Project restart: building schools for the future

Adrian Hill, director of operations at public sector owned procurement specialist Scape Group, explores how education authorities can address building and refurbishment delays during the ongoing pandemic as the construction industry looks to embrace new methods of project delivery.

As lockdown restrictions continue to ease across England and Wales, more than 95 per cent of construction sites have now restarted their operations. However, the pause in activity during lockdown, combined with the added restrictions of new social distancing measures, will undoubtedly cause many projects to overrun both this year and next.

Clearly, any prolonged shut down will have financial repercussions for the construction industry and those employing it. The current predicament is that project costs and delivery times will be further exacerbated by the implementation of social distancing on sites. In the education sector, delays to school building or renovation projects are all the more impactful as they can cause further disruption to the school day – a significant issue for those already tasked with bringing children back to school safely.

However, as schools await further government guidance on how best to reopen their doors, education authorities should have the confidence and reassurance that the challenges facing their project plans can be overcome – whether that is through novel delivery methods or greater investment in ensuring watertight project management. What’s clear is that collaboration between schools and their contractors will be essential to ensure a positive and mutually beneficial solution is found in every case.

Project delays – who pays?

For construction projects that have overrun or been suspended due to the outbreak, education bodies and contractors are rightly questioning where the liability lies.

Broadly speaking, New Engineering Contracts (NEC) already have the answers to these questions, or rather, the mechanisms that allow clients and contractors to resolve issues created by unforeseen events.

Unlike more traditional agreements, NEC contracts don’t attempt to lay down respective liabilities for each party in every circumstance. Instead, both parties are given a framework under which they can work together to overcome unforeseeable events including compensation events, bonuses or penalties without ending up in court.

Regardless of whether the contractor closed the site gates, or the school has decided to hit pause on any further work, the NEC contract provides a safety net for both the client and contractor to come together to negotiate a way through.

Understandably, regular communication between the education authority and lead contractor will be paramount in the coming months, as both parties look to return to the negotiating table to forge a way through to deliver on what was originally planned.

Modular builds – the key to a quick recovery?

While the short-term impact of coronavirus on live projects is clear to see, questions are also now being asked about the long-term recovery and what this means for the demand for infrastructure across the education sector - with many turning to alternative design methods for the answer.

Modular build designs used to translate into prefab huts situated at the back of the school grounds that were ill-suited to a teaching environment. Yet, in recent times, the design process has been actively promoted by the government and heralded as the safer and quicker way to deliver new developments.

One of the major attractions of the modular build process is its time-saving capacity and guaranteed scales of delivery, which, when contending with the complications of constructing on an operational school site, which is already disruptive in nature, can be worth its weight in gold.

Reducing the amount of labour-intensive time spent on site by constructing the project under controlled plant conditions can significantly lessen the overall build time, making the project more time and cost-effective.

The ease and speed of off-site construction methods can also allow a business manager in a school to have full sight of the various project phases and have a clear picture of the progress from the factory floor to when the lorries arrive on site. Every modular build project will have a guaranteed period of time from concept to delivery that all parties can work towards.

The impact of coronavirus has also strengthened the global commitment towards reducing carbon emissions, following several months of lockdown. Alternative construction methods can be a vital component in this new future, as the public sector looks to a play a lead role in the UK’s commitment to reaching net-zero carbon by 2050. Fewer deliveries are required with modular construction which will not only reduce a project’s carbon footprint but will also contribute towards lowering noise pollution as well.

The road ahead

Like the UK’s commitment to achieving its carbon objectives, the road to recovery will be a lengthy process, as projects continue to respond to the government’s scientific advice during these challenging times.

Contract reassurances and advances in modular builds can only go so far. Ultimately, communication will be at the heart of the recovery as we look to restart many existing and future infrastructure projects across the education sector.

In many respects, the lockdown has improved the lines of communication among businesses, both internally and with supporting organisations. Therefore, it’s vital that education authorities and project partners engage in genuine and collaborative conversations to address any delays and establish what good and effective project delivery looks like on the road ahead.