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Army deadline pushes Lovell to outpace private sector

The MoD’s Army Basing Programme must produce 1,200 homes by 2020, driving the contractor to deliver units at breakneck speed under its £250m deal.

Project: Salisbury Plain – Army Basing Programme
Client: Ministry of Defence
Contract value: £250m
Main contractor: Lovell
Groundwork subcontractor: Chasetown Civil Engineering
Start date: January 2018
Completion date: May 2020

With its rolling chalk escarpments and downland giving way to the broader grass flatlands of Salisbury Plain, it is difficult to imagine a more quintessentially English landscape than that found in east Wiltshire.

This slice of rural idyll is sparsely populated, largely thanks to the Ministry of Defence which owns almost 400 sq km of land as part of its training estate.

The MoD has been part of Salisbury Plain since the beginning of the 20th century and the area’s heritage is difficult to miss. Army camps abound and the names of past battles are reflected in the road network.

Now the area in entering another chapter in its military history. Under the Army Basing Programme, which will see the eventual relocation of the UK’s troops from Germany, more than 1,200 homes for service families are being built across the country, with the vast majority – some 917 – to be located across three sites on Salisbury Plain.

Housebuilder Lovell has won a £250m deal under this programme covering 225 homes at the Bulford Camp, 242 at Ludgershall and 450 at Larkhill.

Bid in July 2016 and marketed under the Southern Construction Framework, the deal was delivered through a two-stage tender process – with the first stage being a short step intended to move the tender onto the preferred bidder stage quickly.

MoD Ministry of Defence Army Basing Programme Bulford Salisbury Plain military base Lovell L5

MoD Ministry of Defence Army Basing Programme Bulford Salisbury Plain military base Lovell L5

Timber-frame construction was selected for its speed and proven delivery

“The first stage was entirely qualitative,” says Lovell project director John Leary. “There were responses to a handful of searching questions. I guess this was for initial, further sifting of framework-approved candidates before we moved quickly on to [stage] two in August 2016, which was 50:50 price:qualitative.”

That qualitative part of the second stage included submissions under key headings including financial control, supply chain, design management and programme.

Fast-track plan

Programme is an area of particular interest. With the MoD set to relocate all its troops and families from German bases by 2020, Lovell must deliver all 917 houses within two years. It is a fast-track building plan.

“When the army has a deadline you have to stick to it,” Mr Leary says. “There is no room for manoeuvre. It needs to relocate service personnel and their families by 2020. We have to have the accommodation available for them.”

Lessons to learn for the private sector?

Delivering so many newly built houses so quickly could be the norm rather than the exception, according to Lovell project director John Leary.

Across the three Salisbury Plain sites the Lovell team is delivering 26 new houses each week, which is attributed to a highly motivated supply chain and a well-managed construction process.

“We were fortunate here in that we had a long lead-in preconstruction and a client that knew exactly what it wanted,” Mr Leary says. “I genuinely believe that a large proportion of the success we have had is because of the ‘can-do’ mindset.”

The Lovell team was awarded the £250m contract in November 2017 a year after being named preferred bidder. Thanks to the long lead-in time, the team was able to plan the construction process and look at areas where efficiencies could be gained.

“There isn’t that time in private housebuilding,” he says. “There is no doubt in my mind that these efficiencies can be extended to the private sector if firms are given time to plan correctly. It also helps that a client knows exactly what is required and doesn’t deviate too far from that.”

With such a tight build schedule the Lovell team had to fall back on all its experience to determine how it could meet its targets.

Conventional thinking, coupled with the government’s recent push towards modern methods of construction, all pointed to prefabricated building systems such as structural insulated panels as the simplest way to hit the required build rate.

“It was a one-horse race for us in terms of construction style”

John Leary, Lovell

But Mr Leary and the rest of the Lovell team has rejected the use of SIPS and any volumetric systems, instead opting to use timber frame. Although regarded as a modern method of construction in England and Wales, it is widely used in Scotland where it accounts for 75 per cent of new houses, according to figures from housing research body NHBC Foundation.

