Smarter Construction

Posted in Design & Build

A new framework in the West Midlands is helping to deliver high quality schools against a backdrop of severe public sector cuts. Andrew Peasgood, Worcestershire County Council’s framework manager for West Midlands Contractor Framework, explains how

Just as schools get back to work after the summer break, the news comes that the public sector cuts first introduced in October last year are beginning to take their toll on public sector building. It’s been expected for some time, but the Construction Products Association’s (CPA) industry barometer, the Construction Trade Survey has unveiled a 50 per cent decline in public sector (non-housing) workload. That’s a significant fall in output and one directly linked to the government’s 60 per cent capital funding cuts announced last year, and it’s likely to cause concern for those in the construction industry and education sector alike.

While it’s unlikely to come as a shock for many in the industry, to the casual observer these statistics only serve as proof that school building has all but dried up in the UK. But that’s not the case; successive governments have learnt the lessons of the 1980s and 1990s and want to make sure school investment continues – just not on the scale we’ve seen over the last decade. And that’s the nature of austerity, not to avoid spending, but to spend wisely. It means the sector has to become smarter about procurement, construction, the supply chain and the way work is managed.

Partnership Working
This is the background against which the West Midlands Contractor Framework – WMCF – exists. The WMCF was launched in September 2010 by a partnership of local authorities to deliver a range of public sector construction projects in a way that aims to reduce spend without sacrificing quality. Rather than tendering projects individually – an expensive process for contractor and local authority alike – projects are instead awarded on a rotational basis to an agreed list of contractors who are monitored regularly. In the case of WMCF, these contractors are Kier Moss, Thomas Vale Construction and Speller Metcalfe, who have been engaged for the duration of the four-year, £180 million framework.

With the Wyre Forest district of Worcestershire in need of investment in new educational facilities, school building has become an important part of our remit and four new primary schools in this region alone will be built over the next 18 months. It’s a significant investment in a relatively small area, but it’s one that is essential in providing a better quality of school in a region hit by public sector spending cuts in 2010. It’s also important in showcasing what the WMCF – and frameworks as a whole – can achieve.


In an industry where time is often crucial and a school has to be delivered in-line with term dates and times, being able to start on a project as early as possible has huge advantages, and a framework often grants a local authority and a school this opportunity. While traditionally tendered projects often mean a contractor is engaged at a later point in the planning and design of a school, a framework can allow early engagement between contractor and designer. This means practicalities of construction – including material consideration, logistics and design constraints – can be factored into a project at a far earlier stage, reducing downtime, cost and allowing for better project planning. The same benefits apply over the long-term too with learnings from one project feeding into the next, ultimately boosting efficiency and unlocking cost savings.

The four projects that are already underway – Stourport Primary School, St Catherine’s Primary School, St George’s Primary School and Offmore Primary School in Kidderminster – hold these principles at their core. For example, at Offmore Primary School in Kidderminster we’re using the latest in sustainable technology and close working relationships with the designer and contractor to aim for a BREEAM ‘Excellent’ rating. The school, due to open in March 2012, is being built to replace an ageing facility on the same site and is the first WMCF project to target the prestigious award for excellence in sustainable construction. It’s also aiming to do so in a way that ensures it delivers value for money and a high quality learning environment for pupils.

Green credentials

Drawing on experiences from previous projects and by working closely with Worcestershire County Council’s designers, WMCF has introduced a range of technologies to maximise the building’s potential as a sustainable school – and reach the ‘Excellent’ rating. To keep the school warm in the summer and cool in the winter, we’ve looked closely at insulation and how to keep the building as airtight as possible. By reducing the air flow into (and out of) the building, it’s possible to control the temperature of the building with as little energy as possible. Backed by a biomass boiler and high-performance doors and windows, the school’s heating and energy bills will be a fraction of their current cost. Likewise, the use of innovations such as wind catchers and solar chimneys will also limit the need for air conditioning in the summer and bring natural air and lighting into the building, helping to create healthier, lighter rooms and corridors.

Where lighting is required, the latest low-energy bulbs will be installed to cut energy consumption by as much as 80 per cent compared to standard bulbs. Water use will also be monitored, and low-flow taps, toilets and urinals could help reduce consumption by 67 per cent, and with energy and water bills climbing steadily, these aren’t luxuries, they’re designed to significantly cut wastage and contribute to a cleaner and more sustainable environment that offers financial savings now and for years to come.

We’re also thinking about the landscape – an important part of any school. Rather than relying heavily on hard pavements and playgrounds, we’re using Sustainable Urban Drainage Systems (SUDS) to manage and dissipate rainwater. Using natural channels and basins which follow the contours of the site and ground to control water run-off during rainfall, water is dispersed naturally rather than disposed of to artificial drainage systems. At Offmore, the channels will lead to a small, permanent pond and filtration area which, as well as managing storm water, will support wildlife habitats and underpin the school’s role as an educational facility first and foremost.

Naturally, in this environment it’s important we also consider – and promote – recycling and reuse, and we’re working hard to ensure we source and use materials carefully. With the existing Offmore Primary School being demolished on site, we’re transferring as much material as we can from the old school to the new. That means we’re recycling bricks, aggregate and timber where possible to reduce new material costs, transportation and increase our recycling rates. If material cannot be used in the new school, it’s being considered for use in landscaping procedures or sent for recycling off-site.

When material does need to be brought on to the site, we’ve been careful to identify local suppliers of materials such as aggregate and timber. BREEAM takes into account external issues, such as material transportation and CO₂ emissions, so it’s important we’re able to reduce miles travelled from supplier to site. This has the added benefit of reducing costs for transportation and allows us to develop close working relationships with local businesses. We see these relationships as an important part of the framework process that allow us to contribute to the West Midlands economy and give smaller supply chain businesses the opportunity to work across a number of projects over a longer period of time. That’s vital, and it allows them to invest in new technologies, innovations and – importantly - staff.

Celebrating success

The WMCF celebrates its first anniversary this September, and it’s already demonstrating how successful a framework format can be. The decisions made at Offmore – and at its sister projects at St George’s, St Catherine’s and Stourport Primary Schools– are being mirrored elsewhere in the framework, whether that is the use of biomass boilers, low-energy light bulbs or SUDS. We’re also working to capture best practice and co-ordinating cost efficiencies to ensure that we’re not only developing excellent facilities for publics and teachers, but we continue to learn from each of them. This means better customer service and schools delivered in a more cost effective method, in line with our expectations and those of the local tax-payer.

We’re not going to suddenly stop needing new schools, hospitals, libraries and police facilities, but we do – like the Government – recognise there are better ways to build. What we’re doing in the West Midlands is using this opportunity to empower our decisions and look for ways to create buildings that help us achieve cost savings.

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