Green construction in action: Library of Birmingham

It has been hailed as a people's palace - and one of the most significant cultural projects undertaken in the UK for years that is set to transform the lives of millions. As the striking new Library of Birmingham takes shape, Simon Dingle explains how a clear sustainability plan was the key to Carillion's successful bid to become Birmingham City Council's construction partner on the project

In 2013 the new Library of Birmingham is due to open. It is set to become a major new cultural destination, rewriting the book for 21st-century public libraries. The 35,000m2 development includes new updated back of house facilities for the Birmingham Repertory Theatre (the REP), with which the new library will be physically connected. Spread over ten levels, the new library will be a stunning new addition to Birmingham’s urban landscape.

Council leader, Mike Whitby, has called it “one of the most significant developments and cultural projects to have been undertaken in the UK in the past decade.” Architect Francine Houben describes it as a “people’s palace” – a centre of excellence for literacy, research, study, skills development, entrepreneurship, creative expression and health information. The more than three million visitors expected each year will be greeted by state-of -the-art gallery space, a studio theatre, outdoor amphitheatre, a recording studio, informal performance spaces and dedicated areas for children and teenagers. Millions more will be able to use the library’s services online. In short it aims to transform libraries, transform Birmingham and transform people’s lives.

With a budget of £188.8M, coupled with the kudos and reputation enhancement that can accompany the construction of such an iconic building, this is a good project for any business to have. As partners of Birmingham City Council it is also one that we at Carillion must absolutely deliver on. The first test came when we realised that despite not having final agreement on the design concept we still needed to show the flexibility to design to budget – and to convince the customer that we could and indeed would do it.

Just as fundamental and challenging was an imperative to embed sustainability throughout the entire construction phase of the project. I have no doubt that understanding Birmingham City Council’s resolute conviction for this, and the fact that its goal went far further than simply being green and environmentally compliant, was the key to our appointment. In my view it shows that there has been a quantum leap in what is expected from construction projects in terms of sustainability – and Birmingham is at the forefront of this drive.

The tender process was broad and ranging and within sustainability it covered employment and training, relations with the local community and neighbourhoods near the construction site and health and safety. It took a little time to show that we really were where we needed to be on this. Inadequate communication on our part did initially lead to some early misunderstandings and a failure to articulate a clear five-year journey.

We had to act fast to show that noticeable changes were happening and that we were a learning organization. We also had to demonstrate that efforts to drive neighbour relations and create local labour and training opportunities were well planned and being driven at a senior level. In practical terms we quickly put in place measures such as a dedicated employment and training manager and a training centre on site for apprentices.

To show we were completely serious about our obligations we also submitted a wider construction phase Sustainability Action Plan which we developed around some key outcomes. Firstly we needed to show the benefits of sustainability to our customer. This meant developing life cycle cost models for the project that would illustrate value for money and designing to cost. Furthermore, we made a commitment to lead by example, which in practice means taking part in industry-recognised programmes such as the Considerate Constructor Scheme; a national initiative to promote best practice and to improve the image of construction. We set ourselves a target to maintain a 38+ rating; we are now at 39 out of a maximum rating of 40.

Most people within the industry will tell you that while a score of 35 is regarded as the expected level, getting much beyond this is not easy. In partnership with Birmingham City Council we produce a quarterly newsletter for the local community and hold bi-monthly meetings with a neighbourhood group so we can understand issues and deal with them swiftly. Parking, for example, is a major issue for residents in a city centre location so we make sure that the zero tolerance approach to unauthorised parking is enforced. Following our neighbourhood meetings we were also able to supply labour and materials, including 100 tonnes of top soil to help create a community “Grow Space” garden by a residential tower block next to the library. By listening and then having a lot of people from Carillion and our supply chain offering a little bit of help each we are making a relatively easy but genuine contribution to sustainable communities. For example, one of the contactors erected a fence around the garden – not hard to do but one less headache for the community. Part of the Considerate Constructor commitment to engage with the community also includes regular school visits to the site and tours given by the Ivor Goodsite mascot, which is a great way of engaging with children.

