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Women-led Morgan Sindall team takes on demanding Liverpool school

Hindrances both seen and unforeseen have challenged a female-dominated team led by project manager Karen Fairhurst on a tricky education job.

Project: St Hilda’s School, Liverpool
Client: Liverpool City Council
Contract value: £15m
Region: North-west
Main contractor: Morgan Sindall
Steelwork subcontractor: Leach Structural Steelwork
Structural engineer: Mouchel
Start date: February 2014
Completion date: April 2016

On the edge of Liverpool’s historic Sefton Park, 31-year-old Karen Fairhurst is delivering her first job as project manager – and it’s far from leisurely.

Ms Fairhurst is leading a women-led team charged with constructing a complete replacement for the existing school building on a 2,756 sq m footprint, with the site hemmed in by the existing institution, a tower block, a busy main road lined with preserved trees and a Grade II-listed residential property.

The park itself is Grade I-listed, as are two nearby churches, while the whole area is typified by Victorian villas.

“There has been a lot of engagement and the planners were keen to keep to a certain feel,” Ms Fairhurst says.

The steel-framed building will feature a conservation brick selected to fit with the sandstone predominate in the area, while the façade was broken up to give the single building the appearance of being three separate blocks.

Once the design was in place, the major challenge for Morgan Sindall was sequencing the works to make the scheme buildable in the scarce space available.

As well as being tightly surrounded, the site only has one access point, from Croxteth Drive into its south-west corner.

Sequencing meetings began in November 2013, three months before anything happened on site.

Landlocked site

“We are landlocked,” Ms Fairhurst says. “On the original programme, a single-storey block on the northern elevation should have come up with the main building, but we made the decision early on to leave that down so we could get vehicles around and use that space as a lay-down for materials.

“Logistics was by far the greatest challenge on this project”

Karen Fairhurst, Morgan Sindall

“The sports hall was also going to be built at the same time as the main building, but logistically with scaffolding and protected trees we could not do it.

“We had to move the hall into the second phase, with agreement of the council. Logistics was by far the greatest challenge on this project.”

Once work began on site, the first job was to demolish disused council-owned offices, which included an asbestos strip-out.

Then there was a reduced level dig, with masonry taken from the old offices forming a mat across the site to support both the piling rig, which drove in 230 CFA piles, and later on the 35 and 60-tonne cranes used to erect the steel frame.

Existing piles were discovered in the ground under the offices, requiring reworking of the foundation design for the new school. This initially put the contractor a fortnight behind its programme.

“We decided it would be quicker and more cost-effective to redesign the new piles around the existing as opposed to removing them,” Ms Fairhurst says.

Foundations complete, site workers installed ground beams before the frame went up in three sections.

Speeding on the trades

“We asked for the building to be designed so each block could be self-supporting,” Ms Fairhurst explains. “This required temporary cross-bracing in between. But it allowed us to get the trades in quicker.”

The tight site caused further difficulties, however, when it forced the final block – on the eastern edge of the site, up against the live school – to be built in two phases rather than one.

“The crane could not get the swing to physically lift the steel into place in one go,” she says.

Deliveries of steel came in once a week, with beams stacked up in the small area created to the north of the school wall and lifted by the smaller crane onto the larger one for placing.

The route into and around the site is tight, muddy and awkward. “We had some brilliant drivers,” she adds.

Precast concrete decks came in on ferry from Ireland and sat at docks in Liverpool prior to delivery. “We had deliveries staggered three times a day and had to make sure we were ready for them,” Ms Fairhurst says.

15-minute bursts

With planning restrictions preventing lorries arriving before 8am and school drop-offs beginning at 8.15am, the contractor has to get its first load in within that 15-minute slot or have teams waiting around until past 9am to begin work, something it can ill afford.

“It’s all about management – Karen won’t let them get it wrong”

John Glasstone, Morgan Sindall

Despite the challenges, the frame was completed on programme. The contractor caught up one of the weeks it lost due to the existing piles, and was given an extension on the other lost week by the client as compensation for there being an unforeseen hindrance.

“We regained a week mainly through having a second crane which could offload the steel deliveries, meaning the main crane did not have to stop the erection,” Ms Fairhurst says.

“We also overlapped the start of the steelwork with finishing off the groundworks and segregated the site into two to regain the time lost.”

