Despite all the criticism the Millennium Dome project will go down in history as a triumph for the construction industry. NCE opens its Engineering the Dome supplement with a report on the site team's secrets for working under pressure.
From the first controversy has surrounded the Millennium Experience Project. Construction bore the brunt of early criticism. Now the Dome has opened on time, to budget and with an exemplary record on safety and industrial relations, attacks have focused on attendance figures and queue lengths.
Those responsible for the successful estimated £500M construction phase could be forgiven for a certain smugness, a natural pleasure in having answered their critics in the most effective way possible. They are not admitting to that, but what they do say is that the constant barrage of negative stories had a positive effect on the site team.
'All the bad press just pushed us closer together,' says McAlpine Laing joint venture project director Bernard Ainsworth. 'We just became more determined to meet all our deadlines.'
McAlpine Laing construction director Rolv Kristiansen agrees. 'The response was basically 'We'll show them'. Everyone involved was proud to be part of the team - and it was teamwork that was the real secret of success here.'
Contractual arrangements were just one contribution to effective teamwork. Construction management was the chosen procurement route. A teamworking enthusiast was appointed as the client's main representative on site. New Millennium Experience Company site, structures and transport director David Trench's last job before coming to Greenwich had been finalising the controversial British Library project, which had suffered from massive cost and time overruns. Trench was determined nothing remotely similar would happen on the Dome.
'Much the most significant lesson I learnt was the importance of the site culture,' he says. 'Work in a team where there is trust between everyone involved, including the trade contractors, and it's easy to cope with the inevitable problems that arise.
'This is easier to achieve on target cost contracts, where pain and gain are equally shared.'
McAlpine Laing, structural engineer Buro Happold and architect Richard Rogers Partnership shared financial risk. If the project came in under budget, all three would receive a bonus, if it was late, all three would share the penalty. Further encouragement to building the team spirit came from the layout of the site offices.
A single two storey building was set up on site, relatively luxurious, 'more like a head office', says Ainsworth. A single reception area served client, contractor, engineer and architect alike. Open plan offices were the norm, with no obvious divisions between the four organisations. As construction work took off the design teams gradually transferred from their respective head offices, with the obvious benefits of short communication lines and the opportunity to sort out problems face to face.
Similar principles were applied to labour relations. With a deadline cast in stone, the possibility of the sort of blackmail that was to occur on similar projects in the run up to New Year's Eve 1999 had to be addressed. 'The secret was to treat the men with respect,' says Kristiansen.
'Welfare facilities on this site are the best I've ever seen. And because the trade contractors generally used their core teams on this project there was much less of a short term, make as much money as possible attitude.'
These high welfare standards were one factor in getting the labour unions on side. Trench went even further. There were awards and rewards, for safety and output.
Before every big VIP visit, up to and including the Prime Minister, Trench made sure the workforce received exactly the same presentation the day before. Safety became something of an obsession, with the result that only four workers finished up in hospital - none seriously injured - and the site twice achieved 500,000 man-hours worked between reportable accidents.
Ainsworth says the windswept peninsula was in some ways more like a typical greenfield site than the heavily polluted classic brownfield waste- land the contractors faced. 'We had very few neighbours to worry about, just the newspapers in the Canary Wharf tower across the river, and we had to set up all facilities from scratch.
'The only real problem was that we didn't get all the site released to us as fast as we would have liked - remediation was still going on as late as last October.'
Despite the sheer scale of the project and the compressed construction programme, Ainsworth says he never saw it as a particularly high risk venture although he admits he never expected it to be so politically sensitive. McAlpine Laing commercial director Grant McGregor agrees.
'The basic technology is well proven,' he says. 'But with a project that's programme rather than cost-driven the real risk is on the financial side if the job isn't properly managed.' With around 85 individual trade contractors on site, most of whom had to begin work with only 50-60% of the final design information available, the potential for chaos was obvious. The fact that the Dome was handed over on time proves that programme management was of the highest order - but how about cost?
Now McGregor does sound a little smug. 'Let's just say we have significantly beaten target cost, despite having to make allowances for design development,' he says. 'We'll definitely be getting a bonus.'
Counting the cost
Although frequently quoted, the £758M cost for the whole Millennium Experience has never been officially broken down into its individual components. The figures below, however, are believed to be reasonably accurate.
Site remediation £180M
Zones and exhibition facilities £198M
Running costs during 2000 £95M
National events programme £54M
Marketing and support services £63M
Millennium Commission grant £399M
Ticket sales, merchandising and licensing £179M
Proceeds from sale of site after 2000 £30M
It is worth noting that none of the money supplied by the Millennium Commission could have been spent on hospitals, schools or anything else normally paid for out of general taxation. This would be a breach of the National Lottery Act, which allocated 20% of the funds collected by the lottery for the Millennium Commission to support 'projects to mark the year 2000 and the beginning of the third millennium'. These funds are protected from raids by cash-strapped government departments by the principle of 'additionality', a ring fence which ensures that lottery money is spent on projects which would otherwise be unlikely to attract Government funding.
The dome timetable
October 1993 Millennium Commission created
March 1995 National exhibition proposed by Commission
June 1995 Four exhibition sites shortlisted: Birmingham, Derby, Stratford in east London, Greenwich peninsula
January 1996 Imagination Group retained as overall design consultant
February 1996 Government chooses Greenwich
August 1996 Dome concept accepted
January 1997 Planning permission granted, revised business plan approved by Commission, initial grant awarded
June 1997 New Labour Government gives go-ahead, piling begins
October 1997 Piling complete, masts erected, work on cable net begins
March 1998 Cable net complete, roof cladding begins
June 1998 Roof topped out
February 1999 Dome complete, construction of Skyscape begins.
December 1999 Millennium Experience opens on time