Witnessing a model construction project
Volunteer workers live on site in completed residential buildings (Marco Tidei)
It’s a construction site, but not as we know it. Kristina Smith tours the remarkable new Jehovah’s Witnesses’ live-work headquarters taking shape in Essex.
Walking round the site of the new Jehovah’s Witness (JW) headquarters buildings in Chelmsford, Essex, is a bit like being in a promotional video for what the industry should be like. You can imagine kids watching it and thinking “Yeah, that looks a fun place to work.”
It’s difficult to say what is most shocking: the demographics or the diversity. There are a lot of young people on this site. Lunchtime in the large canteen, one of three sittings, is a bit like being back at university. Walking round the job, there are almost as many women as men, with a woman smiling from the wheel of most pieces of construction equipment.
Jehovah’s Witnesses HQ
Scope: live-work development of 40,000 sq m
Client: Jehovah’s Witnesses
Architectural and structural design: In-house
Building services design: Crofton Consulting
Interior design: John Evans
Fire, security and alarms: Siemens
Landscaping design: Murdoch Wickham
Piling contractor: Van Elle
Concrete frame: HPC
Roofing: Contour Roofing
2014-2015: Site clean-up
July 2015-November 2016: Earthworks
November 2016: Construction begins
December 2019: Construction complete
Everybody is happy here. The senior managers are greeted with waves, handshakes and even a hug. “Everyone here is doing it because they really want to be here,” says Keith Cady, project design manager for JW. “We don’t have to give them a cheerleading speech to get them motivated.”
A mind-boggling 4 million volunteer hours have gone into this 40,000 sq m project which will be a live-work campus and the new UK headquarters for Jehovah’s Witnesses. It is actually several projects in one: six residential blocks, a central building for events and gatherings, an office block, two warehouse buildings, a sports hall and swimming pool. From here, the organisation will print its magazine The Watchtower, and carry out work related to online publication and translation.
Some volunteers have worked on the site for years, some come for a few days, some just for one day. Cady and Rob McRedmond, the project director, have been delivering projects for JW for 33 and 27 years respectively – though this is the first time they have worked together. They describe themselves as “members of a religious order” and receive only what they need to live.
Those who are working on site for a while, stay on site. Four of the six residential blocks are already occupied by volunteers. And there is also a village of caravans. This live-work approach to construction has been lauded by BREEAM assessors as an admirable way to reduce carbon emissions and congestion on surrounding roads.
Given the number of volunteers and the wide range of skills and experience, the other aspect that surprises about this project is the quality of what they are delivering. “Don’t mistake the word ‘volunteer’ for ‘unskilled’,” warns McRedmond. “People are either very skilled or highly skilled.”
In the basement of one of the residential blocks, inspecting the combined heat and power (CHP) plant, the silver insulating lagging around the pipes is the neatest you will ever have seen.
For those packages of work that are subcontracted out, JW’s standards are equally high: “We are not developers, we are building a facility that we are going to live in. When we contract somebody to do the work, we introduce the idea that we want the best work possible,” says McRedmond. “It has surprised some contractors, the level of quality management that we have here.”
Search for a site
JW’s UK branch moved into its current headquarters in Mill Hill, London in 1959. Since then the organisation had changed and grown and over time purchased properties at Wembley, Boreham Wood and Friern Barnet. “Things got fragmented and spread out,” says Cady.
JW’s six-year search for a new home covered 300 sites before it found the 33ha Temple Farm site in Chelmsford, Essex. Having been a car breaker’s yard and an illegal waste processing site, the area was in a sorry site.
Husband and wife volunteers working on drywall installation
Chelmsford Council welcomed them with open arms, says McRedmond, who was involved with the search. “While we had in mind a different property, when we met with the local Chelmsford Council, they recommended this site because planning permission already existed for a previous development that did not go forward.”
Cady says that the planning process has been “very smooth”. “We have never waited for any planning permissions and never been held up in any way by the planning or approval process,” he says.
The council’s planning officers have been intimately involved in the scheme, making suggestions about a whole host of things from windows and views to the style and feel of the buildings. And, perhaps unlike some commercial architectural firms, Cady and his team have been willing to take those suggestions and work with them.
Though thousands of car carcasses were removed by the previous owner, JW still had a massive clean-up operation when it arrived on site in 2014. Much of the ground was contaminated, as revealed by an extensive borehole survey, and 800 tyres were unearthed and recycled. The saving grace was that the contamination was largely limited to the top 600mm, since below that is clay.
The clean-up involved moving the contaminated ground into huge heaps to be sorted through by volunteers for anything recyclable. The remaining muck was then entombed in a clay-lined pit at the edge of the site. The location is registered but should not be disturbed again, says Cady. “That saved us millions,” he comments.
Volunteers will pitch in and help subcontractors (Image: Hannah Shankland)
The landscaping of the site is an impressive project in itself. Landscape architect Murdoch Wickham is working to create what will be a beautiful facility for those living on campus and for local residents, as there is a public footpath running around part of the boundary.
