Onsite

Witnessing a model construction project

3 March 2019 | By Kristina Smith

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
Cost: £150m
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

Programme:

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.

Good progress

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
than him.”

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.

Comments

Amazing. I would be very interested to see the training that is given to the plant operators. Is it a recognised qualification that can be taken to other construction sites or is it in house and means that when the job is finished they go back to doing whatever it was they did before?

Martin Fulford, 4 March 2019

It is quite amazing what a motivated team can achieve, which I have noticed over the years. In this instance they are motivated by their religion. Self build for the JW's is nothing new and even on the scale of the Colchester project. Take a brief look at the JW website and you will see that they have built in 120 countries and in some pretty remote locations.

Tony Kelley, 5 March 2019

Martin, as One of Jehovah's witnesses I can attest to the fact that any qualifications are usually recognized. You could ask by using the contact details here https://www.jw.org/en/jehovahs-witnesses/contact/britain/

Mr E J Price, 5 March 2019

You can’t but feel an overwhelming sense of pride just reading the article let alone the privilege it must be in being part of a great piece of history. Wish I could be there xx

David Bailey, 6 March 2019

You have to give it to the Witnesses. Whether you agree with their beliefs or not. They practice what they preach.

Mark, 6 March 2019

Really amazing, looking forward to our visit in June of his year 2019.

Peter Armstrong, 7 March 2019

Hello Martin!

Great question! Typically, persons who work on these construction projects are able to parlay their training to outside projects but most of these volunteers are full time volunteers that live on-site. This means that they are trained in other departments where they might be useful. Nothing goes to waste human resources wise.
However, since there are so many building projects all over the world, they are kept quite busy with the training they are given.

Kim, 7 March 2019

Martin Fulford, I have not personally volunteered on a large project but I have friends that do. They volunteer for everything from large projects to smaller Kingdom Halls to disaster relief. What a person does after their time is up to them. I have friends that go for a short time and come home. Others end up being able to make themselves available for “on call” projects and they go when their skill set is needed. It really is an amazing thing to see and is not found anywhere else.

Mandy, 7 March 2019

This is sounds great. Religious belief can be a powerful motivator. My dad spent years volunteering at weekends as a tradesman on self build projects for the witnesses, but to the detriment of his own business, and family's wellbeing. In his eighties, when he needed help with his own small 3 room property there were no volunteers from the witnesses coming forward.
Also, I'm glad women get to drive diggers, sounds fun. However, within congregations they are not given equality, and are not allowed to hold the same positions of responsibility as men. They have to be in "subjection" to men. Which might explain why a women on site was being patronised by her male workmate.

Jane, 7 March 2019

What a refreshing article to read on International Women's Day. Think what you may, but JW's seem to be ahead of the pack in their respect for women, family, community and the environment. Well done. Keep up your good work.

Dennis Davies, 7 March 2019

As a Civil Engineering graduate and an Alumni of Loughborough University, I have always enjoyed working as a volunteer on Kingdom Hall and Assembly Hall projects, mostly in a non-professional capacity.
Brothers and sisters in the faith have always worked together on these projects as far back as I can remember, but this is the first time I have seen sisters driving construction machinery,now they seem to have expanded their talents. Good on them!

Brian Harper, 9 March 2019

Jane, I can't comment on your father's situation because I obviously don't know the facts, but I do know that JWs often help those not of the same belief with rebuilding their homes etc in areas of disaster around the world. With regard to women being in subjection to men in the congregations this is based on scripture and not because they personally view women as inferior in any way. Men themselves are also in subjection to Christ and must treat their wives (and all women) with love and respect as Jesus did his disciples.

