Card Geotechnics is preparing to celebrate its 10th anniversary. Gareth Beazant talks to founder Geoff Card on how the environmental market has changed over the last decade.
Ten years ago Card Geotechnics was a solo operation run by Geoff Card from his kitchen table. Now, the company has blossomed to 25 people based across the UK.
Card graduated from King's College London with a civil engineering degree in 1977. After completing a PhD he joined Ove Arup for five years, before a 10-year stint with Frank Graham Consulting Engineers.
During these 15 years working for big consultancies Card began thinking about the future. He identified a gap in the service given to clients, particularly in the contaminated land sector.
'Contaminated land was new on the agenda in most of the UK, ' he explains.'But at Ove Arup it was the norm and we worked heavily on contaminated land in south Wales on former mines and closed industrial sites.
'The larger consultancies were becoming divided from the environmental sector and I knew from clients that was not what they wanted. They wanted geotechnics and groundworks combined with the environmental issues. I saw a niche that was not provided and launched myself at it from the unknown.'
The early days saw Card beavering away from his kitchen table. In the first year he took on three staff and the kitchen was left behind for an office in Aldershot, Hampshire.
Card bolstered his reputation as a landfill and methane expert, combined with a detailed understanding of foundations. He wrote research papers and documents for construction research association Ciria.
He worked two days a week for TRL on highways substructures and integral bridge design.
The rest of the time was spent on geotechnical aspects of foundations and contaminated land remediation in areas such as gasworks.
Instead of wondering where the next job would come from, Card was kept busy.'At times we just had too much work, ' he says.'The hard part was thinking of how we could fit it all in.
'On my own, I thought the company would be perceived as small and consequently maybe attract one-man house builders. It was a surprise that the large 'blue-chip' companies would phone me.
'This was one of the advantages of being small and still is. Decisions can be made instantly. Large companies often can't make them quickly because they have to go through layers of management.'
Card Geotechnics began to compete with larger consultants in the contaminated sector.
Because of its size the company was not, and still is not, deemed a threat.
Its workforce now numbers 25. The office in Aldershot has been outgrown and the firm has moved to new premises in the town. It has opened offices in Leeds, Exeter, and Birmingham with another to follow shortly in the Thames Gateway region.
'We might double in size in the next 10 years, but the goal is not just to expand, ' Card says. 'It's great fun here and we would like to keep that. One person said we're a bunch of oddballs who wouldn't fit into a large consultancy. I think we're a group of big personalities with an enthusiasm that drives us. Some of the staff felt restricted in large consultancies and not able to stamp their authority on a project.'
Ten years can be a long time in geotechnics.
'The environmental side has obviously changed the whole industry, which is more sustainable and more environmentally conscious with minimising and recycling waste.
'The environmental side has changed more dramatically over the last three years and it will continue to do so rapidly with [Environment Protection Act] Part IIa.
'Geotechnics has progressed at a slower rate but new products and technology are a plus.
You could say site investigation hasn't changed in 10 years. Rates were £50 a metre 10 years ago and they still are. Nowadays, clients are much more aware of the benefits of good geotechnics. Ten years ago some thought geotechnics was just site investigation. They are now much more positive and open.'
Card attributes this partly to the rise of more varied mixed use developments with basements and partly to the fact that 'virgin' land is running out, so clients have to be more daring with brownfield projects.
An example of this is a five-year project which Card Geotechnics is involved with in Ipswich, bringing accommodation and commercial developments to areas that probably would not have been considered a decade ago.
But it is not all good news. Card accuses the Environment Agency and Defra (Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) of 'hindering projects' by not covering all with their contaminated land policies.
'[Chancellor of the Exchequer] Gordon Brown's finance act gave tax relief to those building on brownfield land which has encouraged it, but then you have the EA and Defra slowing it down, ' he says.
'CLEA is a move in the right direction but there is still a lack of guidelines.The client doesn't know what to do, guidelines can be misinterpreted or two local authorities can interpret them in different ways.' This could lead to developers seeking compensation through different interpretations of contamination threshold values, he says.
While these issues are resolved, Card thinks that maybe the former system for contaminated land guidance could be reintroduced.
'Maybe ICRCL [Interdepartmental Committee for the Redevelopment of Contaminated Land] could act as a sieve to fasttrack projects. It would allow Defra and the EA to focus on badly contaminated land, instead of mildly contaminated land. It's frustrating.'
Finding the right staff is another challenge that Card Geotechnics is not alone in facing.
'It has always been difficult to find good staff with the right experience. Civil engineers and engineering geologists are becoming rare, ' Card says. 'More common are environmental engineers. All our engineers are geotechnical and contaminated land and environmental specialists - that is what we major on.'
Card notes a higher number of female staff coming through, accounting for about 60% of applicants.
'One of the good things about the industry is that you can take your career where you want to go. You can become a project manager or specialist engineer or a number of other things.
'There is a lot of variety and there is plenty of work here for all. The market is good and I can't see it drying up.Overseas, however, there is more competition with a very high standard of staff. People moan about money, but it's there and if you're resourceful there's plenty to be made.'
Card recalls one recent high point.'We were called to a massive project in the Middle East. It has fantastic technical value in terms of remediation and when the results come out it could set new standards for remediation. It was recognition that we've hit the international stage as Card Geotechnics.'
Card has also recently been involved in work in France and Brazil and envisages more international work over the next 10 years. The idea, he says, is to grow organically, perhaps double in size, but to retain the same values and the same fun atmosphere.
'It gives great benefits in terms of technical development and you get wider exposure than in a larger company. I wouldn't have achieved what I have in a large company. But others are happy in large firms and you have to respect that.'