9 November 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic presented the construction industry with challenges that the whole market was unprepared for. Across the globe, many construction projects were put on hold or scrapped altogether, leaving customers and communities stranded with incomplete projects and planning departments in disarray.

It became clear to me that the only way to survive throughout the crisis was to be adaptable and innovative, while also ensuring we were still providing customers with that first-class service that they expect from us.

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Through embedding Covid-19 safe working protocols, our team at the University of Birmingham School of Engineering was able to handover the first phase of the building in October.

Collaboration is key

As the pandemic hit, many of us reverted to working from our sofas, kitchens, and dining rooms. For us, strong customer and team communications underpinned the successful progression of our projects during this time and I look back with gratitude to the IT and infrastructure investments we had made over the last few years, that ensured we were ready and set for this challenge.

Time sensitivity is one of the most important factors to consider during any project. This is even more significant when buildings are designed for a specific time related purpose or fixed occupation date associated with an event or annual calendar. Building schools is a great example of this, particularly with the current challenges when children have been out of their school environment for most of this year and their education has been more challenging, so it’s vitally important that we complete our obligations to provide the facilities for them, on time and to a quality they should expect. We were particularly mindful of this throughout the preconstruction phase of the Sandwell schools’ developments in the West Midlands, to ensure that the children could return to school this September.

We had been working with our customer pre-Covid in the knowledge that the scheme – which consists of three extensions to current schools - needed to start on site in August so that certain elements would be completed before the children returned in September. When lockdown hit, our team had to switch their way of working - all design facilitation and project meetings were held virtually, with the project team naming customer collaboration as the key factor to driving this forward. A delay to starting on site or to programme overall was not an option for us. In August, the schemes began as planned, incurring no delay from the onset of the pandemic and enabling the programme to keep on track so that the new spaces would be complete on time for children.

On one of our residential schemes, worth upward of £75m to provide affordable new housing, we had to work quickly and collaboratively to redesign the scheme to enable it to become a viable development for our customer. The initial concepts shared with us proved complex and beyond the available budget, so we were asked to complete a fresh design for our customer to create a new more affordable scheme. This was done and approved within two weeks by integrating our cost planners, our designers and our supply chain. Together, we achieved 30% efficiency savings in area and cost on the project. We enabled more units to be incorporated into the scheme due to the efficiency of the redesign, whilst still negating the budget overspend. This reduced the number of buildings required for the scheme as a whole and produced cost, programme and logistical benefits, which unlocked the wider development feasibility.

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Once finished, our Marches housing development in Wolverhampton will provide 266 new homes, combining private sale, shared ownership and council properties.

Added value through development services, feasibility studies, and funding support

Over the past few years, we have seen a clear shift in the demand from customers, especially within the public sector. As they drive to deliver more value from their budget and deadlines become tighter, the fact that we offer that consultative and value-added approach has never been more important.

We help our customers to find the right funding options for them, including cross subsidy grant funding and alternative funding models. We also advise our customers on the planning process and engage through an earlier preconstruction commission – these all enable our customers to benefit from a quicker route to site.

For some of our housing association customers, for example, through our Development Solutions team, we have provided gap funding to enable projects to get moving. Not only has this meant projects have been able to start sooner, it has, in places, also reduced our customers cost of funding, enabling them to deliver better value for local people.

By responding to the needs of our customers we have created ways to help them get the most out of their development by identifying strategic land to acquire, which can unlock better potential from existing assets. Throughout our extensive network, we can also bring schemes and partners together, often finding efficiencies and solutions through multiple stakeholder input.

Our customers can engage directly with us for a feasibility study into their scheme. As well as saving customers decision-making time in the long run by ensuring planning is possible before progressing too far with a given scheme, it also provides us with early indication of their needs, enabling a much more efficient route to site. When we are then at preconstruction stage, we are able to offer more informed partner conversations and supply chain certainty.

Compliant procurement mechanisms

As projects nationwide feel the pinch of Covid-19, whether it be in the form of budget constraints, time restrictions or people issues – the appeal of framework projects continues to rise. Through our positions on national and local frameworks, we can engage through fast, prequalified and OJEU compliant contracting mechanisms.

Getting the procurement process right and engaging with a framework organisation, not only provides investment certainty and project transparency for customers but it also ensures that the project supports the local community whenever possible. We commit to delivering at least ten per cent of the project spend back into the local community and guarantee that 85% of the project supply chain will be made up of local SME partners.

Through some frameworks we offer our surety guarantee; which helps reduce time spent tendering packages, due to the offering of an early GMP, within the customers budget, following a detailed feasibility. That provides customers with both certainty at the earliest possibility­ and a reduced timeline to site, de-risking and accelerating their schemes at the same time.

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Since 2005, we have delivered over £5 billion of projects through the Scape National Major Works framework, including handing over the Whitehouse Medical Centre located in Milton Keynes during the Spring.

Modern construction methods

When lockdown hit projects earlier in the year and the sourcing of materials became a challenge for the industry, we found that our projects utilising offsite manufacturing were in a strong position. Due to the forward-looking nature of building offsite, materials are generally produced ahead of time, in factory conditions; this meant that during lockdown these projects were able to proceed without programme impact. On some of our sites we vested offsite components – one of these included over 700 bathroom pods – to ensure that programme critical schemes were not impacted. Delivering offsite schemes also generally create shorter programme times and benefit from higher quality due to factory mechanisms.

We are working with the University of Warwick to deliver their cutting-edge Interdisciplinary Biomedical Research Building, which will embrace modern methods of construction by utilising an offsite build of more than 50%.