The contractor has been tasked with building a state-of-the-art police HQ in Blackpool for Lancashire Constabulary’s West Division, which can become a local landmark.
Blackpool on a glorious sunny day in June is a pretty great place to be – seafront arcades, the Pleasure Beach and the Tower will have been a common staple of holidays for anyone who grew up in and around Lancashire.
But spare a thought on a 28 deg C day for the good people of Lancashire Constabulary’s West Division, who are having to make do with an outdated office in the centre of town, which the division describes as no longer fit for purpose.
That’s where Willmott Dixon comes in.
The contractor is working in partnership with the Police and Crime Commissioner for Lancashire and the Lancashire Constabulary, alongside project manager Pick Everard and multidisciplinary designer McBains Cooper to build a brand new state-of-the-art headquarters on the outskirts of the town, which represents the force’s largest-ever investment.
Unsurprisingly, building a project of this complexity and magnitude has brought its fair share of technical challenges.
Lancashire’s largest ever
Designed to be a landmark building and procured through Scape’s flagship £7bn national construction framework, the new West Division headquarters is the largest investment in a new building Lancashire Police has ever made – not only in terms of value, but also in terms of the size of the building.
The three-storey headquarters, which combines office space with a custody suite, is new territory for the client, as Willmott Dixon operations director Richard Wright explains.
“They’re used to doing smaller projects, maybe £7m to £8m, so this was a monster for them,” he says.
“What they wanted was an iconic building that provides something that’s a long-term icon for Lancashire Police to say, ’We are investing, and this area is important to us.’”
The police station will house a 42-cell custody suite, a public enquiry desk, an investigations hub, and a range of specialist teams to serve not just Blackpool but the whole of the Fylde coast, including Lancaster and Morecambe.
Mr Wright says while Willmott Dixon has built a number of custody suites in the past – including facilities for South Yorkshire Police – building one linked to an open-plan, modern office is a new experience.
The size of the build and the unprecedented nature of the project has meant that, for both client and contractor, there were a number of challenges to bring the scheme to site.
“We went through 12 hard months of trying to get it [there],” Mr Wright says, adding that the £24m budget has been “very much a challenge” so far on the scheme.
“A lot of our early engagement is done around other projects we’ve built, and benchmarks we can point to. “It’s certainly the biggest [project of its type] in the north, and by value, it’s significantly bigger than what we’ve done in the past.
“But as we’re evolving the design and the budget as we go, it’s a challenge to say whether elements can be done at a guaranteed maximum price.”
Despite this, Mr Wright says that while costs in some areas have gone up, the overall project is still in line with the client’s budgetary aspirations.
Budget hasn’t been the only constraint, particularly when it comes to the custody suite.
Its 42 cells are housed in a semi-circular precast concrete building, which links to the steel-framed office block via two access routes.
Mr Wright explains that the custody suite’s curved shape is dictated by the need for the main custody desk, which sits centrally, to have line of sight to each cell.
Each of the six corridors, which houses a variable number of cells, runs off this central area in a straight line, meaning there is no point that that the custody suite officers will not be able to see from their desk.
Anyone who does spend a night in the cells is brought in through the van docks at the rear of the building and brought through a corridor to the main desk, where they are then processed and either released, or taken back down one of the six corridors and into the cells.
There is also a separate corridor which houses cells for vulnerable people.
As well as this, a section of the building’s outer curve is designated as a holding cell, designed to be used when major incidents occur at events like football matches or political demonstrations.
Mr Wright runs through the huge amounts of Home Office guidance that Willmott Dixon and the multi-disciplinary designer, McBains Cooper, have to stick to when building the custody suite – particularly around the welfare of detainees.
“Before I became involved with this project, I hadn’t imagined the lengths that people would go to to try and hurt themselves when they’re in custody,” he says.
Each cell, which is made of pre-cast concrete walls, has to follow a prescriptive design so there is no way for a detainee to injure themselves. This means the walls have to be completely bare, cells have to be high ceilinged, and no wires or ventilation can be accessed by a detainee. “Even the mastic that we use to seal things up has to be anti-pick to stop people eating it,” Mr Wright adds.
Admissible in court?
On top of this, the building has a number of adjoining interview and consulting rooms which also have strict guidelines.
“They are sensitive in terms of noise; the constraints are around whether recordings made in those rooms are admissible in court,” Mr Wright says. “The acoustic rating means we can’t have anything like buzzing or humming in the background, or even if you do, it needs to be at the right pitch so spoken word remains very clear.”
This has meant the contractor has had to plan carefully to keep the rooms cooled and ventilated without generating noise – meaning any potentially noisy services are placed in the main corridors instead.