There were several ponds on site which are being added to, with some of them forming part of a SUDS system. Existing trees, including oaks, and ancient hedgerows have been saved and exploited in the design while 700 more trees have been planted. A strategy to increase biodiversity is already bearing fruit, with the return to the site of the endangered European dormouse.
The development has been assessed as Outstanding under BREEAM, only the second to do so under its community scheme. It has also won the very first innovation credit for a community scheme, thanks to the environmental benefits of having much of its workforce living on site.
Several projects in one
Having gained planning approval in 2015, earthworks ran on the site between July 2015 and November 2016 when contractor Van Elle began work on the first concrete-piled foundations.
The five-storey residential buildings, with their in-situ reinforced concrete frames and brick facades, are cleverly designed so that car parks at ground level appear to be underground. Earth is ramped up to the first-floor level, reducing the height of the blocks visually.
Some 700 trees have been planted, and ancient hedgerow saved (Image: Jathan Rogers)
The civic building is steel frame to allow open spans, clad in precast concrete which has come to the site from a fabricator in Belgium. The two warehouse buildings are long-span portal frames with cladding coloured to help blend them into the hills behind the site.
The design team considered four different systems before choosing reinforced concrete in situ frames for the four-storey office block. “One of the reasons we went for reinforced concrete is that it acts as a thermal mass,” says Cady.
The building services for the office, now being fitted out, have been designed to allow the spaces to be open plan, portioned or a combination of the two. “One of the things the client was very interested in was flexibility in design,” says Cady. A system involving 3m by 4.5m modules, with chilled beams, has delivered this requirement. The fire system was a particular challenge, with the solution being an aspirating system.
Both warehouse buildings were well progressed by January 2019, with a steel stud and plasterboard contractor working on office space and changing room facilities at the ends of the buildings. As were the steel-framed sports hall and cross-laminated timber swimming pool, which make up a wellbeing centre.
A huge amount has been achieved on this site in just over two years. The landscaping has progressed in parallel with the building which means that by the time everything is done and dusted at the end of this year, the site will be well established.
Though many construction managers would dread the prospect of working with a mixed team of subcontractor and volunteers, the opposite has been the case here. “Rob and I have not worked on many projects that have run this smoothly,” says Cady. That said, many of Cady and McRedmond’s projects have been overseas where working environments, skills levels and cultural constraints are far more challenging.
“It’s not uncommon for contractors to say this is the best site they have ever worked on.”
Rob McRedmond, project director
The project is run by a committee headed up by McRedmond, with Cady and three others. They take decisions together and have autonomy to run the project in the best way. This includes letting packages out to meet programme and volunteer skills constraints and changing scope where necessary, for instance swapping to permeable asphalt from block paving on a car park to help with programme and budget.
Subcontractors aren’t expected to work with volunteers. However, if they look as if they need it, McRedmond would offer help: “If a contractor is falling behind or does not have the resources, we pitch in and help them. We encourage them to come to us if they have any difficulties.”
It feels like a good environment to work in. “It’s not uncommon for contractors to say this is the best site they have ever worked on,” says McRedmond.
It’s certainly rare to come across a site with its own hairdresser. Yet, here, there is one. A hairdresser who lives in a neighbouring town donates a day or half a day a week. She’s contributing her time, which means fewer expenses to pay to the volunteers, explains McRedmond – which in turn helps the donations from members go further.
Leaving site, it’s still a bit of a shock to be waved at so enthusiastically by the security guards. But it does mean that visitors leave with a smile on their face.
Women make up around 60% of the site’s plant operators (Image: David Bleeker)
Women on site: no big deal
The Jehovah’s Witnesses (JW) project in Chelmsford has almost inadvertently become a champion of women in construction. It came about because many of the thousands of Jehovah’s Witnesses who have turned up to volunteer – some of them for months or years – are women.
“There are a lot of young couples,” says Keith Cady, project architect for JW. “They come because one of them has a particular skill set, in some cases the man, in some cases the woman, although the reality is that it’s more often the man.
“We found we had a number of women on site so we started looking at the best way to use them. We found out that they made excellent heavy plant operators.”
The team put a site training plan in place for a variety of equipment, such as telehandlers, diggers and cranes. Now around 40% of the workforce and 60% of the plant drivers are women.
“We don’t have prejudice. We don’t have wolf-whistling on site or any disrespectful behaviour,” says JW project manager Rob McRedmond, who has worked with women on numerous previous JW projects.
There are female tradespeople on site too. We walk past a male and female plasterer. The man seems to be explaining something to his colleague.
“That’s funny,” comments McRedmond with a wry smile, “because she’s actually far more experienced
The most noticeable thing about this site is that there’s nothing special about being a woman here. And that means that female workers want to stay on the project, and that they encourage their friends to volunteer here too.
There’s got to be a lesson for the wider industry in here somewhere.