Tasman District Council’s Jeff Robinson shared the ups, downs and lessons learnt from council’s bold remake of Richmond’s main thoroughfare. He presented this paper at the recent IPWEA NZ conference in Wellington.
It is a rare opportunity to be asked to completely demolish an existing street and replace it with a design that includes almost every asset that local government manages. While doing this we had to ensure that the street remained open for business. It was important to get it right – to future proof it – to create the desired look and feel that connects the whole town whilst responding to multiple, demanding street users.
So, here’s how the project was initiated and completed, and how we responded to a major crisis and overcame it to end up winning the Keep New Zealand ‘Best Street in New Zealand’ award in 2018. Importantly, we share some of the many lessons learnt and suggestions on how we could have improved on the delivery of this very public project.
Queen Street is the main thoroughfare in Richmond, the largest town in the Tasman District. The town is challenged by significant growth demands and ageing infrastructure and, like many cities and towns, there comes a time to upgrade the main street. The rebuild was very visible with some 150 adjacent business owners and the public scrutinising the project in detail over an 18-month period.
Flooding due to aged infrastructure and growth plus the related business disruption demanded action. In response, the Tasman District Council in 2015 approved a $21 million programme of stormwater projects for the Richmond township. The first project was to upgrade the stormwater in Queen Street. A wider asset review resulted in a decision to rebuild the complete street and upgrade all of the associated infrastructure. So, the scope was increased to future proofing the street; and changing from a rural, tired looking street to one that is both modern and vibrant.
A concept design was produced showing the existing below- and above-ground infrastructure and a new street ground profile which was very different to the existing one. Extensive consultation followed which included valuable input from groups representing people with special needs. A risk register was developed. The number of high risks identified was an early signal of what could go wrong.
It became clear that there needed to be a balance between limiting disruption to businesses and the community versus allowing a contractor sufficient room to make progress. Experienced contractors were engaged to assist us in defining a balance.
A construction tender was advertised using the Price Quality Method of assessment – four tenders were received and, following negotiations, a contract was awarded for $11.7 million. The council approved a total project budget of $13.8 million.
During the construction we hosted a number of professional groups to site visits and there was much discussion and debate about the design. The following is a summary of the key design features.
Street pavement: The most significant change was from a hump to a hollow pavement profile to create a secondary flow path with no kerb and channel. All of the street surface water drains into a central slot drain.
A concrete buffer strip separates the vehicle space and four-metre-wide pedestrian-friendly footpaths.
The narrower three-metre-wide street vehicle lanes were designed for a speed limit of 30 kilometres/hour with the emphasis being on a slower and safer overall environment.
Underground services: The number of existing and new utility services that needed to be protected, removed and replaced typically totalled 22. There were also many laterals connecting some 150 business properties noting that continuity of services was required during the rebuild.
Landscape design: We were very conscious of the amount of black pavement that would cover 80 percent of the new 20-metre-wide street and that the landscape features would create the most visual impact to the street users.
The design was based on consistency, tying into existing side landscape features and introducing key nodal spaces around the three pedestrian crossings.
A series of 3D prints was used to consult with stakeholders – it was important that they could visualise what the street would look like.
The key limitations in the contract were:
• To construct the works in six stages so that businesses would know when their part of the street would be closed. Each stage was called a box which was portioned off and closed that part of the street to vehicles.
• Both footpaths had to remain open in each stage during the day and only one could be closed each evening.
• Water and other shutdowns were to be planned during the night shift.
• Compliance with noise, vibration, dust, sediment control and traffic management plans as required in the resource consent.
• No work was allowed during the busy months of December and January. This allowed the contractor 11 weeks after award to plan, resource and carry out underground service investigations prior to starting physical works.
A very detailed work methodology and ambitious programme was produced, challenged and accepted.
We realised early on that different modes of communication media were required to reach our target audiences – signage, email/messaging to property owners and businesses, face-to-face meetings and town hall sessions. We also had regular articles in newspapers and weekly updates of our website.
The contractor was paid to employ a full-time stakeholder liaison officer who engaged daily with directly-affected businesses.
Weekly communication and engagement meetings were held between the contractor, council’s communications team and the project manager. These updated everyone on programme, traffic management and planned events to ensure consistent messaging.
What actually happened?
