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Bison moves out of housing

Precast concrete supplier Bison is diversifying its product range in an effort to stave off the slow-down in the construction market, NCE can reveal.

It is producing prototypes for prison cell construction in the hope that work in this area will attract business, and fill the gap left in its hollowcore flooring orders. Bison supplies about 30% of the UK's hollowcore precast flooring, which is used in housebuilding where a quick form of construction is required.

"Most of our work is in the residential market and this is where the market has depressed," said Bison special projects commercial manager Robert Martin.

"We've got three or four jobs where the second phase of work is dead in the water. They [developers] delay the project six months and then at the end of that six months say, 'wait another six months',"

Bison also manufactures stadium terracing and other precast units for school and hospital construction and this is where it hopes to expand. "We're moving away from residential and see the need to diversify more," added Martin.

Bison is hoping to supply precast units as part of hybrid structures as a way of picking up more work in the precast concrete sector. One example is in prison cell construction where Bison has sandwiched precast concrete panels to brickwork to produce readymade walls. These come complete with insulation and water pipes within the walls. The system means that the cells do not need air conditioning to regulate their temperature, but rely on the thermal mass of the concrete heated or cooled by the temperature of the water in the pipes.

But some believe that the slow down in construction could also affect these markets outside housebuilding.

"Big clients, such as the National Grid still have to go to banks for finance, so while public sector work is considered more stable, if there’s private funding, there will be caution," said Nigel Knowles, managing director of site investigation firm Geotec.

He added that with projects being delayed, the rising cost of raw materials and fuel could mean that some projects never get off the ground.

To keep building costs down in the hope that projects go ahead, contractors, he said, were lowering their tender prices by reducing the scope of site surveys.

Business is now about 25% down compared to last year at Geotec (this is up from 40% at the beginning of 2008), due to the downturn in private sector work, but also because it is carrying out more less-detailed desktop studies rather than full site investigations (NCE 26 June).

These studies could store up problems in the future, added Knowles. "If money is tight, and [contractors] do as much research as is mandatory, saving thousands of pounds, but without a full site investigation, it could mean a potential danger on site," he said.

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