UK demolition two decades on - a personal perspective

By Lindsay Gale06 February 2013

Opinions surrounding the evolution of demolition since the 1980s and 1990s will no doubt vary between UK professionals. We have all had different roles to play and challenges to face, according to the sectors in which we have specialised and the relationships we have developed.

One thing that few engineers, consultants or clients would dispute, however, is the extent to which the industry has changed. As with most things in life, the environment in which we operate is dynamic and the ability to adapt, essential. Generally speaking, standards have been raised, perceptions have changed and methodologies have become much more refined. Demolition has come a long way in a relatively short period.

Demolition 20 years ago was invariably viewed as an unsophisticated and unscientific operation, driven by brute force and chaos. The stereotypical view, with a fair degree of supporting evidence, was that an unethical and unprofessional group of rouges focused on taking all they could while delivering very little value. While there were some notable exceptions to this tag, they were lost within the plethora of failed projects, appalling health and safety statistics and commercial disasters.

Clients were not entirely blameless in forcing the industry in this direction. They were happy to invest money, resources and time into their new building and development schemes, but when it came to removing redundant assets, picking up the yellow pages and getting the cheapest price appeared to be the principal qualifying criteria. Demolition was perceived as a necessary evil and not a value adding service. Even contractors that tried – and gradually succeeded – to raise the bar and increase the levels of industry trust continually encountered struggles because everything came with ignorance and misconceptions.

From the 1970s into the 1990s, commercial disputes were common, especially on larger projects. A raft of coal-fired power station demolition projects had to be terminated because hazardous wastes were not adequately dealt with, contractors ran out of money and workers were killed. Indeed there was an average of >1 fatality per power station.

At the time, it could be said that the demolition industry as a whole did not recognise the attention to detail and level of expertise required to prevent jobs from failing. Unfortunately, because there were fewer barriers to marketplace entry – insurance premiums were lower with cover easily secured, training requirements were less complex, the HSE was not as equipped and CDM regulations did not exist – it was incredibly difficult to filter out the less scrupulous companies or smaller ‘man with van’ demolition traders.

However it is also important to note that at the same time numerous companies began to see the value in going through a step change of attitude and approach. Not all contractors focused on aggressive commercial strategies or quick wins, but recognised the importance of corporate and industry wide development aligned with longer term, secure, client relationships. In addition, individuals such as the passionate parliamentary adviser Sir Anthony Durant also worked tirelessly to raise the profile and voice of the industry. Yet there was a great amount of work to be done to improve the overall reputation that demolition had gained for itself.

Throughout the last 20 years, education has played a fundamental role in dispelling these false impressions and raising standards within the profession. Industry bodies such as the Institute of Demolition Engineers (IDE) and the National Federation of Demolition Contractors (NFDC) have aided this. While they were in their relative infancy in the 1990s, over time they have, without question, helped to fuel progress.

The IDE provides everyone from site level to the boardroom with a voice and brings members’ professional expertise together encouraging discussion, development and the sharing of best practice. The NFDC unceasingly strives to promote common and high standards throughout its membership and insists contractors continually train and develop their employees. Both of these organisations are reinforcing vital areas of demolition that years ago were unsupported and often in freefall. They provide the platforms for knowledge-transfer that has been and will continue to be core to the improvement of on-site working practices and techniques.

Whereas 20 years ago projects were typically labour intensive and the use of burners and metal cutters was very common, methodologies are now much more mechanised and the need to work at extreme heights can often be avoided. Plant is more sophisticated, reliable and purpose built. When coupled with the increased level of task-specific training that responsible demolition professionals continue to undertake, the industry has been able to reduce confined space entry, minimise the potential for loss of containment and ultimately control the extent to which operatives are placed at risk.

This is particularly important given the scale and complexity of industrial plants and assets that are now reaching their end of life worldwide – the nature of demolition projects is constantly evolving. One of the biggest markets 20 years ago was the demolition of buildings such as high-rise tower blocks. Of course such work still exists and will continue to feed the forward order books of many demolition companies, but there are other more novel, complex and challenging projects that need tackling too.

The very structures that were being constructed 20 years ago are now ready to be brought down. High-hazard process facilities are being replaced by more sophisticated technologies, therefore industries such as nuclear power generation and oil/gas production are striving to be ever-more efficient. Elsewhere, many areas of chemical and pharmaceutical manufacturing are moving out of the UK as organisations globally consolidate their production. Of course these trends represent a number of exciting and expanding opportunities for demolition.

The necessity of responsible decision-making must take precedence in these scenarios to mitigate the effect of ongoing plant security, compliance and maintenance costs. In addition, in some cases the client organisation could benefit commercially from the sale of plant, either to third parties for relocation or from income realised from the scrap metals market.

