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Morrison follows moral compass on complex hospice build

A new unit at Highland Hospice backed by an ongoing fundraising drive is pushing Morrison Construction to keep costs down while overcoming a tight and tricky site.

Project: Highland Hospice
Client: Highland Hospice
Contract value: £5m
Region: Scotland
Main contractor: Morrison Construction
Start date: June 2015
Completion date: September 2016

Some projects are different from the norm. It might be an iconic building, a technically fiendish structure, or a high-profile job with all eyes trained upon it.

Or, as in the case of the new Highland Hospice in Inverness, it could be because the client provides a real service to the community, allowing the builders to leave a legacy behind – putting extra onus on the contractor to do the job well.

Morrison Construction is working on a new inpatient unit for Highland Hospice, replacing the old unit on the same site – overcoming a number of challenges on the banks of the River Ness in the process.

Big unit

Highland Hospice is a private institution first established in 1986, and remains the only hospice catering for adults with incurable life-limiting diseases in the Highlands of Scotland.

Its inpatient unit opened in 1988 on a site adjacent to the existing Royal Northern Infirmary and in the house and grounds originally used for the superintendent of the infirmary, Ness House.

The new unit is being built on the same site and will be two storeys high in places with single-storey sections, replacing what was an entirely single-floor structure. The extra storey, plus more space on the ground floor, is upping the internal space from 700 sq m in the old building to around 1,700 sq m in the new facility.

The previous building had 12 bed spaces – two single rooms and 10 in shared wards – but needed to be upgraded due to new NHS guidelines. There was also not much space for bereavement support services or for families to stay overnight.

“They didn’t meet the regulations, as they couldn’t get hoists around the beds,” explains Morrison Construction project manager Alison Muirhead. “Patients couldn’t have family members staying over either, as there was no room for foldable Z beds or anything in the bedrooms.”

“[Highland Hospice has] got guarantees from their bank to allow them to carry on building. It costs them something like £42,000 per week to run the hospice without putting anything into the build fund”

Alison Muirhead, Morrison Construction

The room layouts also made it difficult for staff to deep-clean the bedrooms – meaning they would have to find new bed spaces for three people every time they needed to do a clean. “It didn’t work for them,” Ms Muirhead says.

The new facility will have nine single en-suite bedrooms and one multi-bed ward. “There’s generally a lot more space – there are two or three store rooms for hoists, to make sure they’ve got enough equipment on site,” Ms Muirhead says.

All of the new bedrooms will also have views of the gardens or the River Ness, which runs to the east of the site.

Highland Hospice is a registered charity and receives a third of its funding from the NHS, with all of the rest coming from public support. The charity launched an appeal to raise £4.5m of the £5m needed to rebuild the inpatient unit, with additional funds coming from charity reserves built up over the years.

The fundraising target has still not been met, although this hasn’t stopped the project from progressing. “They’ve got guarantees from their bank to allow them to carry on building,” Ms Muirhead says. “It costs them something like £42,000 per week to run the hospice without putting anything into the build fund.”

Ms Muirhead says the team has worked hard to ensure the budget has been adhered to, despite widespread reports of cost inflation for materials and labour affecting projects throughout the industry. “The moral compass within you won’t allow you to go over that price,” she says.

Out of the ground

Morrison began on site in June 2015, demolishing the old structure before groundworks began at the end of July.

The groundworks posed one of the project’s main challenges, with the expanded sections of the building sitting on what was once the gardens of Ness House – meaning there was a lot of soil underfoot.

“It wasn’t so much of a problem underneath the footprint of the old building, but in the original gardens of the old house it was just soil on the bank of the river,” Ms Muirhead says. “There were pockets that were about 5 m deep that we had to mass-fill with concrete – a lot of concrete.”

The foundations of Ness House itself also needed some work as it was built on soil, too. “We had to do mass underpinning at the very start of the job, which wasn’t allowed for initially. We got down to 4.5 m deep and the footings were still carrying on into soil,” Ms Muirhead says.

“That was the biggest bit – and we had to monitor the front facade as well, because there had been movement there before we even started on site, so we had to keep a close eye on that during construction.”

