Early engagement matters

Early engagement matters


Education sector construction projects challenge contractors to ensure that they fit the desired build outcome as well as represent the organisation’s established values. Matthew James, preconstruction manager at complete construction partner Stepnell, believes that engaging as early as possible will ensure that the project outcomes can best align with the unique identity of primary schools through to universities and colleges.

With a rigid term schedule that forces the client’s hand in terms of build programmes, education is widely regarded as one of the toughest sectors to take on construction projects in, but one that can be fruitful if you can create strong relationships. Combine this with tight briefs when building and designing construction projects for educational institutions, it is clear that early engagement must be prioritised to ensure project success further down the line.


First and foremost, one of the key areas of influence when it comes to determining the quality of educational building and design, is to understand the unique values, culture, drivers and strategy of the educational facility. Contractors can then align these values with the design and build of any given scheme for it to be truly successful.

While all educational institutions have a reputation and identity to maintain, different types of facilities will require more of a bespoke approach. Public schools, for example, have centuries of history and traditions between their walls, so understanding this heritage is important when making design and build recommendations. The design and quality of the build resonates with parents who are buying into this exclusive learning opportunity for their children, and as a contractor, it is our job to help drive the construction decision-making in the right direction.

Therefore, when selecting a construction partner to work with, it is important to choose carefully to ensure that building works can be completed in keeping with the history of the institution. Increasingly, we are noticing that more educational facilities are choosing to work with contractors on a build-only basis, but these more traditional projects do not negate the role of the contractor’s experience and expertise in the design sector. From our experience, having both design and build - as well as a plethora of other building solutions - can elevate project collaboration and lead to a smoother project completion.


Contractors can work flexibly with schools to meet desired project outcomes - for instance, for refurbishment and new build works, these projects can often need a contractor to work seamlessly with their established design teams. In these scenarios, the design will mostly be set in stone before the contractor is appointed to the project. Contactors however may be requested to design the specialist trade elements, as part of the contractor’s design portion (CDP), for example; piling, mechanical and electrical elements, as well as superstructure connections.

To gain the most from a contractor, school buildings will benefit from a contractor who is in a position to provide design consultancy where needed. In some instances, this will mean amending the design to best fit and help ensure a more durable and cost-effective build.

In contrast, universities are typically receptive to greater input on the design and as such request a full design and build service. For UK universities, this trend is being spearheaded by the desire to opt for more statement buildings with bold design choices and high social value. This is with an aim to sit alongside redbrick buildings and replace brutalist concrete structures built over the past half a century. 

A complete design overhaul can help educators to drive intake from international students in search of the highest quality workspaces and environment, and to match what they perceive as a true experience of a British university.


No matter what level of design input is required, understanding when to collaborate on design choices for the best outcome is an important part of the client-contractor relationship.

This can be especially important for educational buildings that may be listed. For instance, a Grade I listed building with significant exposed brickwork and beams, can create heating, ventilation, and acoustic challenges. For heritage projects, functional challenges like this will need to be met while remaining sensitive to the existing design and specified permitted materials - to build in keeping with the existing stock.  

With early collaboration, designs can be tweaked to help ensure project deadlines are met and that the right methods of construction are utlised. For example, it is now common for the education sector to work with contractors and their specialist teams to modify designs that can be built off-site instead. Building off-site will mean that the build can be completed quicker without disruption to the rest of the preliminary works on-site, which can also provide a cost-saving benefit for the client and combat slow and laborious on-site building.

Contractors face complex build challenges for more specialist facilities and therefore it is helpful to engage early and have a team that can spot these potential pitfalls in the design plan. For example, a project may bring about unique environmental challenges governed by an organisation such as the Environment Agency. In these instances, contractors may have to more consciously support the specification of sustainable materials, or even how the project is delivered to allow for ecological experts to safeguard natural habitats and protected wildlife.


Clients across the board, not just in the education sector, are steadily becoming more open to alternative materials, prioritising availability rather than the lowest price materials to meet the required specification. Fundamentally, education projects are driven by strict term-oriented completion dates, with institutions wanting security that key milestone dates can be achieved and quality expectations are met.

With a typical handover date of six weeks pre-term to allow the client to familiarise themself with the build and to be able to prepare for the returning student cohort, it’s important to look at how you can adapt your procurement strategy and get early commitment to materials and costs to avoid problems later down the line.

To do this, it is important at the tender stage for the contractor to review and raise any concerns about aspects of the build, and test with a specialist supply chain, so the solution can be shared widely. In fact, we are seeing longer lead-in times to procure key materials and bring in sub-contractors that drive our project timeframes, particularly with universities. Therefore, it is important to be forward thinking and in regular dialogue with supply chains - whether sourcing in the UK or elsewhere - and communicate openly and honestly with the client on the availability of materials.


We are increasingly working with institutions to push the social value work that helps to leave a lasting legacy and involve pupils or students, along with the wider community, in construction projects. We are seeing that this type of work is becoming more important, and as a responsible construction partner Stepnell is able to build in social value early on. Alongside this, the sustainability of a build is becoming more of a public and government concern, so building in low-carbon heating and construction methods – to show how the project can meet or exceed sustainability requirements - is key.

Other influences on trends include fluctuating market conditions, which will almost certainly challenge budgets and project delivery. While we anticipate project costs will rise with inflation, we don’t see project timescales growing as bids from public schools and universities rarely slow down once set in motion. These projects are perceived in many ways as being ‘recession proof’ due to their continuous revenue stream and, if anything, we will see more interest from contractors to work with these clients.

Once you have accounted for certainty of handover, fixed price, availability of materials and programme restrictions, you realise that engagement with the client must be as early as possible to provide the most added value. By working with complete construction partners, such as Stepnell, educational institutions will be able to navigate any challenges in order to successfully achieve the right design and build, which will importantly reflect the right identity and values of the educator.

To find out more about Stepnell visit: www.stepnell.co.uk

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