CMYA Awards 2010
Despite the tough trading conditions, this year’s Construction Manager of the Year Awards show how the industry’s best managers continue to strive for high standards and innovation. Roxanne McMeeken finds out why the judges picked Neil Matthias as the overall winner. Photographs by Peter Guenzel.
Imagine construction managing a five star hotel complex that is part new build, part restoration of a semi-derelict listed building, plus some demolition and major excavation thrown in. Around it, you are turning acres of potato fields into a championship standard golf course. Then add the frisson of your specialist spa contractor going bust weeks before the hotel’s opening date.
This was the scale of the challenge taken on by Neil Matthias, project leader at Shepherd Construction, that earned him the title CIOB Construction Manager of the Year 2010. When CM caught up with him after receiving his award at last month’s awards ceremony at London’s Grosvenor hotel, Matthias agreed that the £44.5m Rockliffe Hall project in Hurworth-on-Tees, Darlington, was about as tough as they come. “If you could choose a job that would challenge you to the max, this would be it,” he says.
Matthias, whose sing-song lilt gives away his Durham roots, started his career at 16 as a YTS joiner with Shepherd. Now 39, the sheer amount of plates he kept spinning during the project and the innovations he introduced prove how far his career has come. Of the 101-week programme, he says: “I have worked on prisons and hospitals but I have never had so many things going on at once — that’s what really fired me up.”
The project, on a 375-acre site, entailed transforming the 150-year old Grade II-listed hall and orangery into a five-star hotel with 10 en-suite bedrooms, building a further 33 en-suite rooms in a new-build wing, plus six free-standing apartments and 12 “apartels”, or serviced apartments. As well as the golf course, there was also a championship level clubhouse, a 4,645m2 pool and spa complex, and extensive external works.
It was always going to be tricky, but as soon as the project started in November 2007, Matthias had to change the original programme to take account of bats that were roosting in the hall. Alternative places for the bats to roost had to be built nearby and until they had successfully migrated — a year later — the hall could not be touched. As well as delaying work on the hall, the sensitive task risked derailing progress on the golf course, which required moving and stockpiling a million cubic metres of soil and planting grass that needed a year to bed in.
Matthias avoided incurring extra time or cost by switching the programme to bring forward other works. The accelerated packages included demolishing a building next to the hall, digging tunnels, enabling works on the roads and starting some of the new-build elements.
The sensitive tunnelling operation took place under the old hall. The original plan had been to dig two separate basements for back-of-house facilities and a tunnel along the side of the building so that staff wouldn’t have to pass through public areas of the hotel. “They didn’t think it was possible to tunnel under a 100-year-old building as the foundations would be in the way,” explains Matthias. But then he discovered an existing disused tunnel, which he decided to use and extend under the hall. Chris Richards, who runs the judging process for the CMYA, says: “Anyone else would have filled it in but the fact that he thought, ‘let’s use it’ was brilliant.”
Compared with the original plan, which would have entailed onerous digging and shoring-up, the new approach shaved 10% off the cost of the tunnel and four weeks off the tunnel programme.
But this wasn’t an easy option, as it meant extensive underpinning of the delicate old building while excavations took place beneath it. “Lots of people said it couldn’t be done. And it didn’t seem to have been done before, so we didn’t have previous projects to learn from,” says Matthias. He designed all the temporary supports himself and says it “worked a treat”.
Then there was the old hall’s roof. Each tile had to be removed and preserved while the timber underneath was replaced. Matthias dropped the original plan to erect a huge tent over the entire building to protect it while the work was taking place, a solution which would have cost around £80,000. Instead, the work was done in phases, keeping a close eye on the weather and using tarpaulin to cover any exposed areas. The cost shrunk to a more manageable £4,000.
Matthias’s final test came when the specialist building the hotel’s spa went bust three months before it was due to open. As Matthias says, it was a severe setback. “A lot of stuff on site you can control but this put heart in my mouth. I had a half-built swimming pool and hydra pool and if another firm came on board I knew they’d be able to name their price.” So Matthias set up a series of meetings with the contractor’s owner, which resulted in a deal under which he agreed to finish the job.
