What normally happens when things go bad in the development industry is that companies turn on each other.
You’ll never hear anyone talk about it, but it all gets very legal, very quickly. And that’s why you won’t hear much about teamwork either, because that’s normally in short supply.
People forget what is possible when you work together, and the hard deadline hanging over student developments means it’s even more vital that obstacles like lockdowns sharpen minds, not knives. They simply must be ready on time.
Today, I’m going to break with tradition and tell you exactly how we got ours back on schedule.
When the first lockdown happened, we had three schemes underway in Guildford (Guilden Park), Loughborough (Luxurio) and Nottingham (The Vantage) worth a combined £220m and comprising 1,500 beds. All three must be finished by the start of the 2021 academic year.
The problems started stacking up quickly. Our construction partner McAleer & Rushe (M&R) had to close all sites during the first lockdown for six weeks. Heavy machinery had to be taken offsite, which immediately meant wasted time having to mobilise them again.
The first order of business was being totally transparent about our financial and onsite situation with Southern Grove’s equity partner in Future Generation, Tadhamon Capital, as well as our preferred debt provider, Maslow Capital. We were in a relatively strong position, so the worst outcome would be seeing the wheels come off just because basic information was not being communicated.
Straight away, in March, we leveraged those existing relationships to refinance two existing PBSA projects (Sheffield and Colchester) from development finance with Maslow Capital to investment finance through a fund advised by DRC Capital. This then allowed us to secure development finance with Maslow Capital to complete the latter stages of the Loughborough and Nottingham schemes.
Information sharing was the first big change. We decided, there and then, that Future Generation and M&R were going to have more crisis meetings than Boris Johnson.
One of the biggest headaches was procurement. Construction is all about timing and, even if M&R had all the people they needed on site, schedules would rapidly slip if the materials weren’t there. There had already been shortages of dry lining and metal cladding elsewhere in the country.
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We war-gamed that problem with M&R and asked them to think outside the box. They came up with a plan to mitigate potential procurement problems by buying materials well in advance. That meant we had to pay for those materials, backed by vesting certificates, upfront. It was unusual, but it was a price worth paying. Because of the sums involved, the whole company from Maslow Capital, to Tadhamon to M&R were involved in that decision — contractors normally only get paid for materials once they’re on site.
M&R’s next big innovation was to turn to offsite construction to save time, including pre-assembly of mechanical pipework, such as the hot and cold pipework going into the bedrooms, which was extremely effective.
There were unforeseen one-off problems, too. The piler in Nottingham took a week to remobilise and, in Loughborough, the groundworker was hit so badly by the fallout of the pandemic that they had to pull out. Fortunately, M&R’s loyal supply chain stepped in.
Other suppliers like Walker Modular, which provides our modular bathroom pods, bounced back as well as we did and continued to deliver crucial elements on time.
The local authorities in Loughborough and Nottingham helped us work longer hours on site.
We shifted to paperless transfer of data and reduced delays in project management in a way that means we’ll never go back to the old ways of working. We were already using technology on site to share information, but not on this scale and with such frequency.
It used to take design teams weeks to organise simple meetings, and these were suddenly being dealt with in hours using Microsoft Teams.
M&R handled the onsite Covid measures brilliantly, despite 300 people being spread across all three projects. It was crucial to the confidence of those coming to work, none of whom wanted to take the virus home to their families.
M&R enforced mask wearing before the industry recommended it. Handwashing and drying facilities sprung up overnight, starting at the gate and continuing across the sites, with ‘Covid marshals’ helping everyone adjust to the new normal. They introduced staggered start times, secondary site exits, and fingerprint scanners were decommissioned in favour of contactless cards. The site canteen and toilet facilities doubled in size, and workers had to make a self-declaration that they were symptom-free every day.
Lastly, we accelerated along the design path, having daily planning meetings, and plotting in the fixtures, fittings and soft furnishings that would go into communal areas months before we normally would. Every area of design was finalised early to avoid loss of momentum on site. All rooms were redesigned to create a superior, hospitality-led product.
Having built through Covid, it’s amazing how much of what we achieved was founded simply on good communication. Thanks to the virus, the way we work will never be the same again.