Britain's books: long overdue

The taxpayer has been pouring money into a hole in the ground at the new British Library, as Chris Blackhurst reports

July 1994 was not a good month for ministers and officials at the Department of Environment. They had a highly embarrassing problem: the new British Library, the prestige project upon which pounds 450m of taxpayers' money had been lavished was still nowhere near being completed after 12 years' building work.

The project had got into such a mess of delays and cost-overruns that they were prepared to consider radical solutions: to abandon it and leave empty the half finished building next to London's St Pancras station. The option was dismissed as "not cost effective" according to a damning National Audit Office report published yesterday. Yet the fact that ministers and senior civil servants were prepared even to countenance such a step is a measure of how badly wrong the building has gone.

Instead, it was agreed that the taxpayer should stump up an extra pounds 7.5m to solve the immediate faults. In November that year the Treasury came up with a new budget of pounds 496m to allow the building to be finished. All being well - something of a rarity in the new library's history - the building which was first planned in the 1970s will open in November next year.

Driving along the Euston Road, past St Pancras, it is difficult to see what the fuss is about. That is because the red-brick building, with its much disliked bright metallic trimmings, that lies on the surface is only part of the structure. Like a giant iceberg, the bulk of the library - and its problems - lie far below the surface in the underground storage areas where most of the books will be kept.

The catalogue of mistakes and misjudgements that have bedevilled the project are impressive even by the standards of other large projects that have over-un like the recent additions to Lord's cricket ground and the Channel tunnel.

Former site workers speak in awestruck terms of the things they have seen and been asked to do. Yards of tiles were brought down because one was out of line - "by the width of a five pence piece", said a site engineer. Hand-made bricks that did not quite meet the exacting quality standards received the same treatment. Miles of electrical cables were ripped out because their outer casings were the wrong colour - even though they would eventually be housed in boxes and not be seen.

A hundred cabling boxes costing pounds 1,000 each were bought, found to be unnecessary and were eventually tucked away under the floorboards. A ceiling was ordered to be remade after a quality checker noticed a piece of insulation tape hanging down.

The pounds 400,000 corridor linking the book loading bay and the library was replaced because the mortar did not exactly match the design specification. About 27,000 slates were ordered for the roof and rejected because the quality control team was not happy with their natural markings. That meant someone had to sort through another 100,000 slates.

The fire sprinklers needed revamping when it was found the pipes had corroded and, if a blaze were to have erupted in the basement where most of the books will be stored, they would not have been powerful enough to put it out. On the four basement floors, the mechanical shelving system, has proved to be a nightmare in itself (see box above).

The reasons for this debacle are harder to fathom. The library is a large and complex project. The people in charge of designing and building it understandably want a structure that will be of the highest quality: this building should make a statement about the quality of British learning and culture. It needs to last. Although its exterior has been widely criticised, its interior is lavish and striking.

Yet this desire to build the very best has fallen foul of sometimes gross mismanagement. For instance, one sub-contractor in his twenties has boasted of having made enough from supplying 250 electricians to be able to retire of the proceeds.

Yet the construction companies and workers who have swarmed over the site are merely exploiting a payment system designed by the government. When building work started, back in 1982, ministers decided the project should follow a "construction management" costing policy. This system was adopted, says the NAO, "because of uncertainties about the funding, scope and timetable of the project." In other words, rather than fixing the price at the outset the Government wanted to agree payments to contractors as it went along, in the hope that this would give it more control and flexibility.

The system has turned into a nightmare. The first problem was that there was little expertise in operating it. As the NAO report says: "There was little experience in the UK building industry and even less in central government of the 'construction management' approach."

Cost increases were agreed as the project went along. Power was delegated by Whitehall to the project director and his superintending officer. As problems arose, they waved them through. This system of "reactive budgeting", notes the NAO, left the department in a difficult position to challenge their decisions.

