A major restructuring of the piling industry comes at a time when order books are full, reports Margo Cole.
The piling and foundation industry is in a state of considerable flux. On one hand, specialist companies working in niche markets or those involved in piling for the lucrative building sector are reporting order books full to bursting. But last year saw the demise of Westpile and a conspicuous retrenching by other big names.
Chris MacDonald, managing director of Mowlem Piling and Foundations, claims his company is one of only four contractors in the UK capable of offering the total range of heavy civil engineering piling services - the others being Bachy, Cementation and Stent.
'There are three or four big boys involved in major works and the rest are trying to pick up the easier work in construction, ' he says. 'The dramatic change is the number of smaller companies with one or two rigs at the bottom end of the market.'
With lower overheads and genuine flexibility, says MacDonald, on straightforward piling contracts these firms can be far more competitive on price.
He predicts there is still more restructuring to come in the industry, and acknowledges the only way Mowlem's sizeable piling operation stays viable is thanks to its merger with French firm Intrafor, giving it access to the European market.
But MacDonald believes the major players will not disappear altogether. 'There is going to be a section of the industry that will continue to exist at the very top level because they are a necessary evil, ' he says. 'There is a demand for that capability to exist in the UK.'
However, with major civil engineering projects currently few and far between, it will not be easy for these firms to remain sustainable.
Conversely, the market has never been more buoyant for piling firms in the building sector.
Chris Berry, managing director of Berry Piling, says his firm's order book is very healthy, with enquiries at an all-time high. The same is true at Abbey Pynford, where turnover has increased six-fold in the last 12 months.
Berry specialises in sites with limited access or restricted headroom - primarily refurbishment projects in central London and rail work. 'We don't limit ourselves to one technology, ' explains Chris Berry. 'We offer the complete range of bored piling solutions from 150mm diameter up to 600mm. But if we can't make the project work using these techniques, then the project is not for us.'
Only 10% of Berry's work is tendered. The rest comes from partnering or negotiated work with a range of clients including Costain, Skanska, Mowlem, Gleeson, Network Rail and London Underground. 'What we offer is a number of piling machines that are very, very powerful but are compact and can work in very tight spaces, ' Berry explains.
The company prides itself on high levels of investment in equipment and training, and on staying resolutely within its niche.
Increasingly, though, some clients are looking for a 'one stop' solution from piling companies. Vic Handley of Van Elle says: 'We have to provide a flexible service. Clients want one company to do everything from the site investigation through to damp proof course, including drainage.
'If we do all of that we can take on more of the risk - because we've done the site investigation - so we are in a better position to give them a guaranteed price.'
So, while some firms are finding success by working within a strict, niche environment, others are opting for the 'one stop route' - further evidence of the current state of flux within the piling industry.
Mowlem Piling & Foundations has just completed the installation of piled foundations for Hold Area 28 parking facility for aircraft at the end of the runway at London City Airport.
Mowlem offered the client a design and construct package and engineered a solution using large diameter piles to support precast beams and a 'biscuit' slab with a reinforced concrete slab above. To provide this new facility, a concrete apron had to be constructed over the 10m deep waters of the King George V dock adjacent to the runway.
The new Hold Area 28 had to be constructed during the hours when the airport was closed, and any plant and equipment that could interfere with the safe operation of aircraft - such as cranes and piling rigs - had to be taken off site at the end of each shift.
Fondedile has used its patented Pali Radice mini piling retaining wall system to help build an electrical substation inside the basement of an existing structure at the Clink Street Borough Market development in London.
The scheme, developed on a design and construct basis in conjunction with consulting engineer Price & Myers, involved installing a 34m long load bearing perimeter wall using 280mm diameter piles 8m in depth to allow the construction of a 4m deep basement. The piles were connected via a continuous reinforced concrete capping beam.
Pennine Vibroplant is undertaking an £88,000 contract to design and install a form of treatment for fill on the site of a former power station in Trafford. The solution had to enable the fill to carry loads of up to 150kN/m2 for the slabs and stanchion bases of a new 13,000m2 B&Q warehouse.
This design specification is being achieved by installing 2,000 vibro stone columns to depths of up to 4m across most of the building footprint. However, in places where chambers or turbines were previously located, a further 500 columns to depths of up to 6m are required to provide the necessary support.
The piling and foundations division of R Withers has just completed work on a four phase piling contract worth £120,000 at the Tower of London, where Wallis is building a visitor centre. Withers' contract was for the installation of 125 temporary cased auger piles, all 300mm in diameter and installed to a depth of between 14m and 28m.
Ground conditions consisted of varying depths of made ground overlying London clay and temporary casings were required through the made ground to an average depth of 8m. The piles - designed by Arup - carry working loads between 260kN and 490kN.
During the first phase many trial pits were excavated to find out the extent of 12th century revetment walls before the piles were installed immediately behind them.
Abbey Pynford has recently bought a B125 rig from Casagrande. The rig was chosen both for the range of pile diameters and depths it can handle, and for its rapid mobilisation. Once unloaded, the rig can be assembled in less than two hours.
The rig has a mast height of 16m, which can be increased to 21m with a Kelly extension. It produces piles from 300mm to 750mm diameter, but can extend to 1.5m in rotary mode. Abbey Pynford has used the rig to produce an average of more than 300 linear metres a day on a site in north London where the firm was installing its Housedeck foundation system.