On-site work began at One Portsoken Street on the 30th of September, 2019. Weighing in at over 230,000 sq ft, it’s the largest design and build project in the UK. Oktra are upgrading the building’s infrastructure to provide both BREEAM and BCO design standards, and have managed to add 40,000 sq ft of floor space by re-optimising the interior. We spoke with Oktra CEO Peter Dalzell and Construction Director Phil Jones to find out how a project of such magnitude is shaping the business – and the industry.
“These projects are usually reserved for the more traditional companies, so the impact is far-reaching across the construction industry as a whole,” explains Phil. In expanding their offering, Oktra are changing what is expected from design and build firms by providing a turn-key solution to what has been considered, up to this point, a more traditional project.
“We had to look at the way we traditionally manage and procure our projects across the business,” says Pete. “We’ve set up the project to deliver through a more traditional style of management in terms of both skillset and discipline. We’ve got a strong delivery team from Assistant Management through to Director Level, along with dedicated Commercial Management and Design teams. The scale and complexity of Portsoken, delivering over 230,000 sq ft of commercial and retail units, is something the UK’s D&B market has never seen.”
Needless to say, this project isn’t a simple Cat B refurbishment, which is why Oktra have adopted an approach that fuses the magic of design and build with the methodical outlook of traditional procurement. “‘Speed thrills’ is one of the expressions that’s used in D&B – the faster you can get to the client and the faster you can deliver the answer, the better,” says Pete. “With Portsoken, there is still an element of energy required, but sometimes on a project with so many potential risks, taking a step back and thinking for a second is actually appropriate.”
By fusing the strengths of both traditions, Oktra’s operational culture is evolving to embody the best of design and build and traditional procurement. “That’s where Phil’s really important,” says Pete of the new Construction Director. “Phil comes from a more traditional background and he’s fitting in with our culture but, at the same time, he’s helping us tweak our culture to fit with something like Portsoken. Which actually gives us both strengths.”
Fully aware of how central the construction will be to the surrounding area, Oktra are making a concerted effort to generate a positive impact. The teams have built a clothing collection unit from repurposed site materials that will benefit local charities for the homeless, including Whitechapel Mission. The on-site team are also volunteering at Streetlytes, serving meals to the homeless community in Shepherds Bush, and will be leading a clean-up in Aldgate, clearing litter from the surrounding area.
The design teams are changing Portsoken from the inside out. The project includes a 9-storey atrium infill, complete with the installation of 27 piles within the atrium at a depth of 20m. There are extensive ground works associated with piling, not to mention the scale of the complex steel frame of the building. It’s a construction process the likes of which Oktra has never attempted but, having built a project-specific team of managers with the right experience, the company is excited to deliver. “It’s easier to build from scratch,” says Pete, as Phil nods before adding that, “this is more complex because you’ve got an existing building that you’re trying to design around – it’s not like you’re piling in a field, you’re piling in the building, which has its own complications.”
The intricate structural refurbishment within the atrium of the building is undoubtedly the most challenging aspect of the project. “It includes a detailed scaffold design to aid the large scale demolition of the existing concrete panels and terraces to the atrium, complex piling within the atrium and the steel frame infill across all 9 floors of the building to create 230,000 sq ft of prime commercial space,” Phil explains matter-of-factly, making it easy to see exactly how his experience forms an integral part of the methodology at One Portsoken. “The planning and sequencing of these works require a collective team approach, with both consultants and our supply chain working together,” he continues. “Health and Safety are at the forefront of each planned work stream to ensure the coordination of work and safety is at the highest level.”
The technical aspect of One Portsoken brings with it a new scale of challenge for Oktra’s design and build teams, but they haven’t lost sight of the internal challenges – namely, maintaining their renowned company culture. “Losing the culture would be devastating, explains Pete. “It’s great to do these exciting projects but our culture is at the centre of everything we do.” He emphasises how crucial it is that the company continues to “keep these big projects coming, but approach them with the Oktra spirit, the Oktra culture. That in itself is a challenge, without a doubt.”
But as the two discuss the progress at Portsoken, it’s clear that Oktra’s electrifying, fast-paced culture is nowhere near slowing down. “This is defining – if we can prove that a D&B company can do a project like this, which we’re well on the way to proving, then there’s no reason why we can’t, within Oktra, start doing this on a more regular basis,” says Pete. “We’ll be more confident and people will be more confident in us.”
When asked about the project’s ability to attract new talent and whether the company expects to see heightened interest as a result, Pete smiles and points to Phil. “Case in point,” he says. “It has done, absolutely. Confidence in doing new things, people get excited by that. People from different sectors start to look in when you’ve done something unusual and it makes you stand out.”
Phil nods again before adding, “we talk about Portsoken and the size of it, but the fact that Oktra is seen to be pushing the boundaries of our capabilities – that is the reason I joined. I want to be at the beginning of something that I see as completely different in the market place.”