While there is inherent risk attached to every operation, the complexities associated with high-hazard and large scale demolition projects are extraordinary, certainly in the hands of the inexperienced. It would simply not be deemed acceptable for just any contractor to undertake jobs that fall into this category. Clients are now more vigilant and the tendering process is justifiably rigorous, with suppliers’ EHS and commercial track record thoroughly audited. Furthermore competent and experienced consultants are often tasked with the project and safety management of such schemes to provide specialist expert guidance and ensure the most secure, environmentally sound and best-value outcome.

A key reason for this is that, with legislative requirements and environmental pressures ever-mounting, organisations are increasingly acknowledging their Corporate Social Responsibility and individual duty of care to protect all project stakeholders. The catastrophic reputational damage of recent major industrial incidents both on and off shore, for instance, are stark reminders that companies cannot afford to neglect their obligations by cutting corners or making the wrong decisions. In light of events such as these, plus the more onerous and prescriptive nature of legislation that the HSE and other enforcing authorities work to, the advent of EHS regulations, and the very real consequences of non-compliance that can include custodial sentences in extreme cases, a new level of focus has been established.

There is also now a greater realisation that demolition engineers have an integral part to play in preventing project failure. Often the first partner to become involved with a programme of works, clients now understand that demolition professionals help to set project standards, shape external perceptions surrounding the job, and ultimately support project success.

Contractors and consultants alike therefore need to operate to the highest achievable standards, in order to secure work in this competitive marketplace and satisfy clients’ more exacting requirements. The less diligent companies that do not continually invest in training and use of industry best practice to mitigate risks and prevent every incident simply find a large proportion of tenders inaccessible and, eventually, insurance cover unavailable or premiums unaffordable.

Of course the economic climate of recent years has made it difficult for some companies to continually invest and commercial strains have in some instances driven inappropriate and unacceptable contractor behaviour. The pressure to undercut competitors’ prices in order to win work became so great that unfortunately some demolition firms did not have sufficient resource to execute projects to the required standards. A large proportion of less professional organisations that did cut corners, and either refused to or could not ‘move with the times’, have since gone out of business whereas the stronger, more flexible demolition experts that continued to work ever-smarter, survived.

This has contributed greatly to a cultural change within the discipline. The shift in mindset now sees more and more engineers, managers and directors strive to continually develop their skills and knowledge, and psychologically conduct risk assessments at every possible stage to ensure safety remains the non-negotiable priority.

This has helped UK demolition attain a greater level of credence, to the point where the experience of the most technically-equipped professionals is being increasingly sought overseas. There are some similarities across Europe, but UK standards and methodologies are commonly recognised as the benchmark. Further afield in the Middle East and Asia for instance, clients readily acknowledge that UK expertise can add a great deal of value to their schemes of work, hence a number of UK organisations have a growing international client base.

The portfolio of landmark projects that the UK industry is collectively able to showcase clearly evidences the present-day quality and unparalleled degree of progress that the discipline has made. For example, very few people would ever have predicted that four cooling towers situated next to the nuclear reactor buildings at Sellafield’s Calder Hall site, would be brought down by the controlled use of explosives. It took two years to prove the validity of this recommended methodology and gain the sanction of all regulatory bodies and stakeholder groups including the HSE, NII, EA and general public. However in 2007 knowledgeable demolition engineers were able to scientifically demonstrate that this method was not only safe in its own right, but it was also superior in every respect to all possible alternative approaches..

There are in fact numerous milestone projects that spring to mind when looking back over the past 20 years. The ongoing challenges throughout have been for the discipline to substantiate its professionalism, raise its profile and ultimately gain the credit it deserves. Perhaps it is only when taking the time to reflect on the last two decades, that people will realise just how much there is to be proud of.

Since its inception for instance, demolition has been a committed recycler, acknowledging the commodity value and demand for materials that can be salvaged during domestic, commercial and heavy industrial executions of work. In reality it was probably one of the first ‘green’ disciplines in the UK and as environmental regimes become robust and clients heighten their commitment to the ‘reduce, reuse and recycle’ mantra, this performance is only set to improve further still.

Going forward there is sure to be an even greater level of teamwork and tripartite alliances between client, contractor and consultant. As project complexities and compliance requirements evolve, leading demolition professionals must continue to share their knowledge and specialist insight – the industry has come a long way in its willingness to communicate and peer-interact, and this momentum cannot be lost. Demolition is not a black art, and the likelihood is that many challenges will have been encountered in some form or other before. Even if a new complexity arises, there is sufficient expertise and talent within demolition for us to devise safe, environmentally sound and cost-efficient solutions that demonstrate the degree of engineering aptitude within our specialist field.

UK industry highlights

  • CDM regulations were originally introduced in the UK in 1994
  • The UK’s first female explosives engineer joined the discipline in 1999
  • Control of Major Accident Hazards Regulations were introduced in 1999 for chemical sites
  • The NFDC appointed its first full-time NVQ assessor in 2007
  • The inaugural World Demolition Awards was held in 2009
  • The UK’s tallest demolition machine is a 67 m (220ft) high reach
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