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Booming discount retailer puts Kier to work in Wales

Contractor has had to convince Trago Mills to take a leap of faith on a steel-frame solution for the retailer’s first foray outside the South-west.

Project: Trago Mills Merthyr Tydfil
Client: Trago Mills
Contract type: JCT Design and build
Contract value: £39m
Region: Wales
Main contractor: Kier Western and Wales
Steelwork subcontractor: Hayes Engineering
M&E subcontractor: Lorne Stewart

For holidaymakers making their way to Devon and Cornwall this summer, the words ‘Trago Mills’ will be hard to avoid.

The discount stores in Falmouth, Liskeard and Newton Abbot – alongside the Trago Family Fun Park the forms part of the Newton Abbot site – are a magnet for families, their characteristic white-clad towers enjoying almost legendary status in the South-west.

The retailer’s ‘pile ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap’ model has worked well and now the firm is looking to expand beyond its South-west comfort zone by opening its next outlet in the valleys of south Wales.

Plans for the store go back as far as the mid-1990s when the first planning application was submitted. Main contractor Kier Construction became involved in the project in 2008, but the economic downturn mothballed plans for a few years until they were finally revisited in 2015.

Senior project manager Cyril Glennon is charged with delivering the 33,000 sq m development on a huge former industrial site, overlooking the town of Merthyr Tydfil.

Big store, big site

The construction site for the new store is set across 18 ha, with the entire development site spanning almost 50 ha on land that was formerly part of the Cyfarthfa Ironworks. Fortunately for the Kier team, the site had already been remediated and grouted, but there was still work for site preparation subcontractor Churngold to plough through.

Kier Trago Tower Mills 2

Kier Trago Tower Mills 2

The 33,000 sq m development sits on a huge former industrial site, overlooking the town of Merthyr Tydfil

“It is a big store on a a big site. It is split across two levels with the store being on the lower plateau,” Mr Glennon says. “It was mainly a case of managing the migration of water across and through the site. It had already been grouted and treated, but it held water so we needed to make sure we treated that correctly before redistributing it.”

The store itself is actually an array of separate buildings. There are 20 in total across the site, from the cavernous main carpet and retail floor down to the 14 sq m ice cream parlour. There is also a mezzanine space in the warehouse and an office block and staff facility that will be built to help serve the final scheme.

But the seemingly piecemeal nature of the development belies the steel frame that is common throughout the project – and represents a departure from other stores that was brought up at the tender stage.

Steel redesign

At that stage, designs for its construction featured traditional build techniques, but there were concerns about sourcing the volume of materials and the numbers of tradesmen needed for a brickwork and blockwork build. Following detailed discussion with an initially unsure client, the delivery team developed a steel frame and cladding solution.

“That is quite different from what the client has done before and took quite a leap of faith for them”

Cyril Glennon, Kier Construction

“There was pressure on the budget and so we [thought about] where savings could be made,” Mr Glennon says. “We looked at the original concept of the traditional build and talked to the client about the benefit to cost and [the] construction programme that a steel-frame solution would have.

“We have managed to persuade them that steel frame and cladding would be the best way to build the store. That is quite different from what the client has done before and it took quite a leap of faith for them. Fortunately, they have completely embraced the design and we’ve managed to continue the theme of the different buildings that is common across the other Trago Mills sites.”

Weather worries

The Kier team has been helped along the way by comparatively benign weather. This part of south Wales is famous for its precipitation and the wind can really howl down the valleys from the top of the Brecon Beacons, potentially disrupting work.

“We are only a couple of miles from the snowline of the Beacons and it is not unusual to get 6-8 inches of snow,” Mr Glennon says.

“We have had five mobile and some self-erecting cranes on [the site] and we have had to stand them down a few times because of the wind, but nothing that we didn’t expect. There was an option to put some photovoltaics on the roof but this is classed as an area of ‘extreme exposure’ so that wasn’t taken up.”

Instead, the roof will remain as a steel-standing seam system, all 33,000 sq m of it – not forgetting the prefabricated sections for the Trago Towers. Meanwhile, the building will glean the bulk of its energy efficiency through its airtightness, which is targeted at 4 ac h (air change per hour).

That energy efficiency will get sorely tested when the doors to the latest Trago Mills store opens in spring 2018. Merthyr Tydfil is well connected to mid-Wales and south Wales’s largest towns of Newport, Cardiff and Swansea. The client is confident the success of the Cyfarthfa Retail Park opposite the site gives a positive indication of the prospects for its new outlet.

That theme includes the white ‘Trago Towers’ that have become a feature of the stores, with this site featuring 17 different ones. Here, however, they have been given a makeover and are prefabricated using GRP panels for the roof section.

Although the site had been remediated and needed some water mitigation work, the ground is good. The lightweight frame of the new building, coupled with the solid stratum, allowed the team to install strip and pad foundations and 275 mm-thick groundbearing slabs throughout the warehouse areas.

“The ground is very stable here – we are almost casting directly onto bedrock,” Mr Glennon says. “Any arisings have been retained on the site and will be incorporated either into this scheme or held for any further development that may be planned.”

Whopping warehouse

The main warehouse building is over 370 m long and split into five sections.

When the onsite team was casting the reinforced concrete slabs, it was taking delivery of up to 400 cu m of concrete from Breedon Aggregates batching plant in nearby Tredegar for each pour – enough to tie the plant up to full capacity for the day, according to Mr Glennon.

The main building is based on a 6 m grid for the steel frame that Cardiff-based specialist contractor Hayes Engineering installed. “The early involvement from the subcontractor was critical to the design and very useful,” Mr Glennon explains. “The 6 m grid is primarily for the cladding panels – so that we can get the uniformity.”

“Churngold has taken on an apprentice groundworker – it’s important to be able to give something back to the local community”

Stephen Watkins, Kier Construction

The development will create 400 full-time jobs when completed and is supporting 250 more jobs during the construction phase. Kier has worked to make sure as many of those go to local firms and trades. This strategy has appeared to help secure local support for the project, with residents accepting a degree of disruption and Merthyr Tydfil council embracing the development.

“Kier is a regionally focused business and we have tried to keep as much of our spend within a 20-mile radius of the project,” says Kier senior quantity surveyor on the project Stephen Watkins. 

“Obviously sometimes that is impossible so we try to make sure that it delivers some sort of legacy. We provide work experience and opportunities for local universities and colleges and that has worked throughout our supply chain, which has really bought into it.”

Kier Trago Tower Mills 9

Kier Trago Tower Mills 9

The site had already been remediated and grouted, but there was still work for site preparation subcontractor Churngold to plough through

“Churngold has taken on an apprentice groundworker – it’s important to be able to give something back to the local community.”

He knows more than most that time is of the essence in retail. Any project overrun can have very expensive implications for the retailer, but the project team is relaxed about bringing the job home within its 72-week contract period (see box).

And when the store does open, it will offer holidaymakers in south Wales the opportunity to see what their counterparts in Devon and Cornwall have been doing on rainy days for the last 40 years.

Booming discount retailer puts Kier to work in Wales

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