Balfour Beatty's Stephen Tarr (CENTRE) practises partnering with HA's Steve Edwards (LEFT) and Mouchel's John Watson.
Last week, 20 engineers spent two days locked away in a hotel in Derbyshire's Peak District discussing, for the most part, the weather.
The bad news was that the group was facing up to two months earthworks delay induced by wet weather on the latest £50M section of the M60, Manchester's outer ring road. The good news was that all the contract's major participants - client, contractor, designer and subcontractors - were collectively brainstorming ways to overcome the problem.
They emerged from this latest partnering workshop confident that not only will acceleration plans ensure the delay can be totally recovered, but that the speed-up can be achieved without a mountain of claims.
The contract is the HA's first to boast what its promoters see as the key essentials to a 'best practice' project - partnering, design and build, plus a two envelope tendering exercise concentrating on quality rather than price.
'These ingredients make us confident of completing this contract on time and with certainty of outturn costs,' says HA project manager Steve Edwards. 'On most contracts, if we have a problem it is not unusual for the contractor to spend his time telling us why he cannot solve it. But here, we discuss an agreed solution with everyone wanting to make it succeed.'
Edwards is not expressing bland generalities. He is the HA engineer who has recently had to take much of the flak surrounding the appalling record of other Manchester ring road contracts.
The Highways Agency let four contracts to plug the 17km eastern gap in the planned 56km M60 orbital around the city. The first three contracts - tendered at a total £168M - have so far notched up £50M worth of agreed claims; a figure that could well rise to £70M plus. And these contracts have, on average, each run 12 months late.
Only this fourth and final contract - the closing 9km link running through the city's north eastern suburbs near Chadderton which was awarded to Balfour Beatty Major Projects last May - looks to be avoiding the over cost and budget scenario.
All the contracts run through roughly the same problematic ground conditions that are the cause of most of the delays. The difference lies essentially with the form of contract.
Earlier contracts were based on the potentially confrontational ICE 5th Edition. The latest is the HA's own design and build format with both two envelope tendering and compulsory partnering built into the contract.
The eight lane motorway section follows a largely urban and semi rural route. Three major interchanges - including a dozen road, rail and canal crossings - were completed as one of the late running £50M advance contracts by a Miller-Kier joint venture.
Balfour Beatty and its designer Gifford & Partners changed many of the structures after seeing designs produced by the Agency's consultant Mouchel at tender stage. This left Balfour Beatty with seven overbridges to build; five of which Gifford changed from conventional structures to integral designs offering no bearings or joints, and potentially low whole life costings thanks to reduced maintenance requirements. Some 2km of the route, originally designed with concrete or piled embankment retaining walls, became more aesthetically pleasing reinforced earth slopes.
But the most important structural change occurred below Blackley golf course's sixth fairway, located roughly half way along the motorway section. The fairway has been resited, but not the up to 5m deep layer of soft peat beneath which runs along a 1.2km length of the route.
Mouchel had suggested removing all 180,000m3 of peat and replacing it with imported material. Gifford opted to leave it undisturbed and 'bridge' the peat with a 310mm thick concrete raft supported on 4,500 precast piles founded 14m deep in sound underlying clay.
The raft doubles as subbase and this £6M option offers an overall cash saving of around £1M. More importantly, by not removing the peat or importing replacement fill, this option removed a potential 36,000 lorry journeys from local streets. This scored seriously high brownie points at tender stage.
The contract is the Agency's first using this still novel version of quality assessment with the sealed priced bid in envelope two, separated from the bulky first envelope. This contains everything else but costs - proposed design, construction programme, background details of key staff and preferred subcontractors.
The contents of this first envelope were analysed by three separate client teams and scored entirely on the quality of a range of areas including design, construction, proposed maintenance, environmental gains and even the suitability of site staff. With eight out of ten deemed the average mark, only bidders with more than 82% saw their second envelope opened to reveal the target cost, fixed price, lump sum tender bid.
Dividing this tender price by the quality score gave a quality price figure - and the tenderer with the lowest figure won.
'This meant that we chose on the basis of best quality rather than lowest tender price,' Edwards stresses. 'As it was, Balfour Beatty had both the highest quality score and the lowest bid.'
The lorry-journey-saving raft scored a maximum 10 quality points; with low maintenance bridges and 'soft' retaining walls all marked high. But, with a major £10M earthworks element on the job, what no one could score on was the reliability of the weather.
The contractor had already been marked up in the earthworks quality stakes by virtually balancing between cut and fill 800,000m3 of material which Mouchel had suggested should largely be taken off site. Instead, the contractor added environmental bunds and sloping earth walls, and altered the route's vertical alignment by a maximum 300mm up or down.
But this redesign created a major muckshift operation from the southern end of the job to the northern end, using the motorway trace itself as the only haul road. So last year was to be spent urgently completing the new overbridges and the raft over the peat, so the haul road could function unhindered and a start could be made on the earthworks.
'It seems to rain here more than on the rest of Manchester, and we have experienced nearly 100% more downtime because of the weather than expected,' estimates Balfour Beatty's operation director Stephen Tarr resignedly. 'In one rain-free fortnight last September we shifted more muck than we had done the entire 10 weeks previously. The structures remained on programme but, by the year's end, we had completed only half our programmed earthworks total.'
This year dawned little better and it was only two weeks ago that subcontractor Blackwell started moving its vast earthmoving fleet which had been parked up since November. That is why last week's partnering workshop concentrated on this spring's weather prospects, and came up with acceleration plans ranging from a more relaxed material specification for landscaping bunds to steeper embankment slopes.
Despite the wet start, everything bar the earthworks remains on schedule and the site team is confident that this project will break local records by being the only M60 contract to finish anywhere near on time.
If so, summer 2000 should see Manchester's complete ring road in use - albeit some 14 months behind the original timetable.