Two days before the start of construction a flaw in the underground services layout was detected which required an urgent complete redesign of the whole underground layout. So, on day one the fences were erected to close the first stage of the street, our smiling mayor was photographed with others officially starting the contract – but no construction happened on day one, two or three. The designers worked around the clock and we finally started construction on day four.
As construction progressed, we were alerted to strange ant behaviour and it was confirmed that the street was home to Argentine ants which came out in attack mode in response to the activity. This was easily managed but set a sequence of risks that we had identified being realised, becoming issues that needed managing. This included:
• A gravity sewer pipe connection fouled the new 1.2 metre diameter stormwater pipe requiring a new pump station for one property.
• Work stopped when a toxic, gassy smell was detected – the cause was excavating a coal tar layer which was the original state highway surface (up to 60 years old) buried about 150mm below the current road surface. Laboratory testing resulted in the 60mm layer being deemed hazardous requiring it to be transported to the regional landfill at a cost of $107 per tonne. This added $400,000 to the project cost and impacted progress.
• A section of the stormwater pipe that was supposed to be in good condition turned out to be butt end jointed allowing water and soil into the system. So, we decided to replace these pipes at an extra cost of $250,000.
• Two months into construction the contractor informed us that it had been acquired by another company. The result was the contract was novated to a new contractor with a corresponding change in resources.
• The ‘box’ within which all the action was taking place had created a conflicting work space with the subs working in silos.
For many reasons progress slipped seriously and by August 2017 we found ourselves:
• 15 weeks behind schedule for Stage 1;
• With over 500 notices to the engineer or the contractor; and
• With approximately 80 variation claims ‘on the table’.
We were fast losing credibility with the businesses in the street and the public in general. In summary, the project had reached a state of crisis.
We called time out (the work still continued), interviewed all the sub-contractors, set up a meeting and asked each party (contractor, consultant and council) to bring to the table their view of the contract and what needed to be done to get it back on track. The key to this meeting was insisting that senior representatives from the contractor, consultant and council were present. We agreed that:
• All of our reputations were at risk;
• We were not confident that we could achieve the outcomes that everyone wanted under the existing contract mechanism; and
• Doing nothing was not an option.
We kept talking and negotiating and started to put in place different modes of operation. We finally agreed:
• To change from a Measure and Value to a Lump Sum contract with both the contractor and the consultant.
• That all of the 80 plus variations were dealt with in the lump sum saving a significant amount of time and paperwork.
• To reset the construction completion date to be four weeks later than the original contract date and reset the incentive bonus.
• On longer distances of street closure to increase construction productivity and hence longer disruption to street users.
• That the project team would focus on solutions and what was needed to mitigate the ongoing risks associated with the works.
• On a revised total project cost that was approved by council at $14.8 million (an increase of $1 million of which the coal tar and extra infrastructure required accounted for about $800,000).
These changes re-energised the contract and was the catalyst to a noticeable change in how the various teams and subcontractors responded to a work mode bound by less contractual paperwork.
We communicated the changes to the directly affected business and street property owners and invited them to talk to us. It was clear that we had lost their trust that we could turn the contract around, so we were given cautious support to set in place more disruptive work stages.
Fine weather was experienced prior to the crisis meeting however, the construction was then completed during a period of higher than usual rainfall. We still faced many challenges as we dug up and rebuilt the street but everyone pitched in to find solutions.
The end of the project was defined as the day when the whole street was safely open to traffic and pedestrians. With much relief that day came and the businesses all put balloons outside their shops and some people even danced in the streets to signal the end of a long and significant project. With three weeks extension of time the contractor met the revised completion date – a tribute to a significant all-round team effort.
At the beginning of the project we listed the key benefits that we wished to realise at the end of the project – all key initial benefits were realised.
There is now a different look and feel in the main street. The footpaths and street are busy and post-construction we have received a lot of positive feedback.
We entered and won the Best Street in New Zealand in the Keep NZ Beautiful awards.
Designing and reconstructing a main street needs careful planning and presents many opportunities. It will help ‘getting it right’ if you:
• Develop and action a consultation and communication plan from the start of the project to the street opening. Invest in both quality 3D images to explain what is proposed and daily on-site stakeholder liaison.
• Nominate and use practical project management practices. Our weekly risk reviews made a huge difference.
• Old streets have hidden surprises. Do not skimp on determining the state and position of the underground services. Early total cross-street excavations are proposed.
