News Round-Up: May 2011

12 May 2011

A CGI of the interior of Cartright Pickard’s Nurture Future modular system

Rush for modular schools 

Contractors are gearing up to deliver a new wave of modular school designs in response to recommendations made in the James Review of the school building programme, which calls for a single set of standardised designs and specifications, writes Stephen Cousins.

BAM has become the latest contractor to develop a new low-cost standardised design that is suitable for refurbishments or new builds. The system is expected to reduce school build costs to £1,050/m2, less than half the average under the Building Schools for the Future programme.“It will allow for fast delivery of repeat elements such as classrooms, toilets and sports halls,” said the firm’s frameworks director Keith Rayner.

Willmott Dixon has pioneered the Sunesis system with a consortium of six local authorities and several councils are already interested.

Meanwhile, architect Cartwright Pickard has developed its Nurture Future modular precast concrete system in collaboration with Tarmac. The architect is in talks with several large contractors on the academies framework that are interested in the system, which has a build cost of around £1,400/m2 and comprises load-bearing facade panels and hollowcore plank floors incorporating Tarmac’s TermoDeck fan-assisted heating, cooling and ventilating system.

Also making inroads into school standardisation is main contractor Skanska, which has asked architect Bryden Wood to use its EcoCanopy pre-engineered modular building system for the design of a school expansion in Bristol, increasing its size from a two to a four-form entry. “It’s the first time we’ve been approached by a contractor to implement the system rather than having to persuade them to use it,” said Brydon Wood associate Paul O’Neill. “We’re applying some of the technology we’ve used to build Sainsbury’s supermarkets to schools to build larger spaces and make them more affordable.”

EcoCanopy is based on a kit of component parts such as roof and wall panels, windows and floors that can be arranged in 4m x 4m modules to create flexible designs for permanent buildings.

Willmott Dixon, meanwhile, is working up three new secondary school designs for Sunesis, which will place a greater emphasis on sustainability in terms of air tightness and cutting energy use, as well as improving the speed of on-site delivery, said the firm’s Midlands MD Peter Owen.

“Four councils are very interested in the new Sunesis designs and about 20 others have shown an interest, some are looking at building multiple schools, others are one-offs,” said Owen. “We’re saying to councils, you might spend £1m-£1.5m on a refurb, but for just over £2m you can have your own facility.”

Also lining up schools contracts is EBS Elk, a new low energy prefabricated building being imported from Germany. The system arrives on site fully kitted out with windows, doors, external finishes and sanitary ware.

Meanwhile, this month Balfour Beatty Engineering Services was due to open a new 117,000 ft2 offsite manufacturing facility in Wednesbury in the Midlands, the largest of its kind in the UK, which will focus on the production of mechanical and electrical systems suitable for schools, including packaged plant rooms, corridor modules, service modules, riser modules, and modular electrical systems.


“The Modular Systems + facility has been built out of a necessity to move into lean construction, take skilled hours off the site and improve lead times,” said Bob Francis, regional manager of the factory.


Mark Whyte, TPS Carillion

Q&A Mark Whyte

Mark Whyte is director of security consultancy and explosion effects at specialist blast engineering consultancy TPS Carillion. The firm has over 40 years experience, dealing with building enhancement to resist bomb blast effects in both the public and private sectors. 

After last month’s counter terrorism conference in London, Whyte gives some insight into this specialist industry.

What are the big themes in counter terrorism at the moment?

I think it is about developing a more holistic approach to protecting infrastructure from terrorist attack. There is a gradual recognition by the industry that we can’t protect infrastructure by dealing with it on an individual building basis, but only by looking at the bigger public realm. We have to start looking seriously at the concept of security zones within cities, such as the City of London’s “ring of steel”, that can be better monitored and policed.

Where does the firm derive the majority of its work?

As engineers, the majority is new build, with our security consultancy services spanning everything from concept through to design and installation. The majority of our work is UK based, where we are working with large corporate clients, as well as on major new developments like London Bridge Quarter. About 30% of our work is abroad, such as our work with the Kuwait Central Bank.

It’s clearly sensitive work, so is it all confidential?

You’re right, the designed blast resistance of a building is not something a client would want putting into the public realm, and developer clients are very sensitive about security issues. Initially, we’ll conduct risk assessment to ascertain the likely threat — you’re trying to work out how big a bomb might be and how close it might be to a building. If you know its potential size and distance, you can work out the strength of a blast and design a cladding system to resist it.

So is it all about theoretical physics and ballistics?

Expertise of bomb and blast mechanics is important, but we do have precedents. A lot of the bomb blast data we currently hold came from the Second World War, where we had evidence of the damage Luftwaffe bombs could do, especially when you found an unexploded one. Knowing the size of a bomb- allowed their explosive power over various distances to be calculated. The Germans did a lot of post-bombing reconnaissance, which helped us a lot. I think Keele University holds a whole archive of their images.

And a dream blast-proof innovation?

For me, it’s got to be something that actually protects existing masonry buildings, which are highly susceptible to blast. We’re looking
at lightweight materials such as carbon strips binding courses together, that might be used to enhance their blast performance. We’re putting the idea through its paces now in controlled testing.

