The demolition industry is facing new challenges. Dave Parker got the insiders point of view from the National Federation of Demolition Contractors.
Demolition contractors tend to be family firms and Hemel Hempstead- based W F Button & Son is typical of the breed. But managing director and NFDC president Howard Button sees major structural change on the horizon. Rationalisation is on the way, he says. Some of the larger demolition companies are already being targeted by the big contractors.
With the increasing emphasis on redeveloping brownfield sites it makes sense for contractors to have their own demolition arm.
There are literally hundreds of demolition contractors around, and 168 of them are members of the NFDC, mostly the larger companies. The federation estimates its members account for at least 60% of the market. Button reports that at the moment this market generally is fairly good, with the South East as usual doing significantly better than Scotland.
Over the last few years there has been a lot of work clearing brownfield sites for housing, he says. This represents a significant shift away from preparing sites for out of town superstores, which has been our standby for years.
Strip-out work, where clients ask for unlettable office blocks to be rendered unfit for habitation as a rates-avoiding measure, is on the decline, Button reports. Stripping a building back to its core in preparation for a complete refurbishment could be a major growth sector, however, depending not just on market demand but also on the development of new specialist technology.
There have already been significant advances in technology. Much of the work traditionally carried out by ball and crane is now undertaken by the so-called superlong excavators with their much-extended long reach booms.
These European-developed machines can reach heights of up to 28m although a 36m machine is now on its way to the UK. At the end of the boom are mounted hydraulically operated pulverisers, crushers or munchers, which nibble away at buildings in a much more controlled manner than the wrecking ball could ever achieve. Such machines operate well outside the current British Standard which is one reason why a very extensive review of the standard is in progress.
BS 6187 Code of Practice for Demolition was last updated more than 15 years ago. A much-revised and extended draft was circulated for comment last year, and the BSI subcommittee responsible is now wading through the mountain of responses it elicited, with the aim of publishing the final version late this year.
Theres been so much new legislation on the statute books since 1982 that it is hard to decide how much should be included in the new code, says NFDC secretary John MacGregor.
And there have been massive technological developments as well, particularly in the field of specialist attachments.
Changes to exclusion zones are the most significant update, Button believes. Those for explosive demolition will be greatly extended, while the exclusion zones for superlong excavators are likely to be considerably smaller than those deemed necessary for the traditional ball and crane.
Including the new Construction (Design & Management) Regulations in the new code will make it a much larger document maybe too large, says Button. MacGregor says the subcommittee is well aware that if the final version is very much bigger and more technical there is a risk people will ignore it. But what do you leave out? he adds.
Button is convinced that the CDM Regulations have had only minimal impact on the demolition industry so far. He says: As a high risk business we were already producing method statements and safety plans long before the regulations came in.
The federation held intensive discussions with the Health & Safety Executive while the regulations were being drawn up, and Im disappointed they didnt go far enough.
Specifically, Button is concerned that many demolition contracts are not legally notifiable to the HSE, simply because they are short duration operations employing only a few people. The NFDC had campaigned for all demolition contracts to be notifiable, Button says.
Another recent trend that came as less than a surprise was the fashion for recycling. Weve always been keen on recycling its the only way to remain competitive, Button points out. What has changed is the manner of recycling.
Where once the company disposed of the bricks, timber and structural steel sections it recovered to small local builders or, through auctions, to bargain-seeking farmers, now it is more likely to deal with an architectural salvage outlet.
Specialist recycling contractors are beginning to appear as well. Against this, says Button, some demolition contractors are beginning to cut out the middlemen and set up their own architectural salvage outlets. There was a time when members of the public wandered on to our sites and bought stuff directly from us.
Safety legislation stopped that, of course. But when theres a DIY or gardening programme on TV featuring recycled materials theres an instant public demand for the sleepers or bricks that were featured and the public wants somewhere convenient to buy them.
But with more restrictions on primary aggregate sources looming, Button warns that changes are needed if recycled aggregates are to make up any shortfall. Its very difficult to produce high quality crushed concrete from a site-based crusher, he says.
What we need are central crushing plants offering a consistent product and less polystyrene.
Polystyrene foam void formers and cavity wall batts represent a major restraint on the greater use of recycled aggregates, Button claims. If theres polystyrene present we cant recycle it, it has to go to landfill. Designers need to think before they specify polystyrene.