Jane, 9 March 2019

One of the comments is way behind the times. Women are not subservient to men in rhe Truth. Either you follow what the Bible says in all things or not in any. Thats why the world is in such a state. People pick and choose what laws to obey. To me Women’s jobs are the most important jobs in the world. What could be more important than taking care of those we love. I wouldnt want to trade with the men. Too much responsibility and stress when it comes to taking care of the Congregation. Working on projects is done willingly. No one forces you. I would love to help, but unable too owing to poor health. Us helping also keeps the cost of building new Kingdom Halls and places like Chelmsford to a minimum. Thus Enabling more help to be sent across the world during times of disasters. As for your dads business. He was old enough to decide for himself what he did with his time and he must have loved every minute of it or he wouldn’t have done it for so long. And many times Brothers have helped us around the home with things we couldn’t manage. But of course their not being mind readers, we had to ask for help. But old age pride sometimes stops us asking. Go see the project at Chelmsford being built for yourself. All are welcome. Yes even Women.

Mrs Phillips, 15 March 2019

I work for the 5th biggest construction company in the world, Bouygues, and because of the positive effect that this development is having and will have with the local community, they are happy for their employees to take two paid days off during the year to help with this amazing project. It is not by chance that this project won the very first innovation credit for a community scheme, thanks to the environmental benefits.

S.M., 25 March 2019

Fantastic if governments were as well organised as this there would be no problems.

Langham Trevor, 9 April 2019

Impressive though the construction is, more so is the friendliness and camaraderie shown on the site. Material things may need constant maintenance and sometimes collapse due to natural disasters (not that I expect such a calamity in this case). However, the kind of love shown here never fails and enriches life far more than any building can do. It must be said though that the site reflects that love and in great measure an impressive respect for the environment.

Bernard Fields, 23 May 2019

I delivered a Lorry Driver’s CPC training course this week. Two of the guys (non Witnesses) enthused about delivering to this site regularly. They told me ‘All the plant ops are women - all of them, everywhere. No men at all! The project is absolutely amazing and is absolutely [rather] huge. (One word has been altered there for obvious reasons). They regret they haven’t been for a little while but hope to very soon.

John Brooks, 9 June 2019

Working on large civil infrastructure projects, It’s blatantly obvious why this project works so well. Take away commercial profit, egos and the what do I get attitude, and what your left with is let’s get this done the best way possible because we want it. Their faith is a true driving force and we all should look at the way we live and apply our own lives.

Mikr, 17 June 2019

This is a great project it shows what can be accomplished when an organization is in unity. Much credit should be given to the large army of women who willingly volunteer their time and energy for this project. Both men and women are working together to accomplish this project for the services provide to the community in order to honor Jehovah God.

Ainsley Brown, 22 June 2019

Take away Greed from any construction project and true harmony will follow!

Mark Dean, 12 August 2019

Was RBC Chairman in California for 30 yrs, Can testify that in over the 100 projects we built in that time there was complete unity and respect among all those on the construction site, My own wife worked in the HVAC dept, for years and enjoyed it immensily.

Without a doubt,the unity and love shared among men and women in the
construction depts.along with deep respect was based on their deep love
of their creator and the desire to bring honor to his name

Dean Holman, 22 August 2019

Truly amazing

Joseph John Colley, 19 September 2019

Visited the site last October. It's just beautiful and so calm and orderly. All done why voluntary monetary donations. Amazing in this day and age.

Yvonne howard, 21 September 2019

Yes, there are a lot of women on the site. But ask if there is a single one working as supervisor or team lead. You will find any. (Expect maybe for a team with only women)

Hans Mustermann, 3 October 2019

Sehr schöner Bericht. Macht mich als frisch pensionierten Architekten neugierig das Ergebnis bald vor Ort zu sehen. Danke

Gerhard Gollub, 6 October 2019

Langham Trevor, the Witnesses believe that what they are doing is actually a project run by a government—God's Kingdom.

Asres Ayalew, 9 October 2019

Hello, interesting article. I'm from Chile and I can say that everywhere you go JW people work the same way. Highly motivated, with a smile, kindness is a must. It is a big difference when making money is not the purpose, but give glory to the One they serve. Congrats!

Pablo Morales, 10 October 2019

Amazing. This is a great project it shows what can be accomplished when an organization is in unity.

Andre Bernardes, 28 October 2019

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