Willmott Dixon has worked closely with its concrete contractor, PCE, and its M&E contractor SES on the custody suite, with their experience in previous such projects proving vital to the construction process.
“SES understands what it means to design, build and receive feedback on custody suites; you’d be hard pressed to use somebody who hadn’t done one before without going through a number of learning curves,” Mr Wright says.
PCE has also worked with Willmott Dixon on a number of its custody suites across the North of England.
M&E design has been particularly important, with a number of those measures put in place to prevent any power outages.
“If the lights happen to go out in the office, it’s a little bit dimmer. But if they go out in the custody suite, it’s catastrophic,” says Mr Wright.
The suites and the office are backed up by generators to make sure a loss of power to the cells is practically impossible, and to ensure these areas are monitored at all times, especially with the welfare of the detainees in mind.
As CN visits the site in mid-June, the custody suite’s shell is nearing completion and has begun to link into the three-storey office block, with the steel frame link currently supported by temporary columns.
The new facility is designed to be a high-grade, environmentally friendly home for Lancashire Constabulary’s West Division, with the open-plan office housing uniform staff, criminal investigation teams and specialist teams serving the wider force.
It replaces the current Bonny Street office in the centre of Blackpool, which the force says does not meet modern policing requirements.
A single-storey stone-clad element also joins onto the main steel-framed office, which houses crime scene investigation labs, evidence stores and an Achieving Best Evidence suite.
Mr Wright explains how the ABE suite is designed to help vulnerable people give evidence, which can often be difficult in a traditional police station environment, and as a result it will be fitted out “like someone’s front room”.
“If you have children or vulnerable people going in there to give evidence, they need to feel they can open up about it – that’s why it’s fitted out the way it is,” he says.
The main office building has been designed to be as open plan as possible, with large light wells and floating staircases, and has also been designed to a BREEAM Very Good rating.
But like the custody suite, Mr Wright reveals there was a level of compromise on the building when it came to budget.
The building’s façade, which is predominantly rainscreen cladding, has been designed with a number of striking features, including curved columns that run from the roof to the floor, supported by a steel cantilever.
These columns were originally specified to be built in precast concrete, which Mr Wright describes as “just about achievable”, but adds it would have “broken the bank”.
Instead, Willmott Dixon worked with the client and design team to value engineer a solution that would save money without impacting the visual aesthetic of the façade. To do this, the team used Corian, a material composed of acrylic polymer and material derived from bauxite ore, which is typically used domestically for counter-top surfaces.
“It’s not a particularly well-used technology in this country, and it’s still a high-value material but is a far better-value solution to achieve the same aesthetic look,” Mr Wright says.
The cladding also had to be phased due to this design feature, as there is only a small gap between where the columns would be installed and the main façade. This has meant that all the cladding will have to be in place before the Corian columns can be fully installed.
Willmott Dixon is also working with subcontractor Unique Fabrications, which is the UK’s only accredited installer of Corian cladding.
At the time of CN’s visit, these columns are yet to be installed, with the team due to begin cladding once the steel frame completes, signalling another milestone for the project.
Mr Wright, who has worked on a number of projects across Blackpool over the past 10 years, says the team is well on track to finish the challenging project by the handover date of spring 2018.
“It’s great to be working in Blackpool with a lot of people I know,” he says. “Here you don’t tend to have the same levels of bureaucracy as you do in some of the major cities, because people want buildings of this calibre to get built here.”
As Willmott Dixon progresses on site, it’s hoped the contractor can deliver what will eventually be a landmark building for the area.
Willmott’s local supply chain
As the project has been procured through the Scape framework, Willmott Dixon has been keen to work with a local supply chain on the project to support jobs in Blackpool and Lancashire.
The client set a target of 75 per cent of the project spend being with SMEs, while 20 per cent will be within a 10-mile radius and 40 per cent within 40 miles.
However, as Mr Wright says: “When you think about our radius, the Irish Sea is less than three miles that way”.
Despite that challenge, the team has managed to get around 85 per cent of its supply chain spend from within 40 miles, including Preston-based structural steelwork contractor Leach, which is providing the steel frame for the building, alongside AJ Wood, also from Preston, as groundworks contractor.
At the time of CN’s visit, the Willmott Dixon team is also hosting an Innovation Expo for its North-west supply chain on the site.
The two-day event, which is the first of its kind for the contractor, is designed to share best practice across the supply chain and encourage both technical innovation and health and safety across the site.
Mr Wright says the event has been a great success, with supply chain partners coming from across the North-west to get involved.
“That’s what we want to impress: we want to build high-quality projects in the North, by people from the North,” he says.
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