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Steering New Victoria to Completion

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De-Risking, Cost Planning and Contract Managing: Steering New Victoria to Completion

It was already one of the most challenging projects on which we’ve worked. Then Covid happened. Viet Huynh, Associate Director QS at Walker Sime, explains just how much de-risking has gone into a project that has often seemed fraught with risk, and how, despite the challenges, New Victoria – the development delivered by nationwide place maker, Muse, Pension Insurance Corporation and Vinci Building UK – has taken shape.

I joined Walker Sime in 2019. By that time the New Victoria project had already been around in some form for the best part of a decade. It is an immensely complex project: 520 residential apartments spread across two distinct plots right in the heart of Manchester city centre. The site sits next to a railway line and tramlines. A culvert runs right through the site and Manchester Victoria railway station is next door… so this is not an easy space to develop.

Between 2015 and 2020, as quantity surveyors (QS) on the project, we were working on the cost plans, taking them through lots of design iterations to reach a design and budget that worked. With so many interested parties (Muse, the developer and our direct client; PIC (Pension Insurance Corporation), the asset purchaser/funder; Vinci Building UK, the main construction contractor; Manchester City Council, through whom the Housing Infrastructure Fund supported the build; Network Rail and ourselves) reaching a consensus that worked for everyone was important.

By late 2019 / early 2020, we were into a very intense period of negotiations, trying to find the right balance and compromise in stakeholders’ positions. At one point, for example, a residents’ link bridge was going to join the two residential towers. That link between the buildings would remain, but it’s now at upper-ground floor level – a giant atrium space that can deliver much more for residents in a practical sense than a bridge would.

Throughout negotiations, everything is considered. From the very large (such as the atrium) to the smallest details. At the funder’s request, for example, the specifications of the bathrooms and kitchens were upgraded, and every decision has an obvious cost impact, an impact that needs measuring and agreeing. Eventually, we reached a figure that everyone was happy with. That was February 2020. The following month, Covid locked the country down.


De-risking during Covid

You’ll remember that the construction sector was permitted to keep working through Covid, but there were significant amendments to working practices to keep operatives as safe from the virus as possible, while on site. What’s not often mentioned is the fact that while we could keep going, further down the supply chain, the pandemic, was creating a myriad of challenges. It was an extremely tough time for every business in the sector, in terms of getting the materials, managing cashflow and keeping everybody safe. It was good to see every stakeholder come to the table with the view that they wanted to make this happen.

From our perspective, some of the biggest potential pinch points in the project were the elements being constructed offsite. The façade (prefabricated modular units comprising the solid wall, windows and curtain wall) was being manufactured in Darlington. The bathroom pods were also made off site in Telford. Together, these two elements amounted to almost 25% of the entire project cost. They were absolutely critical to its success, so they couldn’t be derailed by rising costs or material scarcity. Of course, in the frenzy of Covid, materials were scarce, and costs were rising fast.

On any similar project in normal times, you might carry out partner site visits every few months, perhaps making three or four visits over an 18-month period to ensure everything is on track. On New Victoria, my colleague Joe Lamb was visiting partner factories every month. His visits made sure there was never a risk of running out of materials, which protected production and guarded against rising costs.

It was an intense period. There’s a common expression about QS’s being brick counters. In this case, it was almost the literal truth. We were constantly counting panels and parts, making sure they were ready and on time for the client/contractor when required.

From a construction perspective (let alone its many other effects) Covid was certainly a difficult time for everyone. There is a parallel universe in which things might not have proceeded as well. But by being proactive and taking the steps we took to de-risk the project, we were able to effectively ‘stack the deck’ in favour of a positive outcome.

Technical challenges

If Covid and the world economy presented one set of challenges, the location presented challenges of a different kind. Just one example of that was the culvert, a subterranean tunnel for a waterway – in this case, the River Irk. The footprint of the project site lies on top of the culvert and the way to circumvent the load issues it presented was to build two towers either side of it, rather than one giant block on top of it.

By building either side, it remained important to transfer the loads away from the crown of the culvert. This was achieved with a slab construction that would sit on top of the culvert and transfer loads away from the crown back to the foundations of either residential tower. Then, as with every innovation on site, the plans needed approving by every party.

Delivering New Victoria

I love visiting the New Victoria site. It’s one of my favourite days of the month. One of the reasons for that is it has always remained on programme. That has made it an extremely positive project on which to work. In actual fact, as a result of all the de-risking activity, the off-site manufacturing and the careful contract management, we’ve managed to increase the rate of progress and deliver the project earlier than planned.

Another reason for the project’s success is the relationship between the parties. Despite the large number of stakeholders, communication lines between all parties have been really good and really transparent. Those subcontractors (and main contractor) have included:

  • Main Contractor – Vinci Building UK
  • Groundworker / RC Frame & Floors – Mayo Civil Engineering
  • Client Project Manager – Chroma
  • Demolition / Bulk Dig – PP O’Connor
  • Façade (Unitised panels) – FK Façades
  • Bathroom Pods – Elements Europe
  • Steelwork Link Bridge – Billingtons
  • Steelwork Hoops – Elland Steelwork
  • MEP – HE Simm & Son

We’ve delivered a major project together, by some measures the biggest ever for Walker Sime’s QS department. But we’ve also collaborated on community initiatives. During Christmas 2021 and 2022, for example, Vinci and all construction partners collaborated in making the on-site welfare buildings a Lifeshare hub for Manchester’s homeless, and we all donated funds for food over the Christmas period. You can find more about that here. At Walker Sime, we’ve had volunteers taking part in these Lifeshare activities for the past two years.

We’re nearing the end of a long road for New Victoria, but I’m genuinely proud of what’s been achieved, and of how stakeholders came together in the most challenging circumstances to make it happen. I can honestly say all parties pulled together in the same direction to make the project an immense success – an academic construction masterclass being played out!

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