CMYA Finalist

Employer: Willmott Dixon Construction

Project: Ysgol Caer Elen, Haverfordwest

Having to rip up the programme just before starting on site was a bolt from the blue that could easily have demolished Rhodri Bowen’s all-through school project. When the news broke of a six-week delay in the removal of an overhead cable running across the site and through the building footprint, it could have spelled the end before the scheme had even got properly under way.

The critical path commenced with the construction of a 4m-high, 140m-long retaining wall to hold the ground for a single-level primary school linked to a two-storey secondary school on the upper part of the site. With the major cut and fill that would prepare the ground for the wall unable to proceed with the power cable in place, the delay halted all works on what was already a tight timetable that staked everything on getting the primary school open for the start of the school year. If that opening couldn’t be achieved, then the whole scheme could well be shelved.

All the preconstruction preparation had followed the obvious building logic of working on the much bigger secondary school first (it required 700 tonnes of steel compared with the primary’s 40), so Rhodri’s decision to turn that on its head by building the primary first was a huge call. Realising it was the only way, he flipped the build, reprogrammed, replanned and generated a new vision for the team and the supply chain. It was a difficult reboot that caused a great deal of worry and pressure, but Rhodri’s positivity swept the team and the professionals along and the new approach quickly became accepted as the pragmatic answer to a vexing question.

Once the bullet had been bitten, the project shot along. Rhodri switched the extensive brickwork to cladding or render wherever possible. It brought programme certainty and an earlier end to weather dependence, and avoided the problems posed by the dearth of local bricklayers.

He promoted quality incessantly. Discussing the carpeting on the tiered seating of the central open atrium as simply not good enough, he suggested a more expensive oak finish. Reconfiguring the external multiuse games areas and pitches to omit a retaining wall, he offered the client the saving in the hope it would pay for the change in the material. It didn’t, so he paid for the oak finish out of contractor funds.

The defect-free handover and the delivery of the primary school on time and the secondary school six weeks early belie just how challenging this scheme was.