Belfast’s new £18m Lyric theatre (photo: Dennis Gilbert)

Curtain up on the Lyric

Belfast’s new £18m Lyric theatre finally opened its doors to the public on May Day. Designed by Dublin-based architect O’Donnell & Tuomey, the 5,026m2 theatre building boasts two auditoria, rehearsal spaces, a foyer and cafe/bar overlooking the nearby river. Local contractor Gilbert-Ash built the concrete, brick, glass and steel structure using a two-stage D&B contract.

EC Harris was appointed as both project manager and employer’s agent. “It used to be just a mish-mash of rundown buildings and temporary structures, but now the community’s got Belfast’s most high profile project,” says head of EC Harris’s Belfast office, Colm Lavery.

Industry prepares for training cash curb

Construction companies can expect a reduction in government funding for training, despite chancellor George Osborne’s commitment to increase investment in apprenticeships and double the number of university technical colleges, writes Michael Glackin. 

Firms believe the government’s desire to reduce youth unemployment will lead to an increase in the number of apprenticeships without a commensurate per head increase in funding.

Tom Gibney, CITB-ConstructionSkills standards and qualifications operational national manager, said: “Most businesses and providers expect the government will want more for less money. That means government will want to get more apprentices into the system at what will ultimately be a reduced cost. They may well increase the amount of overall funding, but providers are expecting it will amount to an overall reduction per capita once the details are made clear.”

He added: “As it stands now the current funding level is in place until July. If the government could sustain that funding per head it would be good news for the industry, but unfortunately, bearing in mind the pressures on the public purse, most providers are expecting a reduction in real terms when the new funding levels are announced later this year.”

Research by the training body shows more than 25% of construction firms reduced their training last year with 10% planning to cut it further this year. The CITB said the number of construction apprentices in Britain last year was 32,000, down from 44,500 in 2008.

The downbeat assessment of training funding comes as an online survey completed by 1,000 CIOB members revealed concern about skills shortages. In his Budget Osborne promised to increase funding to create an extra 40,000 apprenticeships over the next four years as part of a £180m plan to generate jobs. The government is also looking to create a further 10,000 advanced and higher apprenticeship schemes.

Earlier this month the CITB announced that ConstructionSkills levy payers will receive an extra 12% supplementary payment on grant claims for the next three years. 

Month in numbers

4.7 The percentage that output for the construction sector shrank in the first quarter, according to the Office for National Statistics.

63 The percentage of consultants planning to change jobs within the next year, according to a survey of 600 architects, engineers and surveyors by recruitment consultant Hays.

2.3m The amount, in pounds, a gang of fraudsters attempted to steal from the Olympic Delivery Authority by falsely claiming they worked for main contractor Skanska. One man, Ansmana Kamara, was jailed for three and a half years.

7.1 The sum, in pounds, construction workers were awarded in accident damages last year in cases brought by union UCATT.

20m The number of 2012 Olympics tickets applied for.

136m The value, in pounds, of the UK’s most expensive flat at the One Hyde Park development in London, snapped up by Ukraine’s richest man, Rinat Akhmetov.

All-Party group seeks examples of best practice in bid to cut costs

The newly formed All-Party Group for Excellence in the Built Environment is to launch an inquiry to pinpoint the best way the industry can create better value in the way it designs and constructs buildings.

The action by the CIC-led group, chaired by MP Tony Baldry, is in response to government demands to reduce costs by 20% in the recent budget.

“We are going to be asking firms and industry bodies to come forward with examples of procurement best practice where projects have been commissioned and completed which has resulted in savings without reducing the standard of design or quality,” said CIC chief executive Graham Watts.

Examples will be narrowed down in September and the best scrutinised by members of the All-Party Group with interviews of those who nominated them.

The process will conclude with a report by the end of the year, which will then by presented to government.

n The CIC is setting up task force to compile a list of regulations it believes are detrimental to the industry in response to the government’s new consultation on which of the 21,000 regulations the industry would like to scrap.


Nelson Ogunshakin

£70bn rail work in Gulf set to tempt UK firms

Gulf governments are investing more than £70bn in rail projects over the next 12 years in a move that will attract UK companies despite unprecedented political upheaval in the region, writes Michael Glackin.

Buoyed by another year of bumper oil revenues, the nations that comprise the Gulf Cooperation Council — Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Oman, Qatar and Kuwait — are using sovereign wealth funds to construct state-of-the-art rail systems.

A report released last month by research group Ventures Middle East said Qatar alone is investing more than £20bn in rail schemes ahead of the 2022 World Cup, including the Doha Metro project, which will create 98 stations in the city and 355km of track.

Qatar is also investing in railway links to Bahrain and Saudi Arabia as part of the £18bn Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) railway project, which will link the six GCC nations by 2016.

Saudi Arabia has committed around £16bn to 23 rail projects including a Makkah to Madina high speed rail link worth £4bn, while Abu Dhabi is poised to be the biggest regional spender in public transport with a proposed investment of £40bn.

