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November 13, 2009

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Construction- University challenge

Coordinating and managing a large construction programme on a ‘live’ university site without jeopardising the experience of students is a huge test, especially in terms of health and safety. Paul Fenwick explains how the challenges are being surmounted.

Integral to its aspiration to break into the top 50 world universities by 2015, the University of Leeds has embarked on a £360m capital development programme to replace old buildings and plant, and provide the infrastructure to enable it to develop the facilities necessary to achieve its goal.

Given the size of the undertaking, and the health and safety challenges posed by such a constricted programme, Leeds’ Estate Services Department made the decision to appoint a lead CDM coordinator, along the lines of the ‘CDM integrator’ employed by the Olympic Delivery Authority for the Olympic Park project, in east London (see ‘Team CDM’, SHP February).

While there are obvious similarities between the two roles — namely, to raise the standard of delivery and provide a continuity of approach across the various projects and appointed service-providers — there are also many different challenges.

The main campus occupies a prominent city-centre location and now incorporates 399 buildings. The university is also the third-largest employer in Leeds, directly employing around 8800 staff and contributing around £860m a year to the local economy. Some 30,500 full-time and 31,000 part-time students are enrolled on a range of 950 courses. All in all, this roughly equates to a population the size of a small town. So, ensuring the continued operation of the university as a seat of learning and research throughout the capital development programme constitutes a major challenge.

Minimising disruption

Part of the lead CDM-C’s role is to liaise with the various faculties and stakeholder groups to ensure that the students’ time at the university is a positive experience. Ensuring that opportunities for learning, teaching and research for staff and students are not disrupted is paramount.

It remains important to manage the expectations of both staff and students. Periodic meetings between contractors and faculty/stakeholder representatives enable the coordination of certain construction activities to take place at specific times, when their impact will be minimised. It is, however, unrealistic to undertake all such activities entirely out of hours, or at weekends, as this would have a massive impact on the financial cost and duration of the project, at a time when the economic climate for higher education — as in many other sectors — looks increasingly uncertain.

Dealing with dissent
While there are those who accept that “you cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs”, and take a pragmatic view of the capital development programme, there are those who remain opposed to any works that they perceive as not being of any tangible benefit to themselves, or their faculty. To allay such concerns, the project team, in partnership with the lead CDM-C and faculty health and safety managers, delivers a series of road-show presentations to give an appreciation of the scale and implications of the construction activity, and how it should ultimately aid the future development and success of the university.

Frequent communication with, and the direct involvement of, the relevant stakeholder representatives in the planning and design process has served to provide a sense of ownership and engagement, thereby reducing the level of opposition and number of complaints received.

Logistics
In contrast to the Olympic Park development, which is essentially a brownfield site served by road, rail and waterway links, the city-centre location of the main campus location presents significant logistical challenges. Access to the southern end of the campus is restricted by a bridge traversing the A58(M), which has a vehicle gross-weight limit of 7.5 tonnes.

The campus has developed organically over the past 178 years, retaining many of the features associated with its 19th-century roots, i.e. internal roads unsuited to large construction traffic, with numerous ‘pinch points’. These can be difficult to negotiate in a car, let alone a 16m articulated vehicle, and there is a limited number of vehicle parking spaces. Delivery restrictions are commonplace, particularly affecting those sites located adjacent to the most heavily pedestrianised areas of the campus.

In response to environmental-noise restrictions, many contractors have adopted a ‘call-off’ system for vehicles, marshalling supplier vehicles off campus and using a nominated transport coordinator to ‘call them in’ when necessary. Trained banksmen are required to be in attendance at all times to supervise construction vehicle movements adjacent to the site entrance.

The subject of vehicle parking can be emotive. It is anticipated that at the peak of construction activity, by the middle of 2010, there will be a 36-per-cent reduction in the number of parking spaces that was available pre-development. This situation will eventually be redressed by the construction of a new multi-storey car park, incorporating around 600 parking spaces, due to be completed by October 2010. However, during the interim period, a number of staff and visitors will need to find a parking space off-campus, or resort to using public transport. Such measures will not prove popular with some, who will regard the temporary loss of their parking space as a loss of privilege.

Meanwhile, parking within the campus is strictly controlled. Contractors are only issued with a single parking permit by security services and are not allowed to park vehicles within their site compound for more than 30 minutes to drop off or collect personnel, equipment and materials. Operatives’ private cars are not permitted on the campus under any circumstances.

Space restrictions
A major hurdle to overcome is the space constraints associated with establishing the site, laying down materials, and creating storage areas. As well as the aforementioned access problems at the southern end of the campus, a delicate balancing act also exists in terms of establishing the construction site while also maintaining areas of public green space. One consequence of this is that some sites are essentially ‘shoe-horned’ into what limited space has been made available.

