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Pinning hopes on drier weather

The Association of Specialist Underpinning Contractors is praying for a long hot summer.

The British may have a preoccupation with the weather, but few can have such a commercial interest in the long term forecast as companies involved in underpinning. The sector is now in the throes of recession, says Vic Handley, chairman of Association of Specialist Underpinning Contractors (ASUC) 'because it has been too wet for too long'.

The biggest cause of subsidence in shallow founded structures is shrinkable clays - and when the weather is wet and the soil moisture content high, shrinkable clays don't shrink.

But for once, it's not just about the weather.

Insurers are increasingly looking at repairing structural defects rather than going for a full underpinning solution. Their caution, believes Handley, has been exacerbated by the World Trade Center attacks last year. And who could have predicted that 11 September would have had such a direct impact on the UK's underpinning market?

Handley, who is group business development director with Van Elle, took over the chairmanship of ASUC in December. He is very clear about his main focus during his two year term - health and safety, and training - which are, of course, inextricably linked. ASUC's efforts are very much at site level and it has established NVQ Level 2 qualifications through City & Guilds and the CITB for site operatives.

ASUC is also lobbying the loss adjusting industry to use only ASUC members for all underpinning work. ASUC members, says Handley, not only offer trained and competent staff, but are also backed by ASUC's 12 year independent guarantee.

This has been in place for a couple of years and, as it is an indemnity policy, there is no need to prove negligence. If a defect is found in the contract work or design of any project undertaken by an ASUC member, the problem will be rectified.

'Effectively it means an insurance company only ever has to pay out once on a property, ' explains Handley. If problems reoccur, the work is covered by ASUC's insurance, not the property owners'.

'It's a great scheme, but maybe we need to shout about it more, ' says Handley. To this end, ASUC has invited NHBC, the Association of British Insurers, the Chartered Institute of Loss Adjusters and the Institution of Structural Engineers to join ASUC as honorary members. It is not just a kudos thing for ASUC either, explains Handley 'They all attend our quarterly executive meetings. It's very proactive and we need direct contact with these people to move the association forward and achieve its goals.'

Paradoxically, with the focus on training, the biggest issue facing the sector is keeping hold of its skills base. 'When the work is not out there, it's difficult, ' says Handley. Nevertheless, with many of the smaller members highly dependent on underpinning, ASUC is keen to encourage members to diversify into allied areas. For example prolonged wet weather may not be good for the underpinning sector, but as wet weather triggers landslides it's pretty good news for contractors who are into slope stabilisation.

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