Constructive relationships

4th November 1994 at 00:00
:Whether you are getting a brand new school or a small extension, it is vital to be clear about what you want from builders, says Rick Rogers

The October 14 deadline for 199596 capital bids had kept the staff of Architects Joint Partnership (AJP) up late for several nights during the week before. They had 86 bids to finalise and send off - and a high annual rate of successful bids to defend. Using experience gained working with local education authorities, AJP currently works with over 100 grant-maintained schools. About a quarter of its school work remains in the local authority sector.

Part of the secret of success - both in bidding and throughout a building project - is having a good client. With grant-maintained status, the client is the school; and with LEA schools, the relationship between head, governing body, architect and surveyor is crucial.

AJP architect Ed Lucey believes that schools become good clients by deciding what they want rather than getting sidetracked into trying to work out how to get it - "That's our job!" Schools should also get to grips with the project's budget - in effect, knowing what it will buy them. Lucey is sceptical about how well schools can assess their needs in detail: "one school thought it needed to expand to eight science labs when their timetabling showed that they only needed five."

"A school must know what it wants. It also has to realise there is more than one way of achieving that," adds Paul Dickie of quantity surveyors Monk Dunstone. Local management of schools and grant-maintained status have "changed everything" - and "since then, schools have been struggling to understand what the procedures are for getting a new building. It is early days and everyone is still learning."

The good client, and much of this applies to an LEA school as well as a GM one, starts by asking architects to carry out a conditions survey well before putting together a specific bid. This enables a school to set priorities, prepare a five-year care and maintenance plan, and assess the need for new building.

Next, decide whom to employ and on what basis. The architect and quantity surveyor are generally appointed at the same time. The architect looks at the school, identifies problems and designs the building. The quantity surveyor costs the design, seeking to ensure that a school gets the building it wants at the best possible price. Some companies offer both services.

For Martin Mackie, who chairs grant-maintained Wood End junior school's governing body (one of AJP's current clients), the key issue so far had been choosing the right architects and achieving a good working relationship with them.

"We examined architects' cvs and looked at other schools they had worked on. We also talked to other schools. But in the end, you have to make your own decision." He cited a school which had agreed to have under-floor heating. Once installed, the teachers said it had been a bad idea; the architects said it was being wrongly operated.

AJP's Bob Matthews adds a further factor: "Too many schools forget to check if a company has professional indemnity insurance." You also want to be sure a company will still be around to sort out any problems two years on.

Ensure that your consultants - architects and surveyors - keep you informed every step of the way. You will also allay the fears of staff and parents by doing the same for them. Bromley's Oak Lodge school, another AJP client, sent out regular newsletters to parents.

Take measures to prevent school life being disrupted and to keep pupils, staff and visitors safe. Be prepared for some disruption, but reduce its impact by writing conditions or "standard preliminaries" into contracts. These might cover keeping the site secure from and safe for pupils and reducing noise during exam time.

Explaining the difference between the local authority and the GM sector, Ed Lucey says that with an LEA school you have to work through local authority officials, however close your working relationship with the school. In general, it can be less bureaucratic working with an individual school. On the other hand, he adds, a local authority brief is usually better thought out than one from an individual school.

Wood End Junior School, Ealing. Grant-maintained schools have the advantage of being able to control their money - once they get hold of some.

In 1992, Ealing's Wood End junior school was in such a bad state of repair that the pupils were evacuated for two days so that emergency work could be carried out. A subsequent local authority survey concluded that it was uneconomic to renovate the building.

However, money for a new school would not be available for several years. By January 1993, the school had gone grant-maintained and a year later, the Department for Education allocated the money for Wood End to tender for a new school.

But the school fell at the final hurdle - gaining planning permission from the local authority - before the project could start. This usually takes about two months, but Wood End found it took l0, and then it was refused permission to build on the grounds of potential traffic problems.

The governors feel that the decision is political - and worse that the DFE might eventually withdraw the Pounds 1.5 million funding because of the delay. The architects are appealing.

Designed by democracy Oak Lodge Primary school, Bromley.

Twelve of Oak Lodge's 21 classes were in huts. After two false starts, Bromley council approved the scheme to build a new classroom block. Governing body chairman Michael Harris explains that his key role in the whole project had been to lobby the LEA and woo committee members over to the scheme.

"You need a three-way partnership: school, LEA project-manager, and architect," says head Mike Totterdell. "You must also build a relationship with the contractor's site superintendent and the local authority's site agent or clerk of works."

Key tasks are ensuring the safety and progress of the work and reducing disruption to the school. It's give and take; for example, the contractor doesn't drill at specific times such as during assemblies; break times are re-organised to prevent a restricted playground becoming too crowded.

The school had a say in the design of the building and was able to discuss changes as the project proceeded, referring to the LEA if extra costs were involved. For example, two separate libraries for infant and junior were combined into a single, larger space; the maths and science teachers got together with the architect to transform an inner quadrangle into a working area including pond, small amphitheatre, large chessboard, and pergola with five different textured areas.

"As head I owe it to the school to get as much as possible." The drawback was that the school never knew how much of the allocated Pounds 2 million budget was being spent. So Mike Totterdell didn't know how hard to press for more equipment or changes.

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