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Time ticks for Epsom revamp

Willmott Dixon can’t afford to be late with its new project – The Derby moves for no man

Project Epsom racecourse redevelopment
Value £17.8 million (stand) £8 million (hotel) £4 million (pavilion – completed in 2007)
ClientJockey Club Racecourses
Main contractorWillmott Dixon
ProcurementDesign & Build
Steel contractorGraham Wood
Concrete contractorCreagh

For Large images click here

Willmott Dixon hasn’t done anything as high-profile as the new grandstand at Epsom racecourse, home of The Derby, for a long, long time.

A company established in 1852 doesn’t last by taking risks whenever possible. Its work is more bread and butter, more prosaic. It likes it that way. High-profile invariably means high-risk and the fallout can have a shattering effect on the bottom line.

So managers at Willmott Dixon acknowledge that building a new stand at the home of one of the world’s most famous horse races is a different league. It’s exciting, though.

Neville Dale, Willmott Dixon’s operations manager, was given a taste of just what is expected of him and the firm when he was called in for a chat with the client, Jockey Club Racecourses, ahead of work starting.

Colin Fellows, the club’s property director was in charge of building projects at Safeway, the supermarket firm that got snapped up by rival Morrisons a few years ago.

His CV also includes periods at John Laing and Trafalgar House, the company that coincidentally built the neighbouring Queen’s Stand at the course. He doesn’t mince his words.

“I was told,” Mr Dale recalls, “that there will be 300 million people watching The Derby and you don’t want your name up in lights.”

His number two, Dominic Collins, the project’s construction manager, chips in: “I think the real penalty claim is reputation. ‘Willmott Dixon cancels The Derby’, we don’t want that.”

Building the stand is not really the issue here - it’s building to a deadline that cannot be shifted.

The course is not budging on where The Derby will be staged. It’s been held here since 1780 and it’ll never go anywhere else as a poster in the reception boasts.

Willmott Dixon is handing over the grandstand in two phases. The second will be March 2009 ahead of the Spring meeting which will go ahead the following month.

Derby deadline

But it is the earlier deadline that Mr Dale and Mr Collins are eyeing. The date of 23 May, 2008, is ringed in their minds like 7 June is for trainers, jockeys and the 120,000 die-hard fans that, if they only go to one horse race all year, make The Derby such a spectacle.

As with the Grand National, it’s a horse race that transcends its sport in this country.

Time is of the essence and for the first phase to be completed, the firm has to open the terracing part of the grandstand - it will eventually house 11,000 spectators - to allow just over 4,000 racegoers the chance to watch three-year-olds thundering around Tattenham Corner and into the home straight.

It is a stand that will use 850 tonnes of steel but concrete is the main ingredient. Around 2,600 tonnes of pre-cast terracing is being installed. Normally it is fitted horizontally but the client, Mr Dale says, has had bad experiences of this method and has opted for a vertical fit.

Mr Dale says the horizontal method means more joints which are prone to leaks. Cutting out the joints means water doesn’t seep into corporate boxes below.

The terracing is made at concrete contractor Creagh’s base at Toomebridge in County Antrim, Northern Ireland, ferried over to Stranraer in Scotland and then driven down the M6 overnight to arrive at site first thing in the morning.

Creagh has a tie-up with a local haulier who has no problems about crossing the Irish Sea and making the trip at short notice - the firm picks up produce for Tesco on the way back.

Creagh was the only firm interested in the work because Mr Dale says others were put off using the vertical method. “Everyone else was frightened by the move from traditional to vertical but it’s quicker this way because we cut down the number of units.”

And Mr Dale is a big fan of pre-cast. He looks horrified to think how much time would have been wasted carrying out the work in-situ.

High winds

Creagh is working ahead of Willmott Dixon’s programme so it can get the units - around 130 will be fitted - to Epsom the next day if required.

What Willmott Dixon is striving to do is the simple, obvious things well. When the wagons arrive the terraces are craned off and put straight into position. There is no time wasting double handling here.

