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Graham Thompson MCIOB

Willmott Dixon

The bespoke, high-value, complex construction project is no stranger to failure. But on the biggest school project in Europe to achieve the ultra-exacting Passivhaus low-energy standard, Graham Thompson delivered not just on time and on budget but also to the highest possible quality for a delighted customer. Pragmatic, disciplined and strategic, he engaged with the stakeholders to buy into the goal. Without shying away from difficult conversations, he ensured a no-blame collaborative culture.

About the Project

Harris Academy Sutton, Surrey

Client: London Borough of Sutton

Contract: JCT D&B 2016

Value: £38m

Complex, high-value, bespoke construction projects are no strangers to failure. But on the biggest school in Europe – and the first secondary school in the UK – to be built to the Passivhaus standard, Graham Thompson delivered not just on time and on budget but also to the highest possible quality and finish. The client and users were delighted.

Without any previous Passivhaus project experience – but having spent a huge amount of time learning everything he possibly could about the ultra-low carbon and energy standard – Graham focused on understanding what was needed to achieve Passivhaus accreditation early in the scheme and engaging with the stakeholders to buy into the goal. He led a major collaborative effort spanning architects, engineers, client and users to fully embrace the demanding quality required. Because Passivhaus maximises the fabric of the building itself to achieve energy efficiency passively, components need to be top quality and installation standards exemplary to hit its stringent requirements.

As the timber cladding was primarily bespoke, with very precise measurements needed, Graham had it manufactured on site so that surveys, checks and rechecks could be done on the spot, giving better-quality, faster production. He also used Douglas fir instead of hardwood – not just cheaper, but more readily available, which lowered programme risk.

He built a full-size mock-up of a section of the building, testing it ahead of the programme to reduce risk, and to agree quality standards and benchmarking. Including two full-size classrooms, the mock-up was the key to achieving the exceptionally airtight envelope requirement of no more than 0.6 air changes per hour (around 14 times more airtight than building regulations require). All major components such as windows, cladding junctions, waterproof seals and walls were installed in the mock-ups, and tested and retested. He achieved a 0.3 air change score for the school (equivalent to 0.7m3/hm2).

A perfect approach, then, but what about the characteristic challenges that every construction project throws up – the unexpected discoveries, the dismaying events, the human-inspired failures, the iron rule of Sod’s Law? It turns out that Graham can manage misfortune rather well.