Matthias had 250 operatives on site at peak and the labour force “never went below 220”. The majority were Shepherd employees rather than subcontractors. “We had our own concrete squads, ground workers, terrain layers, joiners, bricklayers and so on. So rather than just managing contracts we had to manage our own men, which meant everything from ordering materials to dealing with their HR issues.”
Matthias’ days on the tools and subsequent experience at various levels on site informed his democratic approach to partnering under the PPC2000 contract. He immediately brought in the in-house trades and external subcontractors for a series of design workshops with the architects.
“We sat everyone down together and programmed out delays. The subcontractors found out who would be following them and how they could make each others’ lives easier.” This approach worked so well that Matthias used it as the basis for his NVQ Level 3 in Business Improvement Techniques.
Matthias also held daily morning “huddles” where the foremen reviewed the programme and agreed what would be done that day, a technique overlaid with longer-term six-week look-ahead plans.
One unusual idea he instigated was to set up a mini-weather station on site, a kit bought for £500 that included an anemometer for measuring wind velocity, equipment to track rainfall, and a wireless device to transmit the readings to the laptops of Matthias and various foremen. “Work on the golf course was heavily dependent on the weather, so it really helped with that,” he says. “But it also told us when wind was coming, which meant we would stop using cranes and programme around that, as well as predicting rain so we knew when we could lay bricks.”
Matthias also managed to trial a Reactec device that monitors operatives’ use of tools to cap their exposure to vibrations (see p52), and a Hilti remote-control-operated wall saw. Matthias also collaborated with local schools, where he ran fortnightly visits to get children interested in construction.
Matthias’s collaborative style helped win the admiration of Rockliffe Hall chairman Warwick Brindle, who says: “To say we are delighted is an understatement. When we came up against challenges, all parties pulled together to find an innovative solution.”
The final word goes to CMYA’s Richards, who says Matthias is a true all-rounder. “He knows everything about construction — financial, structural, technical – and I have never seen such attention to detail. He earned the respect of everyone we met on the project.”
How can you win CMYA 2011? We asked judges and past winners for their tips on catching the judges’ eye
1. Become best friends with the client
“Make the client trust you by fulfilling promises and they will trust your judgement. At the end of the project, if they try to make a change that will jeopardise the job, be firm with them – and if you’re friends they’ll listen.”
Richard Tyler, BAM Construct, who won a gold medal in 2009
2. Have a thick skin
“Sometimes you can get people to do things by using the carrot, but other times I’m afraid the stick is needed. Be prepared for the fact that at the end of the project you may not be everyone’s best friend.”
Paul McGee, Bennett Construction, who won CMYA Ireland in 2003
3. Speak different languages
“You need to adjust so that when you’re addressing architects you’ re speaking their language but when you’re with subcontractors you’re on their wavelength too.”
Philip Rowley of BAM Construct, a previous winner and now a member of the judging panel
4. Understand everyone’s goals
“You must ensure the end result is both fit for purpose and to the satisfaction of the end user as well as all members of the project team, from client to architect to specialist contractor.”
Chris Richards, co-ordinator of the CMYA judging process
5. Prepare for the judging process
“Swot up for the interview with the judges as thoroughly as if you were bidding to win the job all over again – we are extremely thorough.”
Past winner and current judge Philip Rowley
6. Just be yourself
“In the interviews I wasn’t prepared for a lot of the questions asked and I fumbled my words a bit, but I think what helped me was being truthful about my experiences on the project and showing my genuine passion for what
I had achieved.”
Andy Lee from Kier Wallis, who won a gold award in 2009
7. Stick to your guns
“Make sure you work on convincing the judges you deserve to win. If you don’t agree with what the judges say then
tell them, my interview was very vocal! It’s worth preparing thought-provoking answers for the five-minute presentation.”
2009 gold medal winner Gary Colton from Kier Marriott
8. Don’t hide problems from the client
“On complex projects it’s vital to deal early on with any issues that might cause a delay or incur serious costs, and involve the client in the decision-making process, so they are aware of the implications of any problems.”
2009 gold medal winner Harry Dhanjal from Willmott Dixon