“The frame had to be finished on time,” Morgan Sindall design manager John Glasstone adds. “It required everyone’s buy-in and we had that.

“Mouchel handles all the design work; it has everyone on the same floor and they are only 10 minutes away in the car. If there were any queries they were resolved there and then.”

Operatives put in precast concrete decks as the frames came up, along with a small metal deck walkway around the atrium, before the roof was fitted.

The external walls were 50 per cent complete on the main building when Construction News visited earlier this month, with a structural frame system used to the north and blockwork to the south.

“We wanted to change it all to [a structural framing system] as this is easier to bring in, erect and get watertight, but on the south we needed blocks to retain the heat and cool for the natural ventilation,” Ms Fairhurst says.

Internal work is well under way, with M&E installation beginning in November. Exposed ceilings to aid the natural ventilation system present a major challenge, as services will not be hidden.

“It’s all about management – Karen won’t let them get it wrong,” Mr Glasstone says.

Ms Fairhurst has built strong relationships with the client, her staff and subcontractors – something, she points out, is critical to any successful scheme.

No finish, no holiday

Construction of the single-storey block will begin in January, which means the three-storey block behind it won’t be accessible from that point on.

“Work on the façade will be well checked before Christmas,” she says. “There will be no holidays if it isn’t finished.”

Furniture is being procured and finishes will take place before the handover of phase one and the start of work on phase two next summer.

The new school will be open, light and airy, benefiting from floor-to-ceiling windows, an atrium and roof light, glazed strips in classrooms and natural ventilation as well as open-able windows.

Further features include a stained glass window in the shape of a cross in the Church of England school’s onsite chapel, and an Agora staircase with seating areas.

After demolition of the existing school, a sports hall will be built along with two games pitches, a playground, a car park and other landscaping.

This final handover will come in April 2016, with pupils continuing to make use of Sefton Park for outdoor activities in the meantime.

“It will be a slightly bigger school and will have a much better orientation,” Ms Fairhurst says.

“The existing facility has been added to over the years and is a bit of a warren. There is also a net around it as tiles keep falling off.

“It’s a really nice school with fantastic pupils and teachers, but they just haven’t got the building they deserve,” she says.

Careful planning and strong relationships, along with a lot of skilled work, means this is all about to change.

Female contingent sets example

As well as Ms Fairhurst, four other women hold senior roles on the St Hilda’s School project – something of an anomaly given the statistical male dominance of the industry.

Morgan Sindall has appointed Sharon Moss as managing surveyor on the scheme, Rachel Brown as senior M&E manager, Jane King as sustainability manager and Alison Pernavas as community engagement manager.

Further to this coincidence, St Hilda’s is currently an all-girls school – although the construction project is part of its plans to become co-educational.

“It’s been really nice for the girls at St Hilda’s to see females in a male-dominated environment,” Ms Fairhurst says.

“We’re doing quite a bit of work with them and hopefully, even if it’s not construction they want to go into, they might think more about other roles they maybe used to think were male roles.

“We’ve got a reporters group from the school coming to interview me about how I got into it. It’s really good. No one came to me when I was at school to ask if I wanted to work on a construction site.”

Ms Fairhurst started in the industry 10 years ago as a site administrator on a job in Bradford. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do, so I temped to get a flavour of different roles,” she says.

“The job had a few issues and the managers were under a lot of pressure, so I offered to help and ended up getting involved with the architects and trying to find solutions.”

She was then offered a position as works package manager on another job, and her career has flourished from there, culminating in this latest promotion.

“There is no way Karen is project manager just because this is an all-girls school,” Mr Glasstone says. “It’s based on her proven potential, the relationships she’s built and the involvement she had in pre-construction.”

Ms Fairhurst says she has received nothing but support on her way through the ranks and that the experience she learnt in her early days on sites has stood her in good stead.

“I loved it,” she says of her first few projects. “I loved making something; meeting so many different people; every day being different; being outside - I got the bug.”

Managing an entire project is a different experience, but one she is also enjoying.

“The keys to success are organisation and relationships,” she says. “I think females can make great project managers.

“As long as you don’t want to change construction – it is muddy, it is cold and people do talk in different ways – you shouldn’t have a problem.”

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