I was reading an article on the “Construction Enquirer” website last week, regarding problems being encountered on a large construction project currently underway for the University of Sheffield’s Faculty of Social Sciences site off Northumberland Road.

The new faculty building at Sheffield University (Source)

According to the article, the main contractor BAM is to pull down and rebuild about half of the structural frame of the new building after they identified that there was settlement occurring in excess of that which would normally be expected in a structure of this nature.  A statement from BAM confirmed that their detailed investigations into the cause of the settlement had confirmed “…a problem with the piling of the structure, which are unusually complicated…”.

Dealing with these issues will, apparently, delay completion of the project by 10-15 months, and no doubt the financial cost implications arising from this problem will be very painful indeed (for someone) on this £65 million project.

The timing of the article made me smile (no, I’m not a complete sadist – please read on) because only last week we were chatting away at the end of our weekly team meeting and – I forget how – the subject of piling beneath structures came up.  I was, in my usual “old fart” style, reminiscing about a story told to me when I was doing the Advanced Structures Course at the Sheffield Polytechnic, now of course known as Hallam University (yes, I am that old).

This particular week were to be lectured on the matter of piling.  One of the lecturers – I forget his name – was a Geologist and started his section of the talk with the opening: “Piles are unfortunate things that occupy the undersides of buildings and people”, so we knew it was going to be one of those lectures before we had hardly started.

Let’s get this out in the open right away – I have been banned outright from making any further references in this article to haemorrhoids, ‘Farmer Giles’ or the use of certain proprietary ointments to cure the University’s building problems…

Anyway, back to the plot…

The rest of the lecture that evening was presented by the late Jim Ducker, who always tried to brighten his lectures with the odd anecdote.  This particular evening, Jim was telling us the story how – through his “side line” business as J Ducker and Partners Consulting Engineers, he had been instructed to carry out a peer review of another company’s design for a building in the South Yorkshire area.  The project was for a building of four or five storeys, on a site where it was known the ground conditions would require some form of piled solution.

I forget all the details of the ground conditions that were gone through in detail for the benefit of a room full of young engineers, but suffice it to say that the original design using twenty concrete piles was deemed unlikely to satisfy the client’s requirement that the building should experience a maximum settlement of no more than 12.5mm in the first three years.

So, the designers set about the problem and came up with a revised design, this time using about forty 600mm diameter reinforced concrete bored piles going down about 20 metres into the ground.

Unfortunately, only six months after work had finished, the building had already settled by 75mm!

N.B. This might not be the building Jim was telling us about…

Dear old Jim went through all the technical arguments that he presented in his peer review, but the punchline of his lecture was that:

“It was the weight of all those extra piles that had dragged it down!”

Now, I’m not saying that BAM and their consulting engineers should have listened to Jim Ducker… but, well, there is a well known phrase about being doomed to repeat history.

Sustainability was defined by the Brundtland Commission as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. And with Climate Change in full swing and evident to all but the most stubborn deniers, everyone is looking towards sustainable applications for everything from agriculture to manufacturing.


The construction industry is no different in considering sustainability to be an ethical imperative as we go forward, especially as we consider the changes we will need to make to our building styles and methods as climate change affects the world around us.

Image of a green, slightly sunny, British countryside view. You can almost smell the mud.

It’s a situation made a little more complicated by the fact that there is never going to be a “one size fits all” solution within the construction industry — one site will always be different to another, no matter how subtle the changes might be.


For example, prefabrication has been cited as being more sustainable than some other construction methods, with the reduced time on site and reduction of potential fabrication mistakes amongst the factors that makes it a tempting prospect.


However, this method isn’t without its downsides. Prefabricated sections are usually large and require specialised transport to site, which can significantly increase the carbon footprint of a project, plus the additional provision of ways to manoeuvre the sections into place.


This has led, within the construction industry as well as within many others, to an increased level of creativity and innovation when considering ways that we can become more sustainable.


For example, a Scottish company founded by an Professor Gabriela Medero, an engineer from Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University, is currently working with a design for a brick that is made from construction waste.

The K-Briq is recycled and has a low carbon footprint (image copyright Dezeen.com)

The K-Briq (yes, I know) is comprised of 90% recycled material and is unfired, meaning that it generates a much lower level of carbon emissions than regular bricks. It is said by it’s creator to look, weigh and behave like a clay brick, however, we note that this is stated in an interview in DeZeen magazine and, at the time of writing, no supporting research is publicly available.

And this is by no means the only research into more environmentally friendly ways to form building materials.


Research is ongoing by Suzanne Lambert at the University of Cape town to create a zero-waste brick which is hardened at room temperature using bacteria and human urine.

