Reaching new heights in education

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Andrew Suttie

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RLB in Adelaide completed full cost advisory services on a new world-class vertical school, the Adelaide Botanic High School, that brings together the best of technology, innovative teaching, collaborative spaces and environmental sustainability. RLB in Adelaide Managing Director Andrew Suttie explores the challenges of costing classrooms that offer more than just ‘chalk and talk’.

Best in class cost advisory of vertical schools

The ageing Reid Building at the University of South Australia has been transformed into Adelaide Botanic High School: a world-class vertical school for 1,250 students that focuses on wellness and STEM – sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Designed by Cox Architecture in partnership with Design Inc, the Adelaide Botanic High School opened its doors in 2019. The school provides six learning levels plus a basement hosting music, drama practice spaces and secure parking for 170 bicycles. The refurbished building is linked by a glass atrium to a brand new seven-storey building, also with a basement and rooftop terrace.

Five rooms cantilever from the two buildings into the atrium overlooking the stunning surrounds of the Adelaide Botanic Gardens, Adelaide Zoo, parklands and the vibrant university precinct. The city itself is an immersive learning environment for this school.

The purpose-built learning environment enhances the student learning experience. Once-hidden systems and electrical engineering mechanisms within the Reid Building have been exposed. The new building design mirrors the existing, making it difficult to determine old from new. Students are exposed to engineering principles and technology in the building’s design, construction and operation. Learning from the built form will deliver intuitive, investigative, environmentally aware students who will shape our future communities.

‘Successful delivery of the Adelaide Botanic High School demanded precise client vision, robust cost planning, proactive value management and budget forecasting. We delivered the project on time and within budget – and today the Adelaide Botanic High School is regarded as a benchmark contemporary secondary education facility,’ says RLB in Adelaide Managing Director Andrew Suttie.

Best in class

RLB provided full cost management services on the Adelaide Botanic High School. We began working closely with the Department for Education and the Department of Planning, Transport and Infrastructure in early 2015, preparing early cost models for building options based on space planning schemes.

As the Adelaide Botanic High School was the first true vertical school in South Australia, we benchmarked similar projects from our global cost database, enabling our cost planners to provide relevant cost data from precedent projects.

As the Department for Education determined projected student needs, we were asked to prepare cost options for 1,000, 1,250, 1,500 and 2,000 student capacities to determine the relative cost benefit and value proposition to increase capacity.

We were also involved in developing cost-efficient, high-performance design elements such as: energy efficient wall façade systems; modular atrium glazing systems; efficient structural solutions (particularly the sports gym which supports an outdoor learning terrace); and external ‘pop-out’ learning pods.

All internal design elements were designed with flexibility and robustness to minimise ongoing maintenance and achieve outcome alignment with our fully integrated team.

Top marks for the project team

This project success could not have been achieved without a high performance, collaborative project team across all disciplines. Key project challenges included:

  • Existing building conditions and adaptive reuse implications: These included hazardous material removal, earthquake and seismic upgrades, building code compliance upgrades, façade removal and reinstatement, external link bridge connections and full building engineering services upgrades
  • Benchmarking space at the bleeding edge: With the step change in educational pedagogy, challenges occurred when benchmarking the investigation of the functional fit-out requirements, such as open plan teaching environments which can also contain teaching spaces when required with operable walls, and the inclusion of the latest ICT/AV teaching requirements
  • Procurement by Early Contractor Involvement (ECI): This comprised two Tier 1 contractors in competition during the design phase, with both providing simultaneous program, cost and constructability advice (a relatively untested innovative procurement strategy)
  • A robust and independent cost plan: Delivering this throughout the project planning, design and documentation phases often involved conflicting advice from the ECI contractors
  • Value engineering: Undertaking multiple value engineering sessions to align to the value management roadmap to ensure not only budget compliance, but to achieve maximum value for money, while considering the longevity of building materials and engineering solutions
  • Detailed tender assessments: These ensured appropriate conversion into a Total Fixed Price (TFP) Design and Construct (D&C) contract and successful novation of the design team
  • Cost analysis studies: Undertaking these with varying construction methodologies to safely construct a new building adjacent to an existing occupied university building (which included an operating animal house at basement level). This involved analysing several construction staging methods, external acoustic treatment options, and flexible structural building connections

More than chalk and talk

RLB’s in-house technology, ROSS 5D enabled our cost planners to prepare accurate estimates, cost plans and models from diverse information sources including BIM models, 2D and 3D CAD drawings, hand drawn illustrations, schedules and other project documentation.

Our software offered flexibility in presentation and analysis of cost models, allowing for a range of different estimate breakdowns by using either: elements, trades, floor-by-floor or building components, separate buildings and the project phases.

Site infrastructure is often not dealt with adequately by cost consultants, with general allowances allocated in early cost plans. Infrastructure is a specialist division within RLB that is staffed with engineers and specialist civil estimators who complement our quantity surveying personnel. We used their expertise for the infrastructure component.

We also drew from the expertise of our in-house engineering services cost managers to provide an independent assessment and benchmark the engineering services estimates. We provided a full review of the site infrastructure costs, including stormwater, gas, sewer and electrical.

Several façade scope verification and value management sessions were undertaken with proactive industry feedback to ensure budget compliance, while maintaining the architectural vision for the school.

Delivering the teacher’s pet

The project commenced with an Early Contractor Involvement (ECI) phase, with the intent to convert to a Total Fixed Price (TFP) Design and Construct method of procurement.

We reviewed and benchmarked functional areas to ensure the proposed scheme was efficient, in addition to reviewing project risks and incorporating appropriate contingencies. Following a robust project risk review, establishing the appropriate project contingencies was critical. Due consideration was required for all the project’s varying risk factors including: working adjacent to an occupied building; potential for in-ground Indigenous archaeological artefacts; hazardous material removal; and challenging structural building link connections. Applying the appropriate contingency levels was a key challenge to ensure the building fabric and functionality was ultimately not compromised.

We facilitated multiple value management sessions, including the ECI partners, to ensure best value was achieved for the Department of Planning, Transport and Infrastructure and the Department for Education.

For an ECI/TFP procurement model, the dynamics are different and reporting protocols need to be understood and observed by the cost planning team. In a pure managing contractor model, the cost plan or model would be shared with the entire project team, including the contractor, as a procurement tool for budgeting the trade scope. In effect, the managing contractor is an integral member of the consultant team and major cost risks remain with the client.

However, under an ECI/TFP procurement model, the contractor will assume the major cost risks, and care needs to be taken in relation to the extent of the cost planning and cost modelling information shared. Otherwise there remains the risk that the TFP commercial negotiations process could be potentially compromised.

A pass with distinction

We took a proactive, solutions-based approach to the management of scope and costs. When the budget was threatened, it was important to ‘get on the front foot’ to tackle the issues.

We provided early warning budget advice and facilitated strategic value management sessions to understand the issues and opportunities that were available. We also monitored the developing design documents to ensure that the aligned value management initiatives were implemented. I believe the process worked particularly well and set the Adelaide Botanic High School project up for successful commercial negotiation and commercial close.

The Adelaide Botanic High School was delivered by ECI, then converted to a TFP, which does rely heavily on: a comprehensive Principal’s Project Requirements; precise client vision; robust cost planning; proactive value management and budget forecasting.

We delivered the project on time and within budget, and it is regarded as a benchmark contemporary secondary education facility.

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