The contractor has had to calculate every last step in advance to get around logistical nightmares, structural conundrums and the ‘Beast from the East’.
Project: Mathematical Sciences Building
Client: Warwick University
Contract value: £27m
Contract type: Design-and-build
Region: East Midlands
Main contractor: Morgan Sindall
Concrete frame subcontractor: MPB Structures
Steelwork subcontractor: Cov Con
M&E subcontractor: Briggs & Forrester
Start date: February 2017
Completion date: August 2018
When it comes to university jobs, the pressure is on in terms of reliability and quality.
Of course, it has always been important to deliver buildings on time so that faculties can be in situ ahead of the start of the academic year, but the pressure has mounted in recent years.
Today, universities – and their contractors – have to ensure new buildings are genuinely cutting edge and that construction causes minimum disruption to students and staff alike.
First, there was the huge rise in tuition fees that came in under the coalition government following the 2010 election. Quite simply, if undergraduates were going to be forking out north of £9,000 a year – and more in the years to come – they would no longer put up with shoddy facilities. Then there was the Brexit vote, the result of which led to a marked decrease in the number of overseas students coming to these shores.
Consequently, universities find themselves fighting harder than ever to secure students and the revenue that accompanies them, with the quality of their estates routinely cited as a critical deciding factor.
Morgan Sindall does the maths
It was with this in mind that Morgan Sindall went about bidding for the contract to deliver a new mathematics teaching block for Warwick University on its campus just outside of Coventry. The contractor knew full well that its work would have to be exemplary if it was to meet client expectations.
It successfully bid for the £27m design-and-build contract through the Construct West Midlands Framework in the second half of 2016, and senior contracts manager Ben Shearman says that programme and quality were at the heart of its bid. “There was a key date for programme delivery and quality was key, as it is for all universities. They’re very hot on quality these days,” he points out.
Morgan Sindall Warwick uni science block 1
What was obvious early on was that the site for the new building was incredibly constrained, surrounded by three existing buildings and the main campus loop road.
“It’s basically a city centre site in terms of the lack of space, so that’s been the biggest constraint,” says Morgan Sindall senior project manager Jason Lyne. “It was all about just-in-time deliveries and making sure we didn’t have a build programme that was stacked and would lead to delays. It’s about space planning and correct timings.”
The lack of space led Morgan Sindall to rethink several aspects of site logistics, as well as the programme’s phasing.
Originally, the idea was to construct the building from the ground up, but when the use of offsite storage proved impractical, the approach needed to be turned on its head. “We were meant to be building the ground floor first, but we sterilised that and started on level one,” Mr Lyne says. “It was about using the ground floor for storage and that then became our last area to build.”
Mr Lyne adds that using the ground floor for storage also meant that a new logistics strategy was needed for getting materials up and down the building once the concrete frame was in place.
“Disruption is difficult – ultimately, everything comes in and out on the back of a lorry”
Jason Lyne, Morgan Sindall
“We’ve got the use of the goods hoist and we used a Cantideck with a crane,” he says. “We loaded out in the evenings and at the weekend. It’s about taking the opportunity of those quiet times to load the building with materials.”
Of course, extensive evening and weekend work can add substantially to costs, but Morgan Sindall successfully avoided any inflation by having the strategy in place before going out to tender for subcontractors. “The supply chain tendered knowing about that,” Mr Lyne says. “We had a strategy and everybody understood what their responsibilities were, so when we tendered it the price included all those aspects. It didn’t escalate.”
Morgan Sindall also had to plan extensively for how the building’s construction could be done with minimum disruption to the university, something that wasn’t easy given the close proximity of functioning buildings. On that front, close communication continues to be critical.
“Disruption is difficult – ultimately, everything comes in and out on the back of a lorry,” Mr Lyne says. “It’s about [the university] having the knowledge that there is going to be a noisy period so that they can plan teaching sessions and exams around us. Every two weeks we sit down with the various building occupiers and talk about what we’re doing.”
Morgan Sindall Warwick uni science block 6
Communication, however, cuts both ways and Morgan Sindall has gone to great lengths to ensure the most disruptive works take place at weekends or when students are away. The Easter break this past weekend is a good example. When Construction News visited the site shortly beforehand, some of the most intrusive interventions on the project were just about to start.
“It’s basically a city centre site in terms of the lack of space, so that’s been the biggest constraint”
Jason Lyne, Morgan Sindall
For instance, the project involves installing links to two of the adjacent buildings. The link to the computer science building is particularly sensitive, as it involves the addition of three extra storeys to an existing fire escape. Critically, the fire escape has to be kept in working order while the computer sciences building is in use.
“It’s a live fire escape and has to maintained as a live fire escape,” Mr Lyne explains. “It’s a teaching facility, and we’ve planned the work so that the noisy works are done at night. We’re now knocking the staircases through to make sure that it’s done over the Easter break. We’ll do the quieter work when the students come back on 23 April.”
Morgan Sindall Warwick uni science block 7
The fire escape is probably the most complicated aspect of the project. Not only did it have to remain in use when students were in the building, the existing structure was also insufficiently strong to take the weight of the additional storeys, so Morgan Sindall had to think again.
“The original design had us taking out block walls and rebuilding them,” Mr Lyne says. “That was to provide some additional restraint, but we wouldn’t have been able to keep that staircase live or we would have had to have been doing a lot of night shifts to do it. So, we put a skeletal steel frame on the outside of it, which provided that restraint and we didn’t have to break into the staircase.”
The unusually severe weather of recent months posed another challenge, but decisions taken early on again helped Morgan Sindall to minimise disruption.
“Getting the tower crane out was probably the first difficulty we had because of the windy weather,” Mr Shearman says. “It was around the time of the ‘Beast from the East’ so we did have a delay on getting the tower crane out. But because we’re working first floor up and we’re fairly watertight on the lower floors, it didn’t really affect us.”
Morgan Sindall Warwick uni science block 9
Mr Lyne agrees: “Because of that decision to sterilise the ground floor, water would just go to the ground floor so it didn’t affect us construction-wise,” he says. “If we’d gone ground floor first, it would have ruined what we were doing. That decision was taken early doors and it was all about water control. We could allow water to go through the building and go onto the ground floor.”
Pre-planning has also been vital when it comes to servicing the building. In total, there are 14 pipes and cables that need to be connected to the new facility, comprising two heating pipes, two cooling pipes and 10 LV cables. Ensuring that all could be connected with the minimum of fuss involved extensive research.
“Getting the tower crane out was probably the first difficulty we had because of the windy weather”
Ben Shearman, Morgan Sindall
“You can imagine there are multiple services, so we spent a lot of time looking at existing drawings, understanding the depths of those and then reconfirming them with trials on site,” Mr Lyne says. “When we did start putting those pipes and cables in we didn’t want to get conflicts. The pipes are 12 m long and made of rigid steel. It’s not a cable you can flex up and down.”
Today, Morgan Sindall is close to finalising the heavy build and being able to concentrate on the finishing touches – plastering, painting, skirting and so on. The ground floor is substantially behind the other levels, but that was always the intention. As Mr Lyne puts it: “Within the next month, it should be plain sailing.”
That should be a source of pride for all involved. While others might have been tempted to use the recent foul weather as an excuse for late delivery, Morgan Sindall’s pre-planning has ensured that the mathematics facility at Warwick remains on time and on budget.