Smart construction for new EPO office

Smart construction can only succeed if a smart organization runs the show. That’s most certainly the case for the new office of the European Patent Office (EPO) in Rijswijk, the Netherlands. The selected steel construction and immense proportions demand an integral operation combining different fields of expertise.

Design, execution and inspections are in one hand. The client only checks if everything is done according to plan. “A one-of-a-kind contract agreement with benefits for all parties involved”, project directors Michel Hoogendoorn and René Hersbach state. EPO sets high standards for lighting, acclimatization, acoustic performance and sustainable use of energy of its new accommodation. Furthermore, the European patent organization want to minimize its concerns with regard to design and execution of the construction plans. A challenge for the TBI building combination J.P. van Eesteren, Croon Elektrotechniek and Wolter & Dros (the latter being specialized in mechanical installation technology), which has been responsible for a number of integral projects and managed to win the EPO contract.

By combining expertise, the collaborating companies have been able to develop innovative concepts. For EPO, they designed a steel building in which all building installation are integrated in the hollow floors. This allows them to comply with the requirements. Other benefits of the steel construction include a faster building process and additional floor space in the same building height.

The oblong building will rise 27 floors to an approximate height of 107 meters, length of 150 meter and width of only 12,6 meters. Never before did the Netherlands see the construction of a steel building of these proportions. Last month, the assembly of the steel construction commenced. The highest point is expected to be reached this November. Completion is scheduled for 2017.

The TBI companies have founded a new entity called New Main B.V. for the duration of the project, which they housed in an empty office space right next to the construction site. The approximately one hundred employees detached to New Main B.V. are thereby enabled to literally follow their work. “We’re right on top of it”, says René Hersbach, recruited as general project manager. Michel Hoogendoorn, director Integral Projects at J.P. van Eesteren construction company, is primarily responsible for the construction and the building process. Furthermore, a financial director has been added to the management of the temporary company. The three men not only manage their own employees, but architects, engineers, constructive advisors and other hired staff as well.

The method called Design & Construct particularly adds value for extensive, complex projects and is on a steep rise in recent years. Hersbach and Hoogendoorn believe the EPO project to be a leading example of the new methodology. Not just by means of the exceptional construction, but especially due to the innovative organization and the unique way in which the agreement with the client has been established.

“Construction has been underway for well over a year, but we’re still designing”, adds Hersbach. “This way we’re aiming to address customer wishes the best we can. It’s possible, because we’re at behind the wheel ourselves. We determine when it’s time to make certain decisions. That saves a lot of time. If you have to wait for contract documents, invite for tenders and then start construction, it’ll easily take you twice as long.”

The design is created by the renown French architect Jean Nouvel and Dam & Partners Architecten from Amsterdam. They are part of the team. Design and implementation are intertwined. That’s new for all employees. There are no contract documents and the designs are continuously validated. After each phase, the execution is verified with the customer’s contract requirements. Employees have to check their own work. Hoogendoorn: “They don’t need to see the foreman to have their work approved, but are obliged to complete a checklist and report potential deviations. For some, this feels insecure. They like to receive a stamp which confirms they did a good job. On the other hand, especially young Bachelor or Technical University graduates love it. They aren’t bothered by old habits and prefer to work independently.” Hersbach: “The majority of employees has adopted our new way of working. Once it spreads, supervisory functions like superintendent become hopelessly obsolete. The biggest expertise lies with the people who actually do the work. So let them prove they did well. I’m proud of the fact we’ve gotten the organization to embrace this insight.”

The construction process has been divided into work packages. For example the pile foundations, which took 6 months. Each work package includes a verification matrix, in which all agreements and changes are logged. Once a phase is completed, it’s delivered to the customer. This way, the final completion is expected to be a mere formality. In the early stages, the administrative load is relatively high, but further down the line it’s likely to be lower than in traditional building processes. Hoogendoorn ultimately expects increased efficacy: “But of course, that’s to be seen. We’re on an exploration, encountering new questions to which we try and find the best possible answers. It’s no routine job.”

EPO has a warranty of 10 years after project completion. This amply covers the client for building risks. Hersbach: “Nevertheless, this new way of working is in some ways also demanding for the customer, which EPO handled very well. EPO is supported by their own advisors and experts, who review every phase. Contested issues are discussed until consensus is reached. That creates trust. And beats a client putting the design in a drawer and waiting to assess if the result matches up to their expectations until final completion. So far there’s only been a few remarks, so apparently we’re doing a good job.”