“Our view is that none of the modular offerings that are available are mature enough in the market for us to have confidence in their ability to deliver on such a landmark project,” Mr Leary explains. “It was a one-horse race for us in terms of construction style and was always going to be timber frame. It’s a proven method of construction that offers us the pace of delivery we need and is a method that our client is happy for us to use.”

Pilot project learnings

It is also a method that the Lovell team has used successfully on a similar MoD project – albeit with fewer units to deliver – in Staffordshire. The methodology and learning gleaned from that scheme has helped on the Salisbury Plain project.

MoD Ministry of Defence Army Basing Programme Bulford Salisbury Plain military base Lovell L4

MoD Ministry of Defence Army Basing Programme Bulford Salisbury Plain military base Lovell L4

The homes feature PV panels among their efficiency measures

“There are similarities but there are also fundamental differences,” Mr Leary continues. “In Staffordshire the site was right next to a motorway so logistically it was relatively simple to supply the site. That is not the case here. Local trades have the pick of going to work in London, Southampton, Swindon or Bristol. We have to be very competitive if we are to attract and keep them, and we are reliant on the ability of our suppliers to deliver materials on time.”

The timber frames are fabricated by two firms Lovell has appointed: Oxfordshire-based Stewart Milne Timber Systems and Herefordshire firm Taylor Lane Timber Frame. Each delivers exclusively to one of the smaller sites at Bulford and Ludgershall, while both companies supply the 450-home site at Larkhill.

The timber panels and floor cassette are assembled and delivered to site with the roof carcass fabricated at ground or first-floor level. The completed carcass is then lifted into position once the frame has reached the correct level, reducing any requirement for working at height.

It is a regimented workflow. Groundwork contractor Chasetown Civil Engineering prepares each house plot before the scaffolding team moves in to erect the system scaffold. The timber frame is then installed, the roof going on before the windows and doors are placed and the brick cladding installed. It is only once the building is weathertight with gas water and electricity feeds that any work is carried out on the interior.

MoD Ministry of Defence Army Basing Programme Bulford Salisbury Plain military base Lovell L6

MoD Ministry of Defence Army Basing Programme Bulford Salisbury Plain military base Lovell L6

Work must be completed in time for the final troop relocations in 2020

“We don’t go near the inside until it is fully bricked out,” Mr Leary adds. “It extends the time spent on the plot, but improves the overall efficiency, so we win that time back further down the line.”

The Lovell team is certainly doing something right. Currently it is managing to complete the homes at the astonishing rate of 26 per week, a figure that Mr Leary is confident will increase as the sites develop. This compares more than favourably against similar-sized projects in the private sector.

There are many areas the UK needs to look at if the housing shortage is to be tackled. The MoD’s rapidly emerging housing developments suggest that rethinking and improving the delivery process could be a good place to start.

Three sites, three different challenges

There are three separate sites that make up the Salisbury Plain project: Bulford, Larkhill and Ludgershall, each with its own nuances that the Lovell team has had to face.

Bulford has seen the team carry out remediation work on contaminated and made ground, while at Ludgershall below-ground structures including air raid shelters had to be dealt with before construction began.

At Larkhill, the project team redesigned the plans in an attempt to mitigate some of the difficulties presented by the natural terrain. This delayed work at the site – the largest with 450 houses – while planners reassessed the revised scheme.

“The original plan didn’t address the contours of the site,” Mr Leary says. “There is a 25 m fall across it, so we would have required lots of retaining structures and made the completed scheme more difficult to manage for our client. There has been significant cut and fill across that site to combat those issues.”

That fill means that Larkhill has some areas that will need to be piled, but it has also seen the project team uncover some interesting archaeology reflecting the area’s military heritage.

A full-scale tunnel and trench training network dating back to the First World War has been uncovered by historians at Wessex Archaeology.

They painstakingly excavated and mapped the network of trenches, tunnels and dug-outs that were used by the army to train troops before they were sent to the Western Front.

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