The blocks use loose sand, bacteria & human urine to create a solid building material (image copyright Dezeen.com)

Following on from this use of bacteria, there was a post that caught my eye last year, largely because it combines construction with one of my hobbies, which detailed work by London-based architect Bastian Beyer who had been using bacteria to calcify knitted materials to form solid columns. They have a wonderful, almost DNA-like structure to them due to the solidification of the knitting structure.


It was interesting largely because, like 3D printing, it could be carried out, with an appropriate advancement of technology, on site with minimal space. And it has the potential for a much simpler repair process if the structure is damaged.

The column is knitted from jute and polyester fibres impregnated with bacteria which form a calcite coating (image copyright Dezeen.com)


Of course, the idea of a calcified structure in an era of climate change, pollution and acidic rainwater is certainly something that would need to be worked upon. As would the way in which the new structures would interact with the surrounding ecosystem and wildlife.


Likewise there would need to be rigorous testing on how these new methods of construction would work at a larger scale, especially with the potential ability to change the loading capacity of the structure by simply changing the knitted pattern.

However, a combination of technology like this with 3D printing and more traditional construction methods suggests that introducing sustainability to the construction industry may not be as far off, or as expensive, as many have stated.

 

 

 

I have just been reading an article in the July edition of “Building Engineer” – the monthly Journal of the Chartered Association of Building Engineers (CABE).  I and all of our colleagues around the UK have for many years been proud of the range and breadth of topics covered by the Journal, which, in my opinion continues to punch above its weight.

One particular article caught my eye this month.  It was penned by Jayne Hall, who is currently a Vice-President of the CABE and also a Past President of LABC, the national body for Local Authority Building Control in the UK.  Jayne has recently also joined the Board of Trustees of the CABE Benevolent Fund, of which I am also proud to be a Trustee.

Jayne’s Journal article was explaining that the CABE Chief Executive Dr Gavin Dunn has asked her to take on the role of the CABE’s “Diversity Champion”.  Jayne’s article reflects on the inalienable fact that the Construction Industry, even after years of effort, still has a poor record in regard to Equality and Diversity.

Jayne makes the observation, based on a recent professional conference in Somerset she had attended, that “…it was clear that the construction professions, and engineering in particular, are still dominated by the traditional white middle class male – also mostly well into middle age too…”

Okay, she just described me, but I do take Jayne’s point and I have to agree with her.  During the six years that I sat on the Board of Directors of the CABE in the mid-2000s (at that stage it was still just called the ABE) there were typically about fifteen or so elected Directors and Honorary Officers, of whom I cannot recall there ever being more than three women elected to the Board at any one time.  But to be fair, that merely reflected the proportion of women standing for election … though one can only wonder how much a lack of encouragement to our female members may have restricted the numbers willing to stick their head above the parapet?

Similarly, I regularly sit on interview panels assessing Candidates for admission to Chartered level Membership of the CABE and the ratio of male to female candidates in my experience, is well in excess of 10:1.  And yet, two of the four most impressive Candidates I can recall interviewing over the past years have been female (take a bow Karen and Saira, you were both excellent).  It has been suggested that women have to try harder to justify their place in the industry, which is truly a shame.

I chuckled at some of the examples Jayne quoted in her article though, of “reasons” (i.e. pitiful excuses) for the lack of women employed in high level positions, which apparently have ranged from “…the board room being an uncomfortable place for women…” to “…the issues discussed at board level are very complex…”  Oh, deary me….

Now, the Taylor Tuxford Associates Board meetings typically cover a whole range of issues ranging through: technical difficulties regarding ongoing projects, to establishing our Corporate policy with regard to the General Data Protection Regulations, to where we’re going for the Christmas Party.  My own experience has been that none of the issues arising at any of our Board meetings have caused any of my female colleagues to fall off their chairs with a bad case of “the vapours”… that only tends to happen when we run out of wine at the Christmas Party, and isn’t just restricted to my female colleagues!

For the record, I am pleased to say that three-quarters of the total number of employees and two-thirds of the construction-related technical team at Taylor Tuxford Associates are female and moreover, I am proud to have the opportunity to work with them.

Alright, so there are only four of us altogether and maybe, as Amy always says, you can prove anything you want to with statistics, but we honestly are trying our best in that regard and, like the CABE, we are punching above our weight when it comes to gender diversity in the workplace.

To finish on a serious note though, the construction industry still has an awfully long way to go in this regard.  It is still a novelty to find a female on a construction site – whether in a supervisory or technical capacity or on the tools – and in part, this is likely related to the apparent tendency for blokes not to accept women co-workers as they would another bloke and the (understandable) reluctance of women not to want to expose themselves to the often-misogynistic attitudes of their male co-workers.

The place to make a start on addressing the diversity imbalance is in our Schools.  Until such time as pupils in the advanced stages of preparing for their GCSEs are persuaded – irrespective of their gender, ethnic background or of any inherent disability – that Construction as a career will be a worthwhile thing to do, then we are still going to be having this discussion in a further 20 years’ time.