Each unit weighs 17.5 tonnes and on a good day nine are fitted in a bay. A dozen are needed for each of the 10 bays with a further six on each of the two vomitories - access points to the stand.

Like any job if it is to go well, the importance of teamwork and relationships is critical and Mr Dale brought in Creagh alongside Sussex-based steel firm Graham Wood - he has worked with the pair of them before - to come up with ways of making sure the steel frame and concrete core were put together accurately.

“The interface of the steel and concrete is key,” says Mr Dale. “If we didn’t get the sequencing right the steel couldn’t come up with the pre-cast. The tolerances have to be spot on, it’s got to be plus or minus 1 or 2 mm maximum.”

Every hour counts but some things are beyond its control. Piling was held up for an hour or two while a wedding took place. “The client has told us to think of Epsom not as a racecourse but as a conference centre,” Mr Dale says.

But it is the wind that could have the greatest impact on the project’s timetable.

The course sits high on a hill with views to the north into London and to the south the Epsom Downs rolling into the distance. On a clear sunny day, it’s an impressive location but not so much fun when the wind picks up.

While the wind might be 20 mph down in Epsom town centre, up on the Downs it can be gusting at up to 50 mph. Tower cranes can’t work in those conditions and Mr Dale is right when he says there seem to be more machines than men on the job.

Clock watching

Around 200 workers will be on site later this year when fit-out begins but for the moment just 30 or so groundworkers, steel erectors and concreters are on site working alongside a fleet of mobile cranes.

“Mobiles offer us the flexibility that tower cranes don’t,” Mr Dale says. “Tower cranes are too fixed and too affected by the wind.”

But even so, Mr Dale and Mr Collins reckon they’ve lost 10 days on the job since they got on site on 1 October last year and admit it is a constant worry. “If we’re winded off, we can’t do anything about it,” Mr Dale says. “It’s just one of those things.”

The mild winter has been good for the programme, according to Mr Dale. He has put any concerns about global warming to one side. He claims there hasn’t been a bad winter for about five years and for builders with immoveable deadlines that’s a good thing.

The hoardings, temporary offices and temporary services that have been installed must be removed by 23 May.

But Mr Dale and Mr Collins will be back on 23 June to complete phase two of the project, which includes finishing a 120-bed hotel by July ready to be used by some of the delegates who attend the 400-odd events the racecourse holds each year.

But it is the first Saturday in June that is concentrating minds. It has Mr Dale peering at weather reports and working out how to save time.

There is no substitute for Epsom - no racecourse waiting to step in like Cardiff did when it became apparent that Wembley was not going to be ready for the FA Cup Final.

Mr Dale acknowledges the constant ticking of the clock spurs him on to ensure he’s remembered for the right reasons. “You can’t,” he deadpans, “have horses running round the Millennium Stadium can you?”

For Large images clickhere

Redevelopment meets more than racing needs

The new grandstand will include a conference venue that will seat 800 people and the course’s managing director Nick Blofeld reels off a list of figures which confirm Epsom is much more than a horse racing venue.

“We don’t want to build a white elephant,” he says and points out Epsom hosted 7,000 people for Christmas parties last year and on New Year’s Eve had 500 people in attendance.

The course also holds a number of product launches, notably from car firms – Toyota is a big client. The new stand will enable lorries to drive straight into it and unload their cargo right there.

But it is The Derby that Epsom will be most famous for and the race was first run there in 1780. It is widely believed to have derived its name by the toss of a coin between two horse racing enthusiasts, Edward Smith Stanley, the Earl of Derby, and his near neighbour Sir Charles Bunbury.

The pair used to race horses on the Downs at Epsom but needed to give it a name to encourage other enthusiasts to enter. Sir Charles lost the toss and so the race gained its name.

The current clerk of the course, Andrew Cooper, who has been in the role since 1996, said the best Derby winner he has seen in his time was the 2000 winner Sinndar.