Sep 19, 2019 Last Updated 10:52 AM, Aug 14, 2019

Textbook community engagement

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Sustainability has become so deeply embedded in the construction sector that low environmental impact is now a standard requirement of each system and material used. Manufacturers, suppliers and contractors have all embraced the 'green' concept, but there are many more opportunities on the doorstep of almost every construction site.


Environmental performance can be improved even further with careful consideration of how the building and its construction processes affect the local community – both in the short and long term. By building positive relationships with customers and communities, contractors can leave positive and lasting legacies that continue long after each project has finished.

But with sustainability traditionally measured on cold hard facts, has a lack of quantifiable benefits for community engagement ensured it remains a low priority? One company bucking the trend is Balfour Beatty, whose £4.1m refurbishment of Exeter Library has shown how an excellent relationship with the client and local community engagement can leave a sustainable legacy.

Fit for the future

One of Devon’s main libraries, the original 1960s Exeter Central Library had become outdated and required modernisation. In partnership with Devon County Council and their agent NPS, Balfour Beatty was appointed to complete a range of much-needed improvements to create a first-class contemporary facility for information, learning and culture.

Designed to offer better accessibility, revamped meeting and performance spaces and increased space for children plus a new cafe, the project required careful collaborative thinking before construction works could even begin. Listening to the views of the residents, an initial design was created that met changing local needs, maximised use of space and made the building as flexible as possible.

The new library boasted a new entrance area and passenger lift, new learning and study areas and upgraded toilet facilities. Balfour Beatty also introduced the latest environmental controls and relevant sustainability features to reduce the use of heating and air-conditioning and address its historical issue of being too cold in the winter and too hot in the summer.

One of the most innovative additions was the introduction of the new ‘Fab Lab’. Believed to be the first of its kind in a UK public library, the ‘Fab Lab’ is a digital workshop equipped with laser-cutters, 3D printers and scanners, 3D milling machines, electronics bench and programming and design tools – allowing local businesses, schools and the public to ‘make almost anything’.

Despite the rise of the digital age, libraries are still regarded as places where individuals can gather to explore, interact and imagine. With many local authorities striving to build sustainable library services fit for the future – it’s important that 21st century facilities are not only shaped for the community but shaped by them too.

Opening new doors

With better links to the city’s Cultural Quarter crucial to an increase in library users, Balfour Beatty created an additional entrance from Rougemont Gardens. Transforming the whole rear wall of the library into glazing, this new entrance improves connections to the Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Phoenix Arts Centre and Exeter Castle and ensures the local landmark is used to its full potential.

Connecting with local places and people can often prove the difference between construction success and failure. In September 2013, Balfour Beatty opened the site to the public as part of its Open Doors Day. Run in partnership with the UK Contractors Group (UKCG), this aimed to showcase the world of construction and offer a unique opportunity to look behind the scenes of a live construction site.

Following the success of Open Doors Day, the site was open once again in January 2014 for a visit by councillors from Devon County Council. All were impressed with the work and Cllr Hart said: “I think this is a fantastic resource for the people of Exeter and Devon and brings the library into the 21st century. Linking the library to Rougemont Gardens, as well as the cultural quarter, will make such a difference and will really open everything up.”

“At every project we strive to build positive relationships with local people and businesses,” said Stuart Smith, Balfour Beatty Project Manager. “Thanks to the individual efforts of Site Manager Robbie Cloak and Senior QS Heath Powell, as well as their close working relationships with the Client’s team, the Open Doors Day and council visit proved extremely successful and helped to further integrate this project – and construction team – into the community.”

As part of its commitment to sustainability, Balfour Beatty maximised engagement of local labour by appointing local suppliers in the construction and operation stages. Committed to employing locally wherever possible, 90% of trades were sourced from Balfour Beatty’s Devon-based supply chain partners.

The company continues to invest time and effort into teaching, developing and retaining young people – protecting its future by building a sustainable, high quality workforce. A series of apprenticeships were offered to carpenters and tilers through the supply chain partners, whilst the gateman was trained and supported through CSCS, Asbestos Awareness and Security Courses.

Building and working together

Devon County Council’s Cabinet Member with responsibility for the library, Councillor Roger Croad, said: “The long awaited and much anticipated Exeter Library, our third Devon Centre, is now open to the public, offering a wider range of services than ever before. I’m very pleased with its content and design, which has brought a new energy into the building while keeping many of the original features that people loved about the original building.”

Andy McAdam, Balfour Beatty Delivery Unit Managing Director, said: “We have thoroughly enjoyed delivering this transformation at the heart of the city for our customer, Devon County Council. We trust that the people of Exeter will enjoy using it as much as we have enjoyed creating it.”

With new facilities and thousands more books on its shelves, the revamp proved a huge success with almost 2500 visits every day in the first two weeks after it re-opened in May 2014. Signalling a 50% increase in visitor numbers compared to before the refurbishment, the project demonstrates the clear benefit of designing and building for the community.

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