Is it possible for a capital development project to come in on time and on budget? Jack Tilbury says yes, and explains how.
A metaphor to start with, if I may& Imagine that the path to success for a project is the track of a rollercoaster. And your building contract is the car that you will nervously strap yourself into for the ride. Whether your project budget is under £50k or over £50m, you wouldnt dream of starting the car at the top of that first drop before you had finished building the track, would you? Yet this is probably one of the most common mistakes that clients make. From the conversion of a mid-terrace house on Grand Designs to the fit-out of The Millennium Dome, too often a client can skimp on the planning and rush the design but still get into that car and happily start the ride.
Clients are in complete control of the process up until the moment the contractor starts on site. But once in the car, its a rollercoaster ride to the finish. So for a project to be successful, its important to concentrate on the areas that are within the clients control well before anyone puts on a hard hat: the strategic planning, the programme and the design. There will always be unexpected problems on site, but forward planning is so often the difference between an uncomfortable bump and a costly disaster.
Define the projects aims
There maybe a very clear vision for a project, but it needs to be communicated well in black and white. Most projects start with a feasibility study and a business plan. Even if there is some local experience and ability, do get some professional advice. This need not cost big bucks, or involve big commitments, and some consultants are more than happy to do a few days work looking at ideas and assisting in nurturing a vision. If there is major building work involved or planning issues to be considered, its imperative to involve an architect. If public funding is required and isnt an area of expertise, seek advice from a project manager or an arts consultant. Take any concerns that these advisors raise seriously and dont go any further until there are satisfactory solutions. Dont let the enthusiasm for the project mean that nagging doubts or any caveats at the bottom of a report get ignored. Try to address any problems while the building is on paper rather than half built in steel and concrete.
Allow enough time
Most problems can be solved with either time or money. If there isnt enough time allowed from the beginning, there will be no choice but to throw money at every problem that arises. Because of inflation, project costs are rising every month, so time isnt free, but dont rush to get on site at the cost of an under-developed scheme. Its equally important to allow sufficient time after the contractor has finished in order to move in, fit out, test the systems, train staff and prepare for use. If a particular project necessitates a challenging construction programme, for example, to fit in with a summer dark period, then try to allow even more time to ensure that the planning is meticulous, the design well co-ordinated, and that the risk assessment and management are robust. Once a design team is appointed, give them the time needed to do a proper job, and also allow enough time to review and evaluate what they are producing. And once the building is finished and open, a series of short dark periods after the first few shows can be invaluable. If the first year of operation is booked solid with shows, the contractor has a very good excuse for not returning to clear snags and fix defects.
Most refurbishments call for a theatre or facility to be shut for a period of time. The recent major refurbishment of the Young Vic Theatre in London required the company to leave its theatre for 18 months. Rather than lay off all production staff, they continued to produce shows in other venues, on tour, in tents, in schools and empty churches. It kept their name in the public eye, it kept the company together and just as important, their hugely experienced staff were able to collaborate with the design team on every aspect of the new building to ensure they got what they wanted. Instead of making a technical team redundant, get them involved in the process. Who better to review designs from the theatre consultant and architect, design and plan the new workshop facilities, plan the client fit-out period, order hardware and spares, write new safety method statements and eventually be part of the testing and snagging process? The Young Vic team designed and built their own unique portable dressing room furniture for example. During the recent refurbishment of the Shaftesbury Theatre, the admin, box office and technical staff donned hard hats and helped with everything from taking out the old seats to painting the foyer!
Organise the client team
The internal structure and decision- making process within the client organisation can be a crucial factor. Many decisions will be made over several months of board meetings and design presentations, but sometimes an answer has to be returned to the contractor within 48 hours. Who is responsible for discussions with the architect about the colour of the seats? Who is liaising with the theatre consultant on the technical fit-out? If a choice has to be made between omitting the crew room or omitting the print store, does this decision have to wait until the next building subcommittee meeting in six weeks time? A building project should arouse huge passion and debate, but sometimes paralysis on crucial decisions is the primary cause for delays and extra cost.
So in conclusion?
Stick to the vision and dont lose sight of it. Seek good advice and act on it. Allow enough time. Anticipate and plan for site delays and problems. Find the right contractor to sit at your side. Then& just then& there maybe a chance of enjoying the ride!
Jack Tilbury is Projects Director and one of the founding members of theatre consultancy Charcoalblue.