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Construction Manager of the Year Awards 2009

7 January 2010

After detailed interviews and site visits, this year’s CMYA judges concluded that no fewer than 115 individuals had attained the standards of professionalism, technical expertise and team-building skills necessary to reach the final. Over the next 25 pages, we tell the stories behind the success of overall winner David Wilson (above), and 23 gold and silver medalists – the  very best of the industry’s distinguished high-fliers. Photographs by Ed Tyler

A modest man by nature, David Wilson would never have expected to be named Construction Manager of the Year. But the judges just couldn’t ignore his work at York St John University’s De Grey Court. Elaine Knutt met him

Into the limelight

 

Amid back-slapping congratulations, an impromptu congratulatory speech from
his Morgan Ashurst director, and even an off-the-cuff job offer from another contractor, David Wilson is enjoying the aftershock of having been awarded the title of Construction Manager of the Year. Several judges single him out to tell him he was their unanimous choice and last year’s winner Anthony Joubert (below right) is on hand to offer his congratulations. “Did your life change?” Wilson jokingly asks him.

But even if that job offer is the first of many – “I told him he couldn’t afford my prices!” was Wilson’s quick-fire response – it seems unlikely that certain aspects of his personality and professionalism will be changing. Throughout all the commotion, the 44-year-old responds to the demands on his attention with a smile, a joke and a promise to return later, politely prioritising what happens to be the task in hand – an interview with CM.

As he describes his achievements on York St John University’s De Grey Court, it becomes clear that Wilson’s personal warmth and people skills had a great deal to do with how he ran the project. Describing the no-blame culture within the team, he also talks about “the necessary evil” of email.

“I say, always make a phone call, or pay someone a visit. And if you’ve got to
break bad news, don’t send an email then go to lunch – pick up the phone and talk to them!”

Wilson, a graduate of Ulster University, also stresses the effort he puts into building team relationships and a positive atmosphere. “Life’s work is hard and can sometimes take over, so it’s important that we have some good times along the way,” he says, his accent a blend of his Northern Irish upbringing and his 20-plus years in Yorkshire.

De Grey Court, which consisted of a new-build teaching block and the refurbishment of two grade-II listed houses, no doubt generated its fair share of bad news. First, the client had a fixed budget of £9.344m, making it crystal clear that there could be no overspend. It meant that every item of extra expenditure had to be offset with cuts – and knock-on problems – elsewhere. Wilson succeeded in implementing a tough but necessary strategy. As he told awards host Natasha Kaplinsky: “My wife now understands the meaning of cost neutrality!”

The technical complications were considerable, including an M&E spec of chilled beams and underfloor heating in the new building, and archaeology and underpinning in the refurbishment. But Wilson highlights the project’s location and the resulting logistics challenge as the hardest nut to crack. The site was surrounded by three major traffic routes, other campus buildings and a residential area. “The location on the busiest junction in York was a challenge in itself, as was trying to keep to a build sequence that let us get all the materials in and out.”

Then there were the 57 planning conditions to adhere to, Morgan Ashurst’s commitment to using local suppliers and sub-contractors, and the immovable deadline of the start of the academic year.

But Wilson’s biggest achievement was undoubtedly delivering the design quality that makes De Grey Court the CM cover star and the proud recipient of an RIBA regional award. Under the design and build contract, London-based architect Rivington Street Studio was novated to Morgan Ashurst. As practice director Charles Thomson says, such a relationship can easily become dysfunctional if the indefinables that make up design quality end up at odds with the all-too-definable metrics of budget and programme.

But at De Grey Court, Wilson was responsible for putting quality top of the agenda. “We had our arguments and debates, but there was a very clear sense that they wanted to achieve a quality product, and David Wilson was at the head of that,” says Thomson. “They understood our standards and were rigorous with their sub-contractors if things weren’t going well. David was the lead man, very passionate and interested in the project, and endlessly pushing for design quality.”

Wilson’s passion for the project began during the tender stage, when he was put forward as Morgan Ashurst’s project manager and drew up a strategy to cut £1m from the budget. According to Chris Richards, chair of the judging panel, it was his honesty about the problems ahead that impressed the client and won Morgan Ashurst the job. “He laid out all the logistical problems that would be encountered, and applied his knowledge of construction to solve them. This is an experienced client, and he says that De Grey Court is the best he’s ever done.”

The project is now a landmark in York, and a turning point in Wilson’s professional life. “What does winning the award mean? It gives me the confidence that how I’m running projects must be going along the right lines,” he says modestly. “It’s about working together to find a solution for every problem.”

As for the future, he’s thinking ahead to a celebratory weekend away with his wife, and working on projects closer to home and his young family in Shipley, West Yorkshire. Apart from that, he’s just concentrating on enjoying the moment.

Finalists

PROJECTS OVER £45m

 

PROJECTS £20–45m

 

PROJECTS £15–20m

 

PROJECTS £7–£10m

PROJECTS £5–£7m

PROJECTS £2–£5m

PROJECTS £2m AND BELOW

PFI

RESTORATION

RESIDENTIAL OVER £14m

RESIDENTIAL UNDER £14m

 

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