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Back to school

The project to build the new Sandwell College in West Bromwich has overcome financial hurdles and is now on track for completion. Declan Lynch reports.

Sandwell College in West Bromwich is probably the last major further education college that will be built in the UK for some time. It’s a fitting symbol of the extensive further education rebuilding programme that was put place by the previous government.

Sandwell College replaces three existing campuses in nearby Oldbury, Smethwick and Tipton which are all closing and in a state of disrepair.

Converging wings

The new college is split into two converging building wings. The main wing rises from two stories at its western end to eight at its eastern limit topped by a wave-like roof.

“We were ready to go. Then the credit crunch hit and the funding provider had funded more projects than it could afford to pay”

Mark Green, Interserve project manager


The other wing is an eight storey structure. The space enclosed by the two buildings is covered by an atrium, which houses the entrance and forms the centrepiece of the building.

It is a world apart from the three buildings it is replacing.

“This area is very deprived and the school grades are lower than the national average,” says Sandwell College vice president Scott Upton. “The West Bromwich area has suffered from decline and this college is central to the regeneration.”

West Bromwich

The new college is located in the centre of West Bromwich, close to a bus station and the Midland Metro line, and its developers hope that it will help revitalise the area by attracting local students studying A-Levels and vocational skills.

But securing funding for construction has been tough because of the financial problems encountered by project funder the Learning and Skills Council (LSC) which is now defunct.

“We first tendered for the project back in 2004,” says Interserve project manager Mark Green.

Interserve won the original contract in 2004 and worked with architects Bond Bryan to develop the design up to RIBA Stage D standard between 2005 and 2006. There was a hiatus in 2007 as funding was beginning to look shaky but by 2008 the project had been brought up to Stage E, and was ready for construction.


“We needed to reduce the cost of the college from £85M to £77M. We had to think outside the box”

Mark Green, Interserve project manager


“By the end of 2008 we were ready to go,” says Green. “But the credit crunch hit and the LSC [which provided funds for further education colleges] had funded more projects than it could afford to pay.”

Back in 2009 the Public Accounts Committee reported that there was a £2.7bn gap in the Learning and Skills Council budget for rebuilding colleges due to mismanagement.

This created “considerable uncertainty” about the project, says Green. Furthermore, the LSC quango was due to be abolished and existing projects to rebuild further education colleges were put on hold.

“Between 2008 and August 2009 the design team was stood down due to the uncertainty surrounding the project,” adds Green.

Hurdles surmounted

With most college projects axed, Sandwell College had to go through a number of hurdles to gain its share of the remaining small amount of funding left in the LSC’s coffers.

Low education standards in the region helped justify the project but the cost of the project was a major stumbling block.

“We needed to reduce the cost of the college from £85M to £77M,” says Green. So he and his team set-about “intelligent” cost-cutting.

“We had a team of about seven or eight with a design manager working on ways to reduce costs. We needed to think outside the box and work with the supply chain.”

Significant cost reduction

The most significant cost reduction was to raise the building height by 1m. This saved £700,000 in excavation costs. Another major cost-saver was to remediate contaminated soil onsite using seaweed bacteria instead of transporting the soil off site.

Green explains that the bacteria broke down the hydrocarbons in the soil, eliminating the need for specialist cleaning machinery.

“When remediating soil on industrial land, its goes through three stages - hazardous, non-hazardous and inert - when it’s ready to be built on.

“We were able to remove one of the stages - changing it from non-hazardous to inert therefore making significant cost savings on one of the stages,” he says.

In August 2009 the team finally got the go-ahead to proceed with construction. Of the last 17 projects to receive funding from LSC, Sandwell College was top of the pile.

Construction began in September and during the first months, Interserve focused on site remediation.

Hemmed in site

The site is located on an old industrial unit and is hemmed in by the Midland Metro on one side and the busy and often congested West Bromwich Ringway two other sides, so there was a lot restrictions.

“We couldn’t store any steel on site,” says Green adding the footprint of the building takes up 70% of the construction site.

Engineers spent the first four months remediating the land, and then the piling work began in January 2010.

Continuous flight auger (CFA) piles were installed across the site at depths of between 15m and 20m and diameter of 450mm-600mm in sandy clay soil conditions.

Once piling was complete, Interserve could concentrate on constructing the main structure.

“The building is a steel and concrete frame, and the roof is bolted onto it,” says Green.

The college’s lower and upper ground floors are mixed use space, including a workshop and gymnasium.

Above that sits the six floors with a more standard classroom environment.

Split into packages

“We split work into packages, and some were contracted out,” adds Green. “For example MPB Structures worked on the foundation and Slipform UK worked on the cores.”

To aid construction, a tower crane was constructed at the back of the building to lift materials into position.

Two more cranes were required for the most complicated part of the construction process - installing the bow string columns supporting the atrium’s curtain wall.

The glass wall is supported by bow string columns that range from 15m to 33m in height. They are slender to allow for more free space in the atrium. The column tops are connected by lattice roof beams.”To transport them to site, we needed to close the busy West Bromwich ringway, so timing was critical,” adds Green.

“We worked in a critical two week period in October/November 2010 to bring in the trusses,” adds Green.

High winds

Adding to the challenges of using a crane is the site’s location at the top of a hill with very high winds. This has the potential of stopping any crane lift.

“We worked with the Met Office to work out wind speed and direction and tried to plan it.”

All in all the lifts were a success, with the most complicated being the largest arch, which required two 80t mobile cranes in a tandem lift.

Once the arches and then the roof trusses on the atrium were in place engineers could install the roof and the walls.

The college has been designed with sustainable measures such as rainwater harvesting and a combined heat and power plant which has help it achieve a Breeam rating of Very Good.

All of this contributes to a much improved learning environment for students whether they are taking their A-Levels, training as hairdressers, or learning to be mechanics.


Key players

Client: Sandwell College

Lead contractor/designer: Interserve

Architect: Bond Bryan

Foundation contractor:
MBP Structures

Concrete contractor:
Slipform UK



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