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Keep it up to spec


Concrete frame specialists have set up their own premier league to improve standards and win more market share from steel.

Diarmaid Fleming reports.

To the ignorant, pouring concrete might seem a relatively straightforward business. But when the project involves complex structural frames, sometimes combining precast and insitu concrete, there is no substitute for skill, experience and competence.

The sector has always had a hard core of specialist professional firms, with teams of workers who seem happiest up to their knees in fresh concrete, and proud foremen boasting decades of secondnature knowledge whose reputation is their last pour. Yet in any market when price often wins, the cowboy sometimes has his day. Typically the result is a seriously dissatisfied client - who will prefer to try the steel option next time. A new initiative, driven by the industry itself, is striving to end the day of the cowboy contractor and claw back concrete's rightful share of the structural frame market.

This is the SpeCC certification scheme, in effect a Premier League for specialist concrete contractors. Efforts to make construction more efficient and deliver better value, spurred by Sir Michael Latham and Sir John Egan's Rethinking Construction, have prompted the industry to seek ways of improving standards. But stiff competition from the steelwork sector which still continues to gain the lion's share of structural frame work in the UK, and a desire finally to root out incompetent and unscrupulous contractors which give the concrete frame industry a bad name - and clients a bad job - has also sparked the scheme.

Developed by the concrete structures contractors' trade group Construct in conjunction with the Department of Trade & Industry Construction Industry Unit, the scheme aims to provide independent verification that a firm holding SpeCC certification has reached exacting standards.

Only five firms so far have made it, although this number is expected to grow as the scheme takes hold.

Martin Stephenson, managing director of one of the first five companies registered, explains the motivation behind SpeCC.

'Construct was set up to promote the use of concrete in structural frames, and to look at technical issues regarding reinforced concrete frames.

Initiatives like the National Structural Concrete Specification launched in 2000 have been very successful.

'But we want to raise our profile, and we think there should be an accredited standard which we should all achieve, a set of criteria which all companies should reach' He adds: 'We want to demonstrate to clients, architects and engineers that we have a proven record of quality and efficiency.'

SpeCC focuses on five key areas of a company's activities: quality, health and safety, training, environmental policy and a firm's financial standing.

The accreditation system is also linked to the International Organisation for Standardisation quality assurance standards IS0900/9001/9002.

To be awarded certification, a company must pass a series of inspections both of their office systems and site practices.

Essential to the integrity of the scheme is a means of verification, and independent audits form an key part of the inspection process.

'Independent assessors came to the office and audited all our systems and quality plans. Apart from being an interesting experience in itself, it helps to have a fresh pair of eyes looking at your systems, ' says Stephenson. The day-long audit can target anything the inspectors wish to examine, and shortcomings must be rectified if required.

The auditing process is run by Graham Peckham, manager of the SpeCC scheme. Quality assurance (QA) systems over the years have had their fair share of critics, with some seeing them as a paper-making exercise of more use in widget factories than construction, where projects are generally one-off. The scepticism is recognised by Peckham.

'We make absolutely sure that the systems companies have in place in the office or on paper are actually in place on site as well, ' he insists. 'Issues like ensuring the traceablity of steel or concrete for example, following it from when it enters site to its use in the building, are examined.

'Training and the skills of workers and managers on site, the most critical element to the construction process, are also monitored carefully. The complete suite of tests aims to provide assurance to clients that a SpeCC certified concrete specialist works to rigorous standards.'

With around £500M of work in concrete frames annually in the UK, it is a sizeable market, but those involved would like to see it bigger. Stephenson is frank about some of the motivation behind the scheme. Stiff competition from the steel frame sector means concrete wins around only a fifth of the market in structural frames, a share which could be increased, he argues.

'Construct and SpeCC is a response, and in some ways a late response, to the steel industry. We want to show that we are as efficient and as cost effective as the steel industry, and this goes towards that.' Any notion that firms can provide only a traditional sub-contracting service is to be disabused. Providing an all-in-one engineering and construction solution is the key to success and to winning more market share, with design and construction intertwined.

While arguments of the merits of concrete versus steel have raged for years in the UK, the performance of the World Trade Center towers in the September 11 attack has helped stoke the debate further. The failure of steel columns and truss connections in the intense heat after the attacks raised questions as to whether greater use of concrete in the building would have provided a more robust structure.

Stephenson plays down the effect of the Twin Towers' tragedy on the market. 'There may have been a kneejerk reaction in the media, but you have to look at individual buildings, and each building has its own requirements.

'Certainly there is a need to look at other possibilities in construction, but we're talking several years before any major change in the market might be felt from this.'

With four firms - John Doyle Construction, R O'Rourke, Byrne Brothers (Formwork) and Ascon Contracting joining Stephensons as first on the SpeCC register, Stephenson says expanding the scheme is essential.

'We hope to have at least 20 firms accredited by the middle of next year. Without enough members, the scheme won't be taken seriously.'

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