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Best to avoid the rush In this month's spotlight, Ground Engineering examines the latest developments in the UK underpinning sector.

DIRECTORY SPOTLIGHT

Like the tourist industry, the UK underpinning industry is most happy when the country experiences long hot summers. But although recent summers have been pretty wet, contractors say the market is relatively buoyant, 'although not as good as it was ten years ago,' says AC Group director Peter Christian.

Withers director of foundations Malcolm Rising agrees. 'There is a steady flow of work at the moment,' he says.

Underpinning is heavily reliant on the weather. In dry years, subsidence problems come to the fore, with shrinking clay and increased groundwater uptake by trees aggravating the situation.

Workload increases further with an active housing market, as leads to more property surveys, inevitably revealing subsidence problems and leading to more insurance claims.

And, as most of their work is from insurance companies, 'Around 80% to 90%,' estimates Underpin & Makegood director Andrew David, this means more work for underpinning contractors.

But there is a downside. Because of its dependence on the weather and the property market, the sector has a tendency to be cyclic. Inevitably, some underpinning firms go to the wall in the leaner times.

This means that when workload increases, demand can be so great that the reputable underpinners cannot carry out all the work and consequently general building firms end up offering underpinning services.

The underpinning fraternity feels this leads to a fall in professionalism and workmanship and is the reason that the public has a poor perception of the industry.

And while there has been a swing away from builders doing this sort of work, Christian says that the public's attitude is still poor.

'If you are selling a house and you tell someone it has a new roof they think it is a good thing, but if you tell them it has been underpinned then they want to walk away.'

There is now a core of 20 or 30 contractors in the UK who specialise in underpinning. They are able to survive the lean years through high levels of professionalism and by maintaining close relationships with the engineers and insurance companies that provide them with regular work.

'These relationships are essential for survival,' says David.

The Association of Specialist Underpinning Contractors has undoubtedly played a key role in raising the profile of the sector, by ensuring that its members are audited and work to a level of professionalism, giving guarantees for work, although there is some scepticism whether it is effective in winning work.

'A number of clients see Asuc as important, but only time will tell,' says David.

Firms that are not part of Asuc, like AC Group (by choice, emphasises Christian), are still having to prove that they are professional if they want to win work.

'We still have to offer guarantees,' he says.

But the main change in the industry recently has not been driven by the weather or the housing market but by the insurance companies.

'The industry is in huge transition,' says David.

The first change has been the recent mergers and takeovers forming a smaller number of larger firms and therefore a smaller number of clients for the underpinning contractors.

Insurers' attitudes have also changed. 'Insurance firms are becoming more service orientated,' says Rising.

This is probably due to the bad reputation the industry has had when settling claims. It is apparently more and more difficult for insurers to keep policy holders and in an effort to do so, they are trying to fast- track subsidence claims.

Christian says that the thinking is that customers believe that the insurer is doing a good job 'if men turn up in their wellies within a week'.

He is concerned that there is a danger that rushing jobs means that problems could occur in the long run. He favours a more measured approach, 'Where the solution fits the problem.'

Rising shares his concern, 'They are trying to get the whole show on the road as quick as possible,' he says.

'But it can take time to prove the reasons for the subsidence and to decide the best solution.'

He adds that by hurrying claims along, they are pushing contractors along at the same time.

'This is all very well but with the limited number of professional companies around, there may be a lack of people to do the work.'

Christian adds that site investigation for underpinning, which can be inadequate at times, could suffer further as programmes become tighter.

Often, he says, a preliminary investigation is done to get work under way but further site investigation has to be carried out before underpinning can start.

A professional service, with high technical input and the highest safety standards comes at a price, of course, but it seems that as in other sectors of geotechnics, clients can tend to make decisions on the basis of cost rather than level of service.

'Insurance companies are very price conscious,' says David.

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