Space constraints can also be minimised by finding ways in which the various contractors can cooperate — for example, in terms of establishing shared welfare, messing, storage and lay-down areas, and minimising the number of compounds and cabins located on the campus. This is a huge challenge for the lead CDM-C, particularly as the capital development programme ramps up, and involves working closely with other members of the estate-services team, including: security services, capital projects, maintenance and operations, cleaning services, and the fire safety managers, in order to identify those areas of the campus that can be best used.

Traffic segregation
Pedestrian traffic within the area of the main campus is almost continual, with the main body of students moving from their classes every hour, on the hour. Numerous ‘short courses’ are held in the evenings and members of the public use many of the university facilities out of hours. The campus is also used as a shortcut to get from one area of the city centre to another.

In addition, large numbers of pedestrians are also concentrated within a very small area of the campus at specific times of the year — the main body being within the area around University Square and the Great Hall during graduation ceremonies in July and December; the staff festival in July; and the university open day in June. Such events add to the existing health and safety issues of vehicle parking, unfamiliarity with the campus layout, etc.

A programme is currently being undertaken to upgrade and improve the number, location and clarity of visitor information and directional signage throughout the main campus. In addition, rigorous checks are undertaken by the project officers and appointed CDM-Cs during their periodic site visits and formal inspections to ensure that construction-site warning and directional signage is in place and is prominently located. Some people, as we all know, consider construction signs and traffic cones to be worthy ‘trophies’.

The lead CDM-C is instrumental in liaising with representatives of the university-appointed CDM-Cs, the project-design teams, and the university fire safety, cleaning and security services, to ensure that proposed construction sites and traffic routes: are segregated from pedestrians; incorporate a suitable and sufficient number of designated crossing points; do not restrict access for cleaning and maintenance or emergency service vehicles; that the minimum number of car-parking spaces is taken up; and that disabled access provision is retained. The estates administration team advises relevant stakeholders of any disruption to services, or large volumes of construction traffic movement likely to impact on their area of the campus.

Risk perception

The demographics of a university campus are unique — the majority of students being between 18 and 21 years of age. This can sometimes result in problems with appreciation or perception of risk. Additionally, every September the university receives a new intake of undergraduates, the majority of whom are unfamiliar with the campus layout.

Maintaining site security poses a headache for most contractors working at the university, particularly those working on larger stand-alone projects, whose sites are vulnerable to the potential of unauthorised entry. While vehicular access on to the main campus is strictly controlled, pedestrian access is unrestricted. As previously explained, members of the public and students use the campus as a shortcut, heading back to their accommodation after a night out in Leeds city centre, and the presence of a security guard does not always serve as a deterrent to the occasional irresponsible act of behaviour.

A key area of focus will therefore involve raising student awareness of the dangers posed by construction sites, in conjunction with the university’s health and safety services team of faculty safety managers. This is done through the lead CDM-C delivering a series of ‘road-show’ presentations to students on their return to the university from the end of September. The ‘campus Web’ and student ‘Reporter’ magazine are also invaluable tools in disseminating information to staff and students alike.

Concurrent construction and scheduled maintenance activities will also continue to be undertaken in conjunction with the capital development programme. A number of small-to-medium-sized refurbishment and fit-out projects — typically £250,000 in value and of a 10 to 12-week duration — are programmed to take place throughout the campus buildings, with the main glut of activity typically scheduled during the student holiday periods, over Easter and the summer. Such works often involve power and other services outages, with the potential to impact on larger neighbouring sites.

There have also been instances in the past when directly-appointed contractors have commenced work unannounced, within the confines of a neighbouring site. In some cases, their presence has only been drawn to the attention of the principal contractor following a ‘near-miss’ incident.

Although the majority of works are programmed by the estates-services projects and design office, or information systems services (ISS), faculties also have the autonomy to appoint direct contractors and commission works themselves, sometimes unbeknown to estate services, or ISS. The lead CDM-C is therefore pivotal in terms of establishing frequent liaison between the various parties to enable better planning and coordination of works.

Summary

The challenges facing the University of Leeds in this area over the next three years are significant but surmountable. For the lead CDM coordinator, this means maintaining the focus firmly on health and safety during the design and construction phase while ensuring that the capital development programme achieves its stated aims of delivering first-class facilities and high-quality buildings that contribute to an exceptional student experience.

Paul Fenwick is a senior consultant currently seconded to the University of Leeds as lead CDM coordinator.

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