The Constructionarium :

In May 2009, I was one of 30 students forming 2 teams from University of Westminster who attended the Constructionarium. This involves students experiencing real hands-on work on a construction site.

I was chosen as Project Manager of one of the 2 teams. Afterwards, I wrote a report on our experiences for Building Magazine. The online version is available by clicking this link. Below is my full report, before it was shortened for the magazine :

Background :

The Constructionarium is held at the National Construction College East (NCCE) in Norfolk. It's an opportunity for students in the building professions to put their theoretical knowledge into practice, in a 3-way partnership of students, construction companies and structural engineers. Westminster's partners were teams from the Stephenson Group and Ramboll UK Ltd., who were also overseeing 2 teams of Structural and Civil Engineering students from Cambridge University.

The Team :

We were all second and final year BSc (Hons) degree students of Quantity Surveying, Building Engineering, Commercial Management, Building Surveying and Architectural Technology.  University of Westminster runs a wide range of courses accredited by all the main professional bodies – eg. CIOB, RICS, CIAT, RIBA. Located in central London, it has possibly one of the most diverse student populations anywhere – locals from multi-cultural London work alongside students from across Europe and the World in a very egalitarian, discrimination-free atmosphere.

This was the first time that Westminster had been involved in the Constructionarium, and a number of lecturers and senior staff accompanied us to learn how to incorporate this practical experience into the teaching syllabus. I can imagine that they had a few sleepless nights beforehand at the thought of escorting a bunch of streetwise, cosmopolitan students to sleepy Norfolk. But at the induction meeting on our first night, along with a rundown of the 'house rules' we were assured that, after many years at the college, the security staff were wise to anything we might throw (metaphorically) at them. What we didn't find out until the next day, on-site, was that no-one would have the energy to misbehave after such a hard day's graft.

Facilities :

Accommodation and facilities at the college are excellent. The working day is 8am to 6pm, with an hour for lunch. Meals are substantial, and any calories gained from the fried breakfasts or the plentiful chips and custard at lunch and dinner were soon worked off on the 15 minute walk to the site. (There were healthy options too, with special diets catered for).

The Project :

We had been split into teams and given plans of our projects about a week before leaving, giving us time to put together an initial programme. Our team was to build a scale model of one bay of the Millennium Galleries in Sheffield. This quickly became known as our 'bus shelter'. It involved all aspects of programming, procuring, planning and costing, with a heavy emphasis on method statements and health and safety procedures.

On a practical level, our project involved some fairly complex curved formwork for pre-casting the roof and wall panels. Four students from each team received power tool training on the first morning. Others quickly became steel-fixing specialists. Steel pins in the reinforced foundation had to line up with channels in the walls, and the wall/roof joint had a similar pinned connection – with very little room for error. Co-ordination between separate setting-out, formwork and steel crews had to be 'within a gnat's.'

Until these parts were assembled, we didn't know whether they would fit like a glove, or whether we would have to make embarrassing adjustments while the crane-driver waited. Even worse, because of the tight programme, no-one was totally sure that the roof panels would develop sufficient strength by the time they were due to be craned into place on the Friday morning. Would they hold? Other universities in the past have not managed to get out of the ground – would we suffer similar humiliation?

The set-up was designed such that students would manage and build the projects, 'buying in' the expertise of Stephenson's carpenter, steel-rigger or labourer, along with shared plant items, as necessary. Safety was paramount. Stephenson also allocated their own PM to each university, who had to scrutinise all method statements before we carried out any work. Mike Hooker helped both Westminster teams equally, and his limitless energy and expertise carried us through on the occasions when I thought we weren't going to make it. Twice, we had concrete lorries turn up while we were still building the formwork – I asked the driver whether a delivery run to the Constructionarium was like being sent to Siberia, and received a rueful but patient smile in response.

Teamwork :

The other Westminster team built a scale model of the Barcelona Tower. Both our teams developed strong identities, with plenty of friendly rivalry and banter between the two. Groupwork has been a strong feature of our degree programmes at Westminster, in response to the industry's demand for team-players. This paid off on-site. Without exception, the students pulled their weight and, I think, many surprised even themselves. Building site banter can be hard on the ego, but the students 'gave as good as they got' when dealing with the hardened site professionals. They'll know what to expect when they go out into the industry, and will acquit themselves well.

This level of teamwork and social skills contrasted with my perception of the Cambridge teams. These students were incredibly focussed, spending all day on-site and then their evenings in team meetings lasting often until midnight. (We, at that point, were in the bar). They were bigger teams, with more complex projects, both of which had the potential to go pear-shaped at the very end. Their work was also being assessed as part of their course, and so there was a discernible competitive edge amongst themselves. Those I spoke with were perfectly grounded, practical people, but my feeling, at the end, was that the Westminster students were two teams, while the Cambridge students were two groups of individuals.

Success ? :

Despite the potential for disaster, all 4 projects were completed, and the Friday morning was a haze of frantic activity, group photos and back-slapping. Our roof panels had a slight twist, and also the pins needed some radical adjustment. But they didn't collapse under their own weight, and mistakes are only mistakes if you keep on making them and don't learn from them. Building is all about having a plan for when things don't go to plan, and that's something that the textbooks can't really teach.

The successes, however, are not bound up in concrete. The real success was in giving the students confidence as members of a team striving towards a common goal. They pushed themselves to learn radically new skills quickly, and to apply their theoretical knowledge with the flexibility that a real construction project needs. Since the Constructionarium, I've seen a new-found confidence and 'get-up-and-go' spirit that should help immensely in the current job market.

Many of the students are now itching to learn even more trade skills. I spent all week telling them that girls make great carpenters. As a former employer, I would give any one of these students a job – and the extra management skills that I myself learnt at the Constructionarium would, I think, help me to bring out the best in them.

I really enjoyed the Constructionarium, and I'm grateful, and proud, to have now graduated from University of Westminster.