If there are any Schools out there in the South Yorkshire area that would like someone to come along and give a presentation to their pupils about a career in construction, we will be very happy to talk to you about that.

 

 

Rhys Taylor
July 2018

 

Every month the Planning Portal (the online system through which all planning and building control applications are managed) sends out a newsletter covering new developments within the construction industry and any changes related to application processes and costs. It also covers news stories and opinion pieces, and as with any thing that involves someone’s opinion, sometimes you read it and go “huh”.

Sometimes it’s a good “huh” that means you’ve learned something new; sometimes it’s the kind of “huh” that is a precursor to you spending several minutes wondering how exactly someone thought that was a good idea. Anyone that has spent time on Twitter will be familiar with the second type of “huh”.

In the January newsletter there was an article piece describing how the Local Government Association (the LGA) was arguing that permitted development rights should be scrapped (link).

For context, the LGA is a membership organisation intended to represent the interests of local councils across England and Wales on a national governmental level.

Permitted development rights allow building owners to make certain changes and developments without going through the full planning application process. For homeowners this allows them to add small extensions or thing such as solar panels to their home without applying for planning permission (though building regulations are usually required).

The article from the Planning Portal does not explicitly discuss homeowners, although the absence of such a mention is important as I will cover below.

The article argues, correctly in my opinion, that there has been a certain amount of abuse of these permitted development rights by development companies. In particular in converting unused urban office spaces into apartments leading to a dramatic decrease in available office space and in some cases the formation of poor quality living accommodation that does not meet advised standards.

Similarly, the LGA makes the argument that the development of existing structures is being used to bypass affordable housing requirements by these same development companies. Although I cannot comment on the latter point, the development of poor quality accommodation benefits no one in the long term.

I think the intent of the article, and possibly also the statement by the LGA, was intended to say that permitted development rights should be scrapped solely for conversions such as these, but that is not communicated clearly. In fact, on a first read through, the impression I received from the article could be summed up by the first paragraph, which I quote in its entirety below.

“Permitted development rights rules are “detrimental” to local communities and should be scrapped, the Local Government Association (LGA) has said.”

As a statement taken individually, and without further clarification currently available, this is more than a little concerning. With the recent increase in Planning Fees, the removal of permitted development rights across the board would make small extensions increasingly expensive for homeowners. When considering the effect of the actions of large companies, seemingly no consideration has been given to the effect of such a statement on individuals.

An across-the-board scrappage of permitted development rights just to limit conversions of office space to dwellings is overkill. In fact, because I promised to shoehorn the cliché in to this article, it can even be described as a distinct case of “throwing the baby out with the bathwater”. This becomes even more pertinent when you consider that these rights for converting offices to dwellings without planning permission were temporary until as recently as October 2015.

Surely instead of removing all permitted development rights it would make sense to instead limit the ability for people to convert offices to dwellings without planning permission… which is the point at which I turn to discussing something called an Article 4 Direction.

This measure can be issued by the local planning authority to remove all or part of the permitted development rights for a structure or area. It is generally used in conservation areas where the “character” of an area would be affected by certain types of developments, but it is not purely a conservation designation. Rather it is a part of the Town and Country Planning Act and if it can be used for things such as limiting the number of days in the year when you can hold a car boot sale, surely it can be used by local government if they feel that there is a particular problem with office conversions in their area.

Or we could simply remove or limit the permitted development rights for office conversions.

We as a society seem to have a peculiar aversion to admitting when something isn’t working and that we need to reconsider the situation. Or maybe it’s just an aversion to admitting that we were wrong. It might just be that I’ve been conditioned by several years working in and around science fields, but I am firmly of the opinion there is nothing wrong with admitting that you have changed your mind based upon fresh evidence.

The comments from the LGA about the situation with office conversions, however, takes on a certain farcical air when you consider that just two articles below this one in the Planning Portal newsletter, there is an article about how Westminster City Council has been using Article 4 Directions to limit the conversion of office spaces into dwellings.

 

So I guess we’re all feeling the heat today? Stuck in an office wishing you could be outside to enjoy the glorious weather? Well, it’s not always as enjoyable as you’d think.

Surveying equipment - other brands of sunscreen are available.
Surveying equipment – other brands of sunscreen are available.

I’ve just got back in from a site meeting on an undeveloped piece of land on an industrial estate with very little in the way of shelter (although we did manage to find some dappled shade which probably meant that the temperature was a degree or two lower than the 33 that our cars were telling us)!

The sun was brutally hot this afternoon, so my essential surveying equipment today, other than site plans, safety boots, etc, was sun cream (factor 50 no less) and a sun hat, and you can’t quite beat air con. in the car for the journey back to the office. Time to re-hydrate and cool down.