Will Lancaster University’s Spine project ever be finished?

Between having a job interview at Lancaster University in Jan 2016 and starting work in January 2017, a major engineering project was commissioned – the rebuilding of the central ‘spine’, or outdoor walkway that links the whole campus together, north-south. A 2016 article has it thus: “According to tender documents, the aim is “to remodel and upgrade the Spine to provide a vibrant, light, safe, weather protected route, offering a variety of environments along its length, reinforcing its identity as the main campus thoroughfare”. Rick Mather Architects did the design, and you can see it here on a video. Mather were involved from 2014, tenders were called for in Feb 2016, and building started in July or August 2016.

SCAN-1It was clear that work needed to be done. Parts of the campus are old. Alex Square, in the middle, was already repaved and fixed up some years ago, but the walkways connecting to it had not been.

The staff and the students have now been living with this project for almost a year and a half. The Spine has been blocked off, progressively, to allow building works and re-laying of the paving, some of it dating back to the early days of the university (which was founded in 1964 and moved to the current site in ’68).  The overhead canopy (which we have because of rain and snow, not sun) is also being replaced, some with green roofing on top (vegetation, to provide insulation and water retention).

All sounds good, but we are all wondering when the disruption is going to end. After 18 months only two less-frequented bits, at the north end, seem to be finished. Yet the official  web says the project is ending “Spring 2018” [I last looked here on 2 Feb 2018-will they quietly alter it?]. There are frequent diversion notices elsewhere, in and out of buildings and across courtyards.  Despite these, as a new employee, I frequently found myself baffled or lost in the early months – as I have got to know the place, this happens less often. But pity the occasional visitor –  people attending university graduations for example, before Xmas break. There are several lessons for this daily observer, that emerge from the project.

  1. Big projects often overrun. This one has done so. After a year and a half, is is still not possible to walk from one end of the campus to the other. The main Alex Square, the hub of the campus, is blocked off (although usually open, end Jan 18 when I posted this).
  2. Project management needs to be really good. We teach PM on campus. But despite that,  it is not very visible, at least from the point of view of the people using the walkways. How come the main Square entrances, where the majority of the foot traffic is, weren’t completed early in the project or during university vacations, to avoid disruption? Both, or one or the other, have now been blocked off for months. One person who works in management at the university said to me ‘why can’t they just finish one bit before moving to the next?’ (this applies to the North Spine).
  3. Keep everybody fully informed. Diversion signs are ok, but if you issue a notice to all staff and students about a diversion to allow works for X weeks, please get it done in that period. We were somewhat dismayed to hear that there would be 10 weeks of work occurring right during semester 1 of late 2017, on the south Square entrance walkway, when it could have been done much more expediently in the holidays.  Returning to work in January 2018, the barriers were still in place and the semester had started. The diversion page says now says till February, but when? 1 Feb has now arrived.  There has been no reason given as to why this target has not been met (the effect of bad weather in this part of the world must surely have been factored in already?). No pavers have been laid yet and there is a big hole, probably to do with fixing the rather poor underground drainage which I am sure was in a bad state and needed extra work. So this work at the ‘entrance to south spine’ is going to run and run. The north Square entrance is supposed to be blocked for three weeks – it has already been far longer than that.
  4. It is quite likely that contractors may have disagreements with the commissioning agency at some stage on any big project. In this case it was with Lancaster’s Facilities, who were,  the campus gossip said, already exasperated with slow progress.  There was a strike by the contractors in late 2017, eventually resolved but we got no information about why or how. Even during downed tools, though, the walkways were not opened up temporarily to let us through. Even where the blocked bit was safe because they hadn’t really done much there yet. Hard on the business owners up and down the spine, whose takings must be diminished. Further discussion is on the campus subtext, which says (issue 1/2/18) the scope of the project turned out to be a bit much for one of the contractors.
  5. Think local, partly for environmental reasons. Outside my building, some new shady deciduous trees were planned and appear in the original architect’s video, to enhance a courtyard. But we ended up with three pine trees from southern Germany instead (I was told), not trees from our surrounds. They were winched into place, fully  grown, at unknown cost. Seeing only their tops moving, from my upper floor office, was surreal. A small fern also appeared in a special metal grille the walkway, was destined to grow, but lasted a week before it disappeared. It was right where we walk outside LEC.  We have a bunch of plant scientists and ecologists in our unit – apparently their earlier suggestions on vegetation made during the planning phase, fell on fallow ground.
  6. Repeat lesson 2. Only do pneumatic drilling, or complete blockages to essential areas (like Alex Square) when the university is not in its teaching period. The difference? In semester, up to 13,000 people moving about. In the university holidays – several hundred. To say it has been hard to work to get around, and concentrate despite the drilling noise (which is needed, but not at peak hours please), is an understatement.

I did manual work for a number for a number of years. It is hard graft. The key is to get good project management (materials and physical plant delivery, for example) and to have enough workers on site to meet the targets. This means a budget that does not undercut project delivery (requiring  overtime, for example- I see a little of that by Henry Boot but not much- hardly anybody around in the late afternoon, for the first year). Who knows what is going on here, but perhaps it is a bit like academic teaching, where we have too few people, stretched too thinly?

Any university managers reading this are going to hate me, but this project reminds me very much of  Bent Flyvbjerg‘s work on project overruns (paper at academia with login needed). He works on analysing larger construction projects than this one, but the gist is that front-end estimates of costs and benefits – used in the business cases, cost–benefit analyses, and social and environmental impact assessments that typically support decisions on projects – are commonly significantly different from actual ex post costs and benefits,” and they are “ Over budget, over time, over and over again“.  There may be lessons for this rather smaller endeavour – plan for risks, threats, and human nature. And communicate and apologise. The webpage tells you what is going on, but never the latter (update – I noticed they started doing that after I wrote this).

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