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Willmott's standardised schools receive positive market response

In Weston-super-Mare contractor Willmott Dixon is building an ‘off-the-peg’ school to help deliver cost certainty and construction efficiency.

Project: Ashcombe Primary School, Weston-super-Mare
Client: North Somerset Council
Contract value: £3.6m
Region: South-west
Main contractor: Willmott Dixon
Engineer: Atkins
Steelwork subcontractor: Dollcast
Completion date: July 2013

Ever wondered why there are so many cost overruns on projects? Why there always seems to be an element of overspend and why nailing the final overall cost of a scheme can be frustrating?

With these times of austerity, it is a frustration that the public sector in particular is keenly aware of.

Now contractor Willmott Dixon has teamed up with local authority procurement body Scape to help deliver public buildings through the OJEU process with cast iron guarantees on quality, cost and timescale.

Fixed price guaranteed

It is a move that should please the money men and developers, as it ensures the delivery of whole building designs for a fixed price – guaranteed.

In the same way as some may have spent their bank holiday weekend at the local garden centre picking sheds from a catalogue of set styles at set prices, so local authorities can now pick the kind of school, leisure centre or care home they would like for the location they have.

“We saw the opportunity to offer standardised design at a set price and the market has responded to that”

Tim Carey, Willmott Dixon Construction

By standardising the design both partners in the Sunesis joint venture, Scape and Willmott Dixon, are convinced considerable savings can be made to help deliver cost certainty and better value for money.

“The notion of designing a bespoke building every time is inherently inefficient,” says Willmott Dixon Construction technical director Tim Carey.

“We saw the opportunity to offer standardised design at a set price and the market has responded to that. Local authorities like the idea because it gives them cost certainty, while developers like it because they are efficient designs.

“If they need to provide a school under a section 106 agreement, for example, our efficient designs help them unlock more land for development.”

The principle of using standardised design to improve construction and, importantly, financial certainty is an interesting one and hard not to see the logic in.

The industry has always looked towards ironing out onsite inefficiency, when really there is no reason why design inefficiency shouldn’t be taken to task as well.

Nobody thinks twice about buying an off-the-peg suit rather than a bespoke Saville Row design, so why shouldn’t the same logic be applied to buildings?

Financial savings

The financial rewards are certainly there, according to figures from Sunesis. It claims that build costs per pupil for a school from its predesigned rage can range from £8,500 to £10,000. It cites typical cost per pupil on a traditionally procured school to be in the region of £15,000 to £20,000.

Those huge savings are found through reduced procurement time and fees associated with legal issues, feasibility studies, design and time spent through the planning process.

For primary schools there are four standardised designs available in the Sunesis range, with a further model aimed specifically at secondary schools.

All are designed to the relevant government Building Bulletin design codes. A client will choose the design most suited to its requirements – including cost – from the range and Willmott Dixon will build it on the site provided.

No hidden extras

There are no hidden extras and no nasty unforeseen bills to come back to haunt the development. “The method assumes the site is flat and uncontaminated, and an absolute standard school building is required,” Mr Carey explains.

“There are opportunities to personalise the building – such as choosing the façade – but those come as extras in much the same way as specifying metallic paint or sunroof when you buy a Ford Focus.”

It’s a concept that Willmott Dixon is convinced is the future for school buildings – particularly as it is a sector that is facing the double whammy of increased demand for places and greater pressure to deliver value for money.

“When the contract is signed, all the fundamentals are known by the client and fixed from the outset,” Mr Carey says. “The end result is a fantastic facility delivered at the price anticipated. It works for everyone.

The logic of predesign

One primary school in holiday hotspot Weston-super-Mare is the latest to test the Sunesis theory of predesign, bringing cost certainty to educational projects.

Ashcombe Primary School lies surrounded by inter- and post-war housing developments and is typical of a suburban community school.

“The school will move in on 8 July. That’s less than 18 months for a full-scale building to get from initial conversation to delivery”

Paul Marlow, Willmott Dixon

It is, however, chronically over-subscribed and the new build will allow it to increase its current one form per year entry capability to two forms per year, with a maximum capacity of 420 pupils. Eventually the existing school will be refurbished to provide more space for a final capacity of more than 600.

Client North Somerset Council has chosen the Keynes design from the online Sunesis catalogue and now Willmott Dixon is closing in on the delivery of the new school.

Once on site, the construction process for the new building is no different to any other, but the speedy work up front ensures a new building can be procured and built in a fraction of the time a traditionally built school might take.

“We had the first discussion about this scheme with the client in February 2012,” says Willmott Dixon senior build manager Paul Marlow.

“The school will move in on 8 July. That’s less than 18 months for a full-scale building to get from initial conversation to delivery.”

The Keynes design is a single storey L-shaped building with each arm 42 m long. A wide central corridor or ‘learning street’ runs down the centre of each, with classrooms and offices on either side of it. The central entrance and meeting point is at the intersection of the two arms, which feature further entrances out to the playground and playing fields.

Steel spans offer flexibility

The design is based around a steel frame that allows clear spans of 22.5 m and 19.5 m on each of the arms. These spans enable the wide corridor and classrooms on each side to be accommodated easily, while also giving some flexibility for the future.

“That completely clear span is one of the benefits of the steel frame,” Mr Marlow says. “It has been futureproofed if things change for the client and means the layout of the partitions could be easily tweaked.”

Under the Sunesis deal, North Somerset Council has taken the option of insulated render and a single ply roofing system. The school will also feature wet underfloor heating.

The building has been built on a 300 mm layer of stone, bringing the reinforced concrete raft slab up to formation level and ensuring the building stays above any potential flooding.

The slab is 450 mm thick at the foundation, with a standard 125 mm thickness elsewhere on top of an 80 mm thickness of insulation.

Each pair of classrooms is connected by a foyer which offers a link to outside learning space, cloakrooms and toilets.

Another option that the client has taken at Ashcombe Primary is the installation of a suspended ceiling. Normally the soffits would be left open, but the option was ticked during the consultation phase.

Client uptake

Already several local authorities have signed up to the predesign concept – and not just the key stakeholders in the Scape purchasing vehicle; Derby City, Derbyshire County, Gateshead, Nottingham City, Nottinghamshire County and Warwickshire County councils are all embracing the approach.

In addition, Southampton, Isle of Wight and North Somerset councils have seen enough of the Sunesis concept to make use of it to either deliver new facilities and address an increased demand for school places, or have buildings that are beyond economic repair replaced.

With a defined layout, upfront specification, fixed cost and defined construction timetable, every client will know exactly what they are going to get and when.

Variations still possible

“There are a few variations that have been specified. The glazed office and break out space in the corridor is another extra,” Mr Marlow explains, adding, “Our contract means we supply everything that isn’t fixed, so flooring, fixed desks and fixed furniture is all included. We can supply the loose furniture but that is another option.”

Having those decisions taken early on in the process allows more time for the team to talk about what directly affects the end users - the teachers.

“They don’t understand what a 3 m wide corridor is and what it can mean in terms of space. It’s good to be able to get them involved in a scheme,” he says.


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