The Library of Birmingham is being integrated physically with the REP. The two organisations are working in partnership and will share the main entrance and foyer space, a flexible new studio theatre and restaurant/ café facilities. The REP’s focus is essentially on the spoken word and the Library on the written word. But they both encourage a love of literature, creative writing and reading, and both organisations are committed to exploring new ways of engaging with the diverse communities of Birmingham.

The next sustainability outcome we committed to focus on was carbon. This meant achieving a BREEAM excellent accreditation and environmental assessment of the building, minimising energy consumption during construction, achieving a 25% reduction in CO2 emissions and using clean power sources. The Library of Birmingham will have natural ventilation, a ground source heat pump for cooling and a combined heat and power system to generate heat and electricity. While credentials like this are now regarded as standard, failure to pay due attention to them is just not an option. They are also very much part of the holistic approach to sustainability expected and demanded by today’s discerning customers.

Matching the need for a green building is the need to support sustainable communities as our next outcome – one that stands up to scrutiny and delivers exactly what it says it will. As part of the Library of Birmingham construction phase, and in partnership with our supply partners, we will create 250 local employment opportunities with 75 apprentices and 30 places for the homeless under the Business Action on Homelessness (BAOH) scheme.

Interestingly the original target for apprentices was 25, but as this was reached in the first year we raised the bar to 75. Working with Birmingham City Council’s Employment Access Team (EAT) the apprenticeship opportunities target some of the hardest to reach groups across the city – those claiming benefits and living in 187 designated Super Output Areas of special need. With EAT we were also able to apply for and become a registered National Skills Academy for Construction training centre.

This was the first stand-alone project where we have done this, and being able to provide on-site NVQ training, including English and maths skills, is hugely beneficial. For many young people their time on the Library of Birmingham will leave a real and positive legacy. It is worth noting that some have come from troubled backgrounds and in a few cases have served prison sentences. The type of rehabilitation through an apprenticeship in construction can be a real turning point and offer real self esteem, often for the first time. Looking more widely, sustainability policies like this can add to a more harmonious and cohesive society.

Our next sustainability outcome under the action plan is protecting the environment. At the Library of Birmingham this involves encouraging biodiversity through creating brown and green roof spaces and garden terraces for visitors, water harvesting and ensuring that 95% of waste is diverted away from landfill. We are currently achieving 99% of material diverted from landfill.

To make all this happen we have embedded the Waste Resource Action Programme (WRAP) recommendations into our supply chain to share the targets on waste and resource use. To further minimise the environmental impact on this city-centre site there is a just-in-time delivery procedure on site. Materials are held at a depot about a mile away and delivered logistically to avoid city centre congestion and inconvenience to the local community. There are more than 500 residents living within a hundred yards of the construction site so getting this right is vital.

From start to finish this is a five-year process – a significant time to spend on any project. Given this and the obvious civic pride behind the project, Birmingham City Council’s project manager, Terry Perkins, is determined to make the construction phase as much about the journey as the destination. And this leads to the final area of sustainability; the people involved.

Everyone should be able to enjoy the experience, work together and be proud of their contribution. That is as much about delivering the sustainability criteria, as delivering the project on time and to budget. It is very much a culture of partnership, collaboration, openness and information sharing – including sharing best practice with other major construction sites under development with Birmingham City Council.

According to Mike Whitby, the leader of Birmingham City Council, the aspirations are for the Library of Birmingham to encapsulate Birmingham’s diverse history, its sense of identity its optimism for the future and its belief in the power of knowledge, learning and culture.

This building redefines the purpose for libraries in the 21st century – and I believe the nature of the partnership redefines the need for sustainability.

Simon Dingle is Carillion’s on-site operations director for the Library of Birmingham project

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