Ness House directly adjoins the new building, which has also thrown up challenges due to its listed status. For example, the facility’s mortuary is located in Ness House, which has meant the team has had to widen some door openings for beds to travel through.

“We had to do mass underpinning at the very start of the job, which wasn’t allowed for initially. We got down to 4.5 m deep and the footings were still carrying on into soil”

Alison Muirhead, Morrison Construction

When it came to starting the new-build element of the scheme, the project programme proved to be the biggest obstacle facing the team.

“The client was pushing for a start on site in June and they were quite adamant, as they had been planning the project for quite a while and had a mass fundraising push on,” Ms Muirhead says. “So they wanted the sod cutting, demolition and the start on site to coincide with their events.”

This meant the team came up against that most intractable of foes: the unreliable Scottish weather.

“Instead of working and trying to get the first-floor roof on and then make the ground floor watertight, we ended up having to push on to try to get the ground floor done first – we swapped the programme around,” Ms Muirhead says.

“That meant we put the roof on from November through to February, which is probably the worst month of the year in the Highlands of Scotland to do that. We had to try to get it watertight as quickly as possible to allow the internal works to carry on.”

The roof was put on by local firm McCormick and Hunter, with one tradesman, one apprentice and one labourer installing it. The client specified zinc to be used. “It arrived on site as a coil and was all crimped by hand on site,” Ms Muirhead says.

“It wasn’t watertight actually until about eight or nine weeks ago – it was just a matter of trying to work around the Scottish weather,” she adds.

Heavy lifting

The site itself is also extremely tight, with other buildings, the River Ness and a road surrounding it. Morrison could only get a forklift around 35 per cent of the building as a result, meaning there was a lot more craneage than normal on a job this size to get materials into place.

“We had to co-ordinate five or six different lifts at the same time,” Ms Muirhead says. “Recently, for example, we had the staircase going in, we had the solar PV panels going in up on the roof, and we had condensers going up as well. We were trying to kill as many birds with one stone as we could.”

The building was originally envisaged to be entirely timber-framed, but it became clear early on that the loadings would be too much for the structure to support. Instead, a hybrid solution was developed.

“Originally there was no steel. It was the architects who wanted it to be fully timber – but the construction engineers had to introduce steel to make it work”

Alison Muirhead, Morrison Construction


“Everything under the two-storey section is actually a steel frame and concrete floor slab with a timber roof, and everything under the single-storey section is timber frame with a timber supporting roof, so it’s all load-bearing timber walls,” Ms Muirhead says.

“Originally there was no steel. It was the architects who wanted it to be fully timber – but the construction engineers had to introduce steel to make it work.”

The building’s most striking feature is a new stone turret, built on the elevation facing the River Ness and close to Ness House.

Ms Muirhead says the curved stone walls here presented a “great degree of difficulty” to the local stonemason subcontractor Metric Construction Scotland, which erected a steel skeleton for the brickwork to follow and ensure a perfect line. “It’s probably been the longest-running section of work on the entire project,” Ms Muirhead says.

Unusually, too, Morrison Construction has its own team of three scaffolders who move from job to job in northern Scotland. On this project, the team erected its own Peri Up system – so no scaffolding subcontractor was used at all.

The project continues apace as it approaches completion. It was originally set to be handed over by the end of August, but due to extra work asked for by the client, the timetable was pushed back to the third week of September, which Morrison is on course to hit.

There may be bigger and even more technically challenging jobs – but there are few that will leave such a positive legacy for a wide-ranging area.

Opening doors

The Highland Hospice site took part in Build UK and the CITB’s annual Open Doors event in June, welcoming local students and members of the public interested in the industry to show them what a construction site looked like.

Ms Muirhead led the tours, explaining the different trades on site and highlighting the work that had been done by each.

The project manager also told her own story of how she had gone to university before moving into construction, despite her school careers adviser telling her it wouldn’t be possible.

“He said I couldn’t go to university and that I couldn’t go into construction – so I’ve proved him wrong,” she says. “I don’t think anyone should ever say to someone that they can’t do something.”

The Highland Hospice site has had 65 staff across various trades working on site, including a number of apprentices, with seven in mechanical and electrical trades and one roofer.

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