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Bam builds Birmingham free school helped by local volunteers

The local Sikh community has added £1.1m to the EFA’s funding through voluntary labour, finance and materials to help deliver a new multi-faith school build.

Project: Nishkam High School, Birmingham
Client: Guru Nanak Nishkam Sewak Jatha
Contract value: £9.5m
Region: West Midlands
Main contractor: Bam Construction
Funding: EFA £8.4m, Nishkam community £1.1m
Start date: April 2013
Completion date: September 2014

The inner-city district of Hockley in Birmingham boasts a rich industrial heritage and can lay claim to being at the crucible of the industrial revolution.

The second city’s famous Jewellery Quarter is based in Hockley and sent precious trinkets around the world during the days of the Empire, while Birmingham Mint produced coins and trade tokens for countries including Russia, Chile, Australia and France.

One of Hockley’s largest employers was the business started by local man Joseph Lucas.

With its headquarters in Great King Street, his business went from selling paraffin to local families to become an international supplier of components to the automotive and aerospace industries.

Somehow the art deco grandeur of the Lucas building was missed by the town planners and it was levelled some years ago, replaced by unassuming light industrial units.

From industrial to educational

Now, however, a building that threatens to bring back some of the area’s majesty is closing in on completion.

The Nishkam High School is a Sikh ethos, multi-faith school that provides a secondary school and a sixth form for boys and girls aged 11 to 19 years.

Set up under the government’s free school initiative, it moved into one of the industrial units and opened its doors for the first time in September 2012.

Since then it has gone from strength to strength, with enrolment applications far outstripping classroom places.

To meet this demand, a new school building is under construction that will see students move from the adapted industrial unit and into a gleaming new facility more suited to their needs.

Contractor Bam Construction is heading up the team that will deliver the new building and then transform the existing facility into a sports hall with extra teaching space.

All standard stuff, you would think.

Locals help finance and deliver project

But for project manager Paul Hayfield, the scheme is far from standard.

As part of the contract, the Sikh community have volunteered to work alongside Bam staff. This is not just a couple of hours on site on the way home from work.

The added value to the contract the volunteer workforce has added is in excess of £1m, bringing the overall project value to £9.5m, with £8.4m provided by the Education Funding Agency. It is a staggering amount.

“We knew from the early stages of the project that there would be an element of a volunteer workforce, but I don’t think anyone at Bam was really prepared for the full scale of it,” Mr Hayfield says.

“The kar-sewa approach added a minimum £1.1m contribution to the EFA grant funding. That contribution is a sum total of financial input, volunteer labour and the supply of additional materials”

Harpal Singh Kundi, GNNSJ

The Sikh faith advocates taking on community projects, with devotees offering selfless service or ‘kar-sewa’. It is through this that the Nishkam community has managed to provide such a fillip to the school project.

“The scheme is sponsored by Guru Nanak Nishkam Sewak Jatha and was significantly enhanced by the community’s volunteering effort adopting the Sikh traditional kar-sewa model,” explains GNNSJ project manager Harpal Singh Kundi.

“The kar-sewa approach added a minimum £1.1m contribution to the EFA grant funding. That contribution is a sum total of financial input, on-site volunteer labour and the supply of additional materials.”

Extra cash means finer finishes

It is clear the extra cash has been spent on some of the finer finishes around the school.

The white limestone arches that welcome pupils, staff and visitors through the main entrance gleam in the sunlight and have been skilfully engraved with the school’s name. The huge volunteer workforce certainly hasn’t delivered a DIY finish.

“It has been one of the joys of the project,” Mr Hayfield says. “The sewa workforce have been a pleasure to work with.

“Our standards haven’t dropped and whenever we have had to ask the volunteers to redo some work they have done so happily.”

He does admit that there were initial concerns about the sewa workforce – working out their levels of experience, how volunteers and staff would work alongside one another as well as insurance and safety concerns, but these were soon overcome.

“They’re here because they want to be here and that is reflected in the hours they have put in. The sewa workforce has sometimes worked three shifts a day”

Paul Hayfield, Bam Construction

“Some of the trades are Nishkam preferred subcontractors – the stonemasons and bricklayers too – but we have had to make sure everyone was fully versed with the health and safety side of things and get some of them their CSCS cards,” he says.

With a site crawling with volunteers eager to get the project completed, the Bam team has needed to cover the extra shifts the sewa staff have been working.

“Their willingness to work has been incredible,” Mr Hayfield says. “It really has been a special project.

“They’re here because they want to be here and that is reflected in the hours they have put in. The sewa workforce has sometimes worked three shifts a day.”

With the work on the main building coming to a close, the Bam team is ready to move over to the former industrial unit and begin its conversion to a sports hall with gym facilities.

This is expected to take 20 weeks of the project’s overall 72-week programme and Mr Hayfield is confident that with such a motivated workforce on hand the team will bring the project in on that timescale.

“We have a fantastic scheme with a building that has been constructed safely, to a high specification and is being delivered on time and on budget,” he says.

“If you can tick all those boxes then you know just how good a project it has been.”

Advanced design

The Bam Construct team moved onto the Nishkam High School site in April 2013 after the existing buildings had been demolished and cleared.

Inheriting a progressive concept design from the tendering stages, the team has used cast insitu reinforced concrete as the framing material, with post-tensioned concrete beams to cater for the 8 to 10 m spans within the building.

“We took on the concept design that had been carried out by Jacobs,” Mr Hayfield explains. “It was very advanced. The concrete frame and post-tensioned slabs are better for the programme. It’s much quicker.”

The three-storey structure is supported on 170 CFA piles, which have been installed across the site to depths of up to 4 m.

The building itself features science and maths classrooms on the second floor, while general teaching, arts and materials, music and staff rooms are located on the first floor, along with a library.

The ground floor boasts the main reception area served by two main stair cores, one lift and further set of stairs into the library, as well as dining areas, office space and kitchens.

All these rooms are sited around the periphery of the building, with a large central open spiritual space reaching from ground floor to ceiling.

Supported on a steel frame, a huge 15 m-diameter ETFE thermoplastic skylight in the roof allows light to flood into the triangular spiritual space.


Sikh ethos drives build

“We believe strongly in installing values, ethics and morals in children through education,” says GNNSJ project manager Harpal Singh Kundi of the new school.

“We also believe that delivering very good-quality infrastructure and buildings will help us to do that.”

This belief has helped shape the building, with the Bulgarian limestone arches at the main entrance reflecting the arches so common in religious architecture.

“There is an element of heritage in the design,” he says. “It is quite neo-classical. As you enter the building the key is to create a feeling of peace and spirituality for those students and staff of all faiths.

“Domes are prevalent in Sikh architecture, but also in that of other faiths. It is intended to be a nice, warm and welcoming place.”

Traditional the architecture may be, but the way all the aspects of the project have worked together has been far from traditional.

From day one there has been an open avenue for discussion between client, workforce, contractor and end-user, with the school’s executive principal Terry Green heavily involved.

“Right from the first engagement meetings there has been an open, informative and transparent relationship between us all. It really has worked well,” he says.

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