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Shoring up the industry

The underpinning industry must move with the times if it is to avoid its market slipping away, reports Judith Cruickshank.

If anyone ever attempted to write a history of the modern underpinning industry in the UK, 1962 might be a good date to start. It was then that the mini pile was introduced into this country. Fondedile, the company responsible, was a joint venture between the Italian company of the same name and contractor Sir Robert McAlpine. The system they introduced, Pali Radice or root pile, is a small diameter (currently 76mm to 280mm) cast insitu bored pile.

It is installed with a compact, purpose-built rig which even in the early days had the advantage of being infinitely more manoeuvrable than full-sized units.

The introduction of this technique enabled a new range of services to become available in the field of specialist piling, consolidation and the strengthening of structures.

Until that time underpinning - especially in the domestic market - had largely been carried out using hand digging and mass concrete. And it continued in this way for some years, recalls Robert Withers of specialist contractor Withers.

Withers, a family concern which had its origins in the repair of war damage to local properties after the Great War, set up its specialist underpinning division in 1975. Robert Withers, the third generation in this family-owned business, admits that it was a happy coincidence that the following year was that of the drought which brought the problems of soil movement and subsidence to the top of the agenda for many householders.

A sequence of hot summers, untypically low rainfall and a busy property market has meant that what was once a specialist service is now a multi- million pound construction industry sector. But Withers is concerned that what should be a service-led industry is lagging behind the times.

'We are nearly into the Millennium year and the subsidence industry is still trying to operate in the 19th century let alone the 20th , he says.

Abbey Pynford's Paul Kiss shares Withers' concern. But he says change will be forced on underpinning contractors as a result of a reduction in their sources of work.

Mergers and takeovers in the insurance industry mean there are fewer clients, and he believes that process will continue until in a few years there could be as few as five major players in the insurance market.

Because of their position they will be able to demand high levels of service from contractors. 'They are very aware that the existing process is outdated and they are looking to the supplier (ie the underpinning contractor) to reduce time and costs.'

Kiss points out that a house owner affected by subsidence is more likely to stay with his insurer in the long term if his problem is dealt with using the most effective method and the minimum of time and disruption. So the insurers will be looking for an improvement in overall service, he says.

Royal Sun Alliance recently appointed Abbey Pynford to carry out all its underpinning work in southern England and has also added two civil engineers to its own strength. This could certainly be seen as a indication that the insurer wants to exercise more direct control over this type of work and build an ongoing relationship with a contractor in order to get best value and a reduction in delays.

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