Fatally, this rarely-followed approach was accompanied by a lack of systematic quality control. These were, says the NAO, "inadequate prior to 1991". Checks on the quality of the work as it progressed were not good enough. As a result, problems only emerged once the job had been completed and the money had been handed over. By then, it was too late.

The recipe for disaster was finished off by the library managers' desire to construct a building of a standard well above the public norm, and an absence of incentives for getting the job done on time. The managers spotted faults that in many such projects would be ignored. The price carried on spiralling.

One group that will benefit greatly from the debacle will be lawyers, who will be kept busy by a string of disputes over contractual claims and counter claims. Readers will be marginally better off. The new building will only bump up their number by between 10 and 19 per cent. The capacity of the new science and oriental reading rooms, notes the NAO, will "be exceeded at or shortly after opening". It may be time to start planning a new library. If we start now it might be operational by the year 2020.

The British Library:

A disaster in the making

1982: Building work begins.

1988: Ministers set cash limit of pounds 300m for first phase, due to be completed in 1993; contracts awarded to install mechanical bookshelves and electrical cabling.

1990: Further pounds 150m is agreed to take library to completion.

1991: Faults discovered with shelving system. First National Audit Office report. Handover of basement by contractors postponed because of problems with shelving.

1992: Problems with cabling revealed, contractors begin to rip it out and start again.

1993: Corrosion uncovered in pipes feeding sprinkler system, five expert reports commissioned to solve problem.

1994: Specification of sprinkler system completely changed, with new sprinkler heads, new pumps and valves. National Heritage select committee examines project. Department considers abandoning building completely but decides to award more cash. Cost goes up to pounds 496m. Project director transferred to other duties.

1995: First phase completed.

1996: All money on project has been committed, including reserve to cover legal claims. Books to start moving in during November.

1997: Library due to open to readers in November.

Sprinklers

In the Seventies, when the design brief was drawn up, the library authorities were reluctant to have fire sprinklers in the building because they were afraid of the damage that could be caused to books if they went off accidentally. But the Department of the Environment and Greater London Council both insisted on a fire protection system, so "dry" sprinklers, where water does not enter the pipes until fire is confirmed (as opposed to "wet", where water remains permanently in the piping), were introduced.

A consultant hired by the Government advised that the system was flawed because too much emphasis was being placed on accidental damage to books rather than the fears of fire, the volume of water was not great enough to put out a fire in the huge storage area and it was complex to use. There was a risk of a fire not being extinguished in time. The "dry" system was converted to a "wet" system, and quicker-response sprinklers and better pumps and valves were ordered to be installed.

Shelving

A prototype mechanical shelving system was developed in 1988 to get books quickly and efficiently from the basement storage area to the reading rooms. The equipment was installed in a basement in a building in Bloomsbury so that staff could familiarise themselves with it. They found that when the shelves moved, the books also moved, falling backwards and forwards. This fault was corrected; then, just as one basement area was being handed over, the gearing mechanism jammed. Further tests led to the dismantling of the shelves, which disclosed further problems.

By January 1992, the weaknesses in the mechanics had apparently been resolved - only for yet another problem, this time with rust and the quality of the paint finish, to rear its head. For these parts to be replaced, the shelves had to be taken down and dismantled again. This revealed yet more faults, which were not finally cured until 1993. The shelving contractor and the Government are in dispute over who should pay for the delays and the row is expected to go to arbitration later this year.

Cabling

More than 3,000km of low-voltage cables in metal casing were installed from 1988. An inspection by the contractor revealed a range of faults, from discolouring to naked and damaged wiring. External consultants declared that the cables were unsafe. Engineers blamed the damage on fitters tearing the cables when they pulled them around sharp corners in the casing during installation.

In 1994, contractors began an inch-by-inch inspection, replacing and repairing damaged wires as they went. An independent expert recommended putting in circuit-breakers to prevent fire or cables overheating and producing dangerous fumes. The circuit-breakers were installed last year. Only 60 per cent of the cabling was inspected because ceilings would have had to be removed to examine the rest, adding to the cost and delaying the project by seven months.

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