currently under construction outside London. In total, the steel frame comprises 9,910 pieces of steel delivered on 240 loads. To keep to programme, Bam has been operating double shifts, with construction taking place between 6am and 10pm.

3 snowhill bam 7

3 snowhill bam 7

With the steel frame complete, attention is turning to the next phases of the project. “The next critical item is concreting the floors,” says Mr Avery. “Then there are the MEP works – we’re up to level nine with those – and then it’s about casting the roof slab in June and starting to install all the heavy roof plant.”

After that, Bam will be able to move on to the fit-out, although its commitments under the contract are minimal. “We’re contracted to do the cat A fit-out for levels one to nine only,” says Mr Avery. “The contract is based on a worst-case scenario that at practical completion 50 per cent of the net lettable space has to be finished to cat A fitout. So, that’s working on the basis that at practical completion nobody will have taken any floors.”

Provided that the UK in general and the West Midlands in particular doesn’t suffer another unusually harsh winter, 3 Snowhill should complete on time. The pressure is now not just on Bam, but on Ballymore’s letting agents to replicate the success of the building’s two predecessors.

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