Despite the current political unrest across the Arab world, UK companies are keen to tap into the work.

Atkins is currently working on a number of Gulf rail schemes including carrying out preliminary work on the £7bn Etihad Union Railway project in the UAE. The consultant is also working on the £1bn Makkah Metro system, the first phase of which opened last year.

Julian Hill, Atkins regional head of rail, said: “We’re seeing large-scale infrastructure investment across the GCC states. We’ve vast experience on major rail and metro projects such as Dubai Metro, Qatar’s Lusail light railway, Makkah Metro and Etihad Rail, and hope to have a significant role in other similar projects.”

Carillion, which derives 21% of its total underlying operating profit from the Middle East, confirmed it was “looking at Middle East rail work” in light of the huge sums being invested.

Unveiling its full-year results in March Carillion said it expected to double its earnings in the Middle East to around £1bn over the next three to five years.

However, Nelson Ogunshakin, chief executive of the Association for Consultancy and Engineering, said companies should also be aware of the political upheaval in the region. “Firms need to be aware of certain risks. There is still fish in the water in terms of work in the region, but the current political upheaval also shows there could be some piranha in the water too,” he said.

UK Trade & Investments (UKTI) was due to hold a Q&A session on the implications for UK businesses of the continuing wave of political unrest across the Gulf region. Contributions were due from UK ambassadors to each of the GCC nations.

Clear goals will help government roll out BIM, says US expert

A US expert on Building Information Modelling says the UK government needs to be clear in what it wants the technology to achieve before rolling it out across public sector projects.

Jay Bhatt, senior vice president of AEC Solutions at Autodesk, said the UK could avoid the teething problems of the public sector in the US by being more prescriptive. BIM has become mandatory for projects procured by the General Services Administration, the US’s largest construction client.

“When the US mandated BIM it resulted in move towards design and build contracting, which was not necessarily what was intended,” said Bhatt.

A report into the effectiveness of BIM on a number of pilot projects was submitted to the Construction Clients’ Group in March. It is thought the government will press for a timed programme of transformation to BIM on all publicly-funded procurement over £50m.

Bhatt said the UK government should be more specific in how it expects BIM to be used on projects and state what it wants BIM to deliver. “That should be rich information on a building, it should be fully accurate, analysable, and be able to show where the clash points are in the design — as that’s where a lot of waste is generated,” he said.

He added that BIM uptake was becoming more widespread across the world: driven in countries such as the UK and US by the need to improve efficiency in tougher times; and in countries such as Brazil and China by the need to tackle their building boom.

French toast tallest tower

Bouygues Baitiment Ile-de-France, a subsidiary of Bouygues Construction, has handed over First Tower, now the tallest building in France, to owner Beacon Capital. Located at La Défense, the €300m refurbishment of First Tower, which included the addition of 10 new storeys, is part of the nine-year development plan to modernise the 53-year-old business district.


Survey: skills shortages still rife

Nearly four out of five respondents (77%) to an on-line survey of members of the CIOB believe there is still an underlying skills shortage. Lack of skilled domestic construction personnel and reluctance of employers to invest in training and education were the most popular reasons given.

The survey, in which almost 1,000 members took part, was published this week and also threw up on-going concerns about what one respondent referred to as the failure of the apprenticeship system and the future for graduates coming into the industry in light of £9000 a year tuition fees. However, some experts are predicting this will lead to more on-the-job training with day release for academic work.

Of the respondents, 25% believed that higher tuition fees would lead to a fall in the number of students entering construction-related degree courses, with more people coming via apprenticeships and or internships (13%) and from schools and part-time courses (13%). Comments made by respondents suggested this would work to the industry’s advantage.

Michael Brown, deputy chief executive of the CIOB said: ”Day release will probably be the way it will go. At the moment training for construction managers is too focused in the university class room. We certainly need far more engagement between industry and university and hopefully fewer school leavers going to university will lead to a shift to more industry-based learning.”

Meanwhile, seven out of 10 respondents said they were managers. The 2010 CIOB survey indicated that 66% of respondents felt that construction graduates leave university without the necessary skills needed to work in the industry. Asked in this survey which specific skills were lacking, 14% said that graduates lacked the necessary technical skills needed to work in the industry, with problem solving and decision making also flagged up as problem areas.

Respondents said that graduates should do at least 12 months’ work experience during and as part of their degree. A total of 42% said they didn’t think that the standard of teaching on construction related courses at universities and colleges meets the current and future needs of the industry.

Turning to apprentices, two in five (39%) expected no change in the number of apprentices they employed, but half (49%) said their organisation did not employ them anyway and 42% thought that the demand for apprenticeships outstripped supply.

On the economic front, 40% of respondents said they expected industry workload to stay the same, while more than half (50%) expected the workforce to decrease. Over half, (56%) said up to 10% of the workforce had been made redundant this year, while 55% had had a pay freeze this year and 21% had received a pay increase.

The removal of the default retirement age would, said just over one in five (21%) produce an ageing workforce and reduce the opportunities for younger people to get promoted (20%).

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