When he was still a student, Ian McKenzie spent some months working for a foundations contractor, as a result of which he made a vow 'never to work for a foundations contractor; the hours are awful'. But as the saying goes, 'never say never'. Now, as managing director of leading specialist foundations contractor Fondedile, he still finds the hours appalling, but has learned to accept them.
'The problem is that once you've made a hole, you can't leave it open overnight. So we've had to ask our people to sign individual exemptions from the new directive on working hours.'
Italian in origin, Fondedile has been in the UK since 1962 when it introduced mini-piling into this country with the Pali Radice system. The company is owned jointly by Fondedile and Sir Robert McAlpine, and it was from McAlpine that McKenzie joined the company in 1984.
The Pali Radice, or root pile, system uses small diameter (76mm to 280mm), cast insitu piles and has proved to be particularly suited to underpinning or strengthening of an existing structure. A larger 300mm to 325mm diameter option was introduced earlier this year with a maximum depth of 30m and load bearing capacity of between 600kN to 700kN.
The company builds and maintains its own equipment in the workshop at its base in Hayes, which is located on the site of McAlpine's former plant depot.
Looking out of the window of his first floor office, McKenzie remarks that the depot once occupied the whole area, right up to the distant main road. 'We were just tucked into a corner.'
The disappearance of vast fleets of contractor-owned equipment is just one sign of the changes which have come about in the construction industry, some of which McKenzie finds less than revolutionary.
He is, for instance, somewhat sceptical about the concept of partnering which, he claims, is nothing new. 'We've been doing it since the year dot,' he says. Fondedile he claims, has a reputation for being co-operative and 'user friendly'. Frequently and ideally called in at the early stages of a project, the company will offer its expertise and experience to the designer and will act as a full member of the construction team.
This is not an unusual attitude for a specialist subcontractor, he says, but it is one which makes for greater efficiency, fewer delays and a better outcome for all the parties concerned. What is essential however, is to ensure that your own team has been properly constructed and that there are no internal disputes or conflicts.
Partnering should not be just about cost cutting, it is not a quick fix, McKenzie emphasises. 'It requires commitment from the highest level downwards, or it won't work.' And he goes on to point out that while a strong partner can add to the team, a weak one will destroy it. 'You need to put relationships in place before starting work and the aim should be to exceed the client's expectations.' In some cases, he fears, partnering is used simply as a marketing ploy without the principles being fully understood or adhered to.
Whether it is called partnering or simply user-friendliness, Fondedile's attitude to its customers appears to pay off. Some 50% of its business is repeat work and McKenzie claims that even during bad times the company can operate successfully using that approach. He is philosophical about forecasts of a recession, pointing out that construction is a cyclical business and highs are inevitably followed by lows. And, perhaps somewhat tongue in cheek he suggests that; 'recession is good for the soul. It gets rid of complacency'.
Currently the company employs some 50 operatives with around 15 staff based at Hayes, all directly employed on a full time basis. It has a reputation for being expensive, McKenzie says, but he adds, barring absolutely exceptional circumstances, the final account will be the same as the tender estimate. 'We have no hidden agenda, but a good reputation which we guard jealously.'
Although Fondedile is immediately associated with mini piling, this is by no means the only service the company can offer. The portfolio also includes specialist and jet grouting, and complementary to its ability to underpin old structures, the Reticolo Cementato or stitching system can be used to strengthen and stabilise the existing fabric of the building. This involves inserting steel bars into the masonry through a series of small holes drilled in a network pattern. Grout is then injected through the holes, filling the voids and bonding steel and masonry together.
This system, in combination with Pali Radice piles, was used at the western end of the Hampstead tunnel on the North London rail line to enlarge the tunnel envelope and strengthen the buttresses. Railways have provided an ongoing source of work for Fondadile; over the years the company has carried out more than 500 contracts for Railtrack.
The company is currently mobilising a 2M mini piling job at the former Woolwich Arsenal where walls and foundations of some of the historic buildings on the site are to be strengthened prior to conversion to other uses.
The consultant is Pell Frischmann with whom Fondadile worked on one of its key contracts, the stabilisation of the Mansion House in the City of London - all work taking place with the Lord Mayor still in residence. But, says McKenzie 'if it's easy, we don't do it'.