• Seek early contractor involvement to complete the design and firm up a methodology. Find a contractor who can self-perform most of the required works.
• Do not let a project crisis grow. Have the courage to change and pull in senior management from the involved parties to lean on long-term relationships: there must be give and take.
• Carry out pre- and post-construction audits and change/fix bad designs immediately.
Finally, share your experiences with others.
At the end of the project we held a joint session to table what worked well and where there were opportunities for improvement with a ‘no blame or organisational protection’ attitude. An opening individual comment was: “This was a very bold project – satisfying at the end but very demanding during the project – so many different agendas to respond to.”
Project management: We implemented strict project management from the inception to the completion of the project and this was a key success factor in achieving a good outcome. We used a very practical risk management practice with weekly reviews and closed out some 380 risks during the contract.
Contract: Early Contract Involvement (ECI) – we should have involved a contractor earlier in the procurement process, something like; complete the design and schedule of prices to 70 percent and then competitively choose a preferred tenderer. Pay the contractor to complete the design working with the consultant and lock in a methodology and design and finish the pricing and agree on a contract with clear risk ownership.
Pre-tender site investigation: The lesson is – spend more time and money identifying what lurks below the ground when the existing services are old and as-builts not reliable. The street was a spaghetti of pipes, cables and ducts randomly laid over the past 70 years and the individual ‘pot holing’ site investigation in hindsight painted a more organised cross-section of existing services than was actually unearthed. A better method is to excavate a number of trenches at 90 degrees to the street to fully expose every underground service – four or five of these for our project would have been very informative. The hydrovac type excavation available today makes this trenching a real option.
Design: Soon after construction commenced the contractor formally requested more detailed design for some elements. The designers acknowledged that some of the designs did require final detailing, however the contractor was responsible for coming up with a practical solution and this was built in to their rates. The contractor noted that their sub-contractors required 100 percent detailing for pricing and so we had a misalignment of expectations. We resolved this in the contract lump sum negotiation. The lesson is with a conventional design and then construct tender be very clear on what is not fully designed and allow to pay the contractor to complete the detailing if that makes sense.
Construction: Ideally a multi-disciplinary team laying water, sewer and stormwater pipes followed by pavement construction and then landscaping whilst accommodating power and communication cables would be mostly done by a single contractor – then no group could claim that others were hindering and/or delaying their part of the construction. Towards the end of the project the contractor managed to much better align these multiple teams to work together even if it meant sacrificing some of its own space and time. The lesson here is that we should have tested how up to eight different companies were going to integrate into a confined working space. The council sought outcomes that were much broader than just construction.
Health and safety: We specified a solid safety hoarding to separate the construction from the public. Excavations undermined the footings and during a strong wind a section collapsed and injured a pedestrian. Lesson – we agreed to change to an open wire, more portable fence which opened up the site to public viewing allowing light to the footpaths which had been in the shadows. Lesson – spend time at the beginning of the contract considering how to minimise hazards for pedestrians who were forced to navigate a tight corridor which itself was under construction. Overall, the contractors had few on-site incidents and were very good at responding to actual events to ensure they were not repeated. Daily toolbox meetings with all subs made a difference.
Re-designs: We had to be flexible in the interpretation of certain design features and for the majority of the project we either achieved the initial design or improved on it. There were a few exceptions. One example is – do not design square garden planters next to adjacent car parking. To our dismay many cars drove over the planter edges, damaged the corner plants and scoured out the bark. We immediately designed and inserted steel grates in the corners. The lesson is to accept a mistake early and fix it before the public make a big deal about it.
Not all drivers are the same: We had underestimated the extent of bad driver behaviour. Reports started to come in soon after opening stages of the street about a small percentage of drivers using the pedestrian footpath to do U turns, reversing and even driving up to a bank ATM – just because the 700mm wide buffer strip allowed them to do this. This was putting pedestrians at risk so we started a street education programme. Our slogan was ‘Queen Street has changed but the rules are the same – no driving on the footpath.’
• Jeff Robinson is senior project manager, Tasman District Council, Richmond. firstname.lastname@example.org
With acknowledgements to Stantec New Zealand, the main consultant for design, surveillance and quality assurance, and Downer New Zealand, the main contractor. Downer also entered this project into the recent CCNZ/Hirepool Construction Excellence Awards.
This article was first published in the September 2019 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.