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School build benchmarking gets top marks

An innovative school project in Leicestershire has given the construction industry a chance to learn some lessons of its own

Project: LeicestershireSchools Partnership
Client: LeicestershireCounty Council
Principal contractor: Willmott Dixon
Structural engineering: Buro Happold
M&E contractor: Derry Building Services

Benchmarking is an admirable discipline, but not terribly well designed for the construction industry, which by its very nature is full of variations from site to site.

In a concept that depends on comparisons, the differences that arise from even subtle changes in the site conditions can have a real impact.

Construction is not like industries such as manufacturing, where you can make just about everything equal and so easily see how companies perform in the remaining variables.

So imagine the feverish excitement among those whose business it is to extract such data, to have a project where secondary schools with similar goals (while maintaining individual designs) are being constructed in pairs by a project team that will remain virtually unchanged. And then to have the ability to do the same again, compare this pair of projects against another pair of schools which started construction a year later, with the same end client and contracting team.

Especially given that the Leicestershire Schools Partnership, the contract between Leicestershire County Council and the education arm of Willmott Dixon, is also aiming to be exemplary for the education sector in its use of sustainable materials and techniques.

It is no wonder then that the four school buildings are collectively a demonstration project for Constructing Excellence, both for the construction phase and for the finished building, and since opening to pupils in the past 12 months are being watched as avidly by the industry’s sustainability advocates as they are by educationalists.

The partnership’s demonstration project submission spelt it out. “We have a unique opportunity to measure and analyse performance across four large separate schemes and should remove some of the variables that make comparisons ‘hazy’. The principal team members will remain constant across all four schemes provided performance is as expected, which again should permit measurement and feedback to be more accurate and relevant.”

Poor design quality

It is not difficult to see the attraction for the client. For the county council it was an opportunity to replace schools that were of poor design quality and were actually, in many cases, structurally unsound, with designs that could set the agenda for environmental performance.

For each individual school and their project teams it was their once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get the facility they wanted, so significant managing of client expectations was crucial. It also afforded an opportunity to set best practice in builder-neighbour relations, which, for one school, Castle Rock, went to the extent of turning the entire structure through 90 degrees to give nearby residents more physical space between themselves and the front of the school.

Willmott Dixon seized the opportunity to drive the sustainability agenda, engaging its specialist education consultancy, Rethinking, to make recommendations. As a result, the schools all feature state-of-the-art lighting and heating, including ‘intelligent natural ventilation’ with roof windows opening and shutting intermittently as an alternative to powered systems.

Jon De Souza, director of regions and demonstrations at Constructing Excellence, says: “A lot of work was done to bring down the energy use in the building and a lot of technology has been put in that will give benefits going forward.”

For example, the schemes all use techniques such as thermal and daylight monitoring to reduce the environmental footprint, with insulation installed to notional 2010 building regulations standard.

Willmott installed photovoltaic cells on the roof to generate renewable energy, a system which links into the IT network to allow pupils to monitor it continually.

Other features include use of storm water recycling for use in toilet flushing and sustainable urban drainage. Energy use is being measured against environmental performance indicators, including mains water use and waste volume.

As befits a new learning environment, they also each have the most modern IT systems in the form of wi-fi, interactive whiteboards and projectors, along with purpose-built sports areas.

But perhaps the most interesting result to come out of the first year’s performance analysis is the direct impact the design appears to have had on the pupils. The first to be finished, the £10 million Castle Rock in Coalville, which is sited in a deprived area, reports that whereas the previous building suffered from vandalism, nothing similar has occurred in the new building.

The design sought to “place learning at its centre” with a dramatic glass roofed library in the middle of the school. The building is a glue laminated timber frame with a rubber roof finish and has been designed to make the most of natural light.

“Sustainability was important because students now are more environmentally aware and they expect it,” says Bob Athroll, who was client officer for Leicestershire County Council on the project. He has since taken up a post with Willmott Dixon.

The benefits of this focus on sustainability are beginning to be felt. After its first year of energy measurement, water use came in 25 per cent lower than the previous building and gas 55 per cent lower. By contrast, electricity use is 42 per cent up, which is higher than anticipated.

Mr De Souza puts this down to people having the old mindset of turning lights on and leaving them on, despite more natural light. “One key lesson from the project is that it’s good to put in new technology but then you need to train the people using it,” he says.

Bushloe High School, in nearby Wigston, was built in parallel, at a cost of £12 million. A key design element here was the siting of a man-made ‘stream’ through the middle of the building.

Combined experience

Armed with the experience of the first pair of schools, the partnership has just finished work on the second pair, Shepshed and Gartree, costing £24 million. The first two schools came in at £100,000 over budget, but the cheapest, Bushloe, actually cost 11 per cent less than any of the authority’s previous school buildings.

Willmott has a chance now to put the combined experience to work, with the contract to build a £9 million special educational needs school adjacent to Castle Rock, due for completion at the end of 2008.

The extent to which stakeholders were involved in the design and construction process is something other projects could learn from, according to Les Henson, the project construction manager. “We made sure we involved everyone,” he says.

The benchmarking benefits of the first builds are already being felt on new school builds that have been awarded to Willmott Dixon. “What we’ve learnt from the first four schools we’re bringing forward to another six,” says Mr Henson. “It’s meant we can have a process of continual improvement and increasing efficiency.”

Given that the same basic team was building four £10-12 million projects, a lot of work went into making sure the team had the best footing for success.

The partnership recognised that not only was this public sector culture (the education authority) and private sector culture (the contractors) having to work together, but it was also a large (35-strong multi-disciplined group) drawn from all across the country.

As a result, their individual strengths were determined by psychometric testing and team performance was measured by quarterly interviews; they even engaged a human resources specialist to help them to improve problem-solving and goal-setting techniques.

Castle Rock was the first new secondary school to be opened by the council since the – early 1980s – and all agree it has been a resounding success. The project is an outstanding example of a Constructing Excellence demonstration project, according to Mr De Souza.

It has already won several awards, including two for sustainability. But the best part, according to Mr Henson, was seeing the reaction of the pupils when the school doors were finally opened.

“It was very rewarding to go through the entire process and then see everyone moving in,” he says.

"There were tears in the children’s eyes.”

Whole life costing

One area where the school principals recognise there is work to be done is in whole life costing.

“A decision was made at the outset that if the capital budget could afford a particular step that would provide a saving within the building’s design life of 60 years, the go ahead would be given,” says Mr Humphries.

The intelligent natural ventilation system was one of the features that passed this test, with the high outlay expected to provide a whole-life payoff. Geothermal heating, however, was considered not to give the necessary long-term saving.

This process was made considerably more difficult by the fact that it proved impossible to merge the capital budget, held by the local authority, with the ongoing operating budget, held by the schools. Another stumbling block was the fact that the process of seeking and analysing whole life costed alternatives delayed the design programme.

Yet Castle Rock was completed on time and Bushloe was delivered two months ahead of schedule.