Wednesday, 13 January 2016


Image result for langley academy slough

Beautiful, isn’t it? Clad in red cedar which is slowly ageing into a silver colour this is what you get when you appoint Foster & Partners to design your City Academy.

This was the more or less the last job I worked on before I took early retirement in 2010 and it almost killed me.

There is a lengthy article in AJ [I can’t provide a link because Architects Journal has a paywall] here by the great Amanda Birch if you want to read it reviewing the success or otherwise of Langley, five years after it opened. She seems to regard it as a major success. Birds singing, no litter, happy pupils, happy teachers. The academy is way oversubscribed so happy Langley Academy Trust, one assumes. They seem to be particularly impressed by the security and since we had a small hand in that, it’s a box ticked.

If there are complaints, they are moans about lack of room for expansion and the high cost of either heating or cooling the atrium space. Last time I was there . . . which was about six-months after occupancy . . . the central atrium, as the design intended, was a large airy circulation space. Looking at the more recent images in the AJ article, the entire area is now workstations and computer terminals and appears full of kids. Summer cooling must be a nightmare. Checking on Buro Happold’s website yesterday they make it quite clear that the passive systems they designed into the building were intended for total pupil use of c.1100. Don’t know what it is now but I would be shocked, I suspect.

We did a lot of schools and city academies in those days. I’m not going to list them all but they were a substantial source of good-quality work. If I am completely honest, I relied on them a little too much because when first of all, Gordon Brown altered the method of procurement and then Michael Gove cancelled the entire school-building programme it brought the business to its knees. Not just my business, by the way; many companies and sub-contractors were far too reliant on the academies programme.

Wates were the main contractors on Langley. We had worked with them before on Carlton Drive, Putney [where Kiri lives!], a high quality residential development we were given by Fielden Clegg. But we didn’t get on. Can’t remember all the ins and outs of it but my guys lacked the experience of working with a large, demanding, London contractor who didn’t want to deal with someone up in Gateshead anyway. Plus, there was little support from Fielden Clegg so although we made money, we lost Fielden Clegg as a client and had zero relationship with Wates. Around that time, we did a mega-job in the centre of Leeds with them and weirdly, they were hopeless. Not on top of things at all.

Fortunately, we had strong support from Fosters on Langley but Wates didn’t want us and didn’t like us and didn’t help us. What do I know but I always thought they had taken Langley at cost, trying to wring the profit out of we poor sub-contractors. This was 2007-2008, at the peak of the recession and work was hard to get for Wates and us and pretty-much everyone. They closed their Leeds office at that time due to a lack of work, so I guess they were suffering.

Every problem we ever had was exposed on Langley, raw and visible and extremely stressful.

Trying to service London [and the South-east] from Gateshead was never going to be easy but what choice did we have? The only thing our Northern clients were interested in was price. Not how beautiful/efficient/cost effective our stuff was – ‘how much?’ was all they wanted to know and someone somewhere was always going to be able to give them a cheaper alternative. If you ever get round to reading my novel Train That Carried the Girl, it’s all in there.

So, I was attending meetings in Slough at half-eight in the morning. Okay, people attend meetings in Frankfurt or Brussels at half-eight in the morning; are they loaded down with samples and reams of drawings? Have they got a hundred e mails to attend when they get back? Are they managing a business as well as being the main sales-person? If they get a call at Brussels Midi to say they are wanted back in the morning do they go home to sleep in their own beds or try to find a hotel room at short notice. And who is dealing with the hundred e mails? – or two hundred by now. That happened all the time – can you go and see Hopkins tomorrow at four? What do I do between now and four?

But really it wasn’t the travelling. Evelina was five maybe six times bigger but we coped with that and Paradise Street, which could only be reached by road was what - fifty times bigger - and we coped with that very well. It was Wates I think; hostile, aggressive and competitive they just wanted to prove to someone -  Fosters? that small companies from three hundred miles away shouldn’t work on large London projects.

By the end I just wanted the nightmare to stop. Twenty site visits? A further ten to Battersea to meet Fosters. Four or five to sub-contractor’s offices; one in Aylesbury that I can remember in the dead of winter and another at South Mimms motorway service station at 8.00pm on my way back home. And no, I hadn’t eaten.

It was a £100000 job won in the teeth of a recession and going into it I thought we could make money. I am sure we didn’t make a loss but the toll it took on me personally was all loss.

Mainline, big-time construction is a tough industry. Fosters - tough clients, incredibly demanding. Samples; free technical advice; free site surveys; free fully - detailed specifications. For the majority of our competitors that kind of creative input is a waste of money, time and their precious resources. 
Just give the chief buyer a free holiday in the Canaries and he will pass you a note of what your bottom line has to be. Site meetings? Not at these margins.

Value engineering its called.

And on it goes, leaving someone, usually the client with a maintenance bill that will go on for the entire life of the building.

But I never wanted to run a business like that - Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. If a job is worth doing, do it right, do it well.

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