Archive for Construction

Heroes of planning

Posted in And thus the Mystery was solved Watson!, Posts that are far longer than I first intended, Tenuous Link of the Day with tags , , , on April 7, 2014 by awickerman

The Royal Town Planning Institute is celebrating, if that is indeed the correct word, it’s centenary and decided to hand out some honorary lifetime memberships. OK technically they did so at the start of the year and it’s taken me this long to get round to it, but to be honest if you want cutting edge analysis you are at the wrong blog.

Anyway, to the point. Given the lamentable level of house building and the ongoing existential question over the future of Britain’s high streets who did they pick? One of the pioneers of the New Towns perhaps or a prolific developer maybe. Surely it would be people who have really improved Britain’s towns and cities through innovative planning and developments.

Of course not, these are Britain’s planners. They picked a selection of tree huggers and unrelated wastrels. To quote the RTPI’s favourites;

Sir Malcolm Grant, Chairman of NHS England; The Lord Deben, Chair of the UK’s independent Committee on Climate Change and a former Secretary of State for the Environment; Professor Susan Owens OBE Professor of Environment and Policy, University of Cambridge and Naison Mutizwa-Mangiza, Chief of the Policy Analysis Branch of UN-HABITAT and Editor-in-Chief of the Global Report on Human Settlements.

Malcolm Grant is a lawyer who has served as UCL provost and at no point ever done any building or planning, The Lord Deben is better known as the notorious god-bothering, tree hugger John Gummer, Susan Owens does a great deal of work on Environmental Governance which just sounds awful while Naison Mutziwa-Mangiza may well do excellent work at UN-HABITAT, I just can’t find out what on earth UN-HABITAT does, beyond publish reports that no-one reads (apart from Professor Owens and her students. Maybe even they don’t bother, who can tell?)

This I think clearly demonstrates one of the key problems with the British planning system, the planners themselves. They admire environmentalists, lawyers and report writers, not people who actually get things planned and built. This I feel explains why so many of them view a scheme blocked as a bigger achievement than helping a scheme go ahead.

Perhaps specialisation is important

Posted in And thus the Mystery was solved Watson!, Engineering, Even Stevie Wonder Saw That Coming, Tenuous Link of the Day with tags , , , , , on October 8, 2013 by awickerman

Property developer set up their own construction company after becoming “increasingly dissatisfied with the service of external construction companies”.

Construction company has a few good years, buys itself wins an award as construction company of the year in 2011.

Company goes into administration on 7th October “after serious flaws were unearthed in the pricing of a number of the contracts”. They also admit “”[We have] encountered considerable difficulties in progressing and completing current projects.”

It’s almost as if pricing construction works and then delivering them is not as easy as it appeared. Maybe they should have stuck to what they were good at rather than branching out into something they clearly weren’t as good at as they originally thought.

Either way as they couldn’t offload the job for Southampton Cricket Club onto a different contractor fast enough they have left their current clients in the lurch, and no doubt ‘increasingly dissatisfied with external construction companies’. If you don’t find that amusing you have a heart of stone.

Undoing their own bad work

Posted in Almost Beyond Words, Engineering, Posts that are far longer than I first intended, Rantings with tags , , , , on September 9, 2012 by awickerman

Hidden amongst the government’s planning changes was a small section on how this would help making digging holes in the ground cheaper;

Internet providers have also been told that they will “face less cost and bureaucracy in laying cables in streets”

Leaving aside whether or not such simplification will ever happen (hint: it never has before) one of the main sources of cost and bureaucracy for new street works is a new government scheme launched in London this very July. Under the scheme people digging up roads can be charged up to £2,500 a day in ‘lane rental’ to dig up the road, indeed even if you ignore that ‘up to’ number the DfT’s own Q&A section on the subject freely boasts that this scheme will increase the cost of streetworks;

Q36: How would it help?

A well-designed charging system would also include exemptions or discounts from the daily charge when works are completed at less busy times. So by spending a bit more say on overtime to get the job done at evenings or weekends – utilities and others carrying out works could avoid having to pay the charges.

So it’s pretty clear this scheme was quite explicitly designed to make work happen at more expensive times and, as with all such schemes, will almost certainly involve lots of paperwork proving why each job is allowed to avoid the charge.

Thus barely three months after increasing the costs and bureaucracy of installing cables in the road, the government is pledging to reduce those costs “once officials have found a way to simplify current permit schemes.”

Maybe they should of thought of that before introducing further complications into a system that the previous government had already made stupidly over-complicated and expensive. But then that would be joined up government by competent people, so no chance of that then.

Why civil engineering is not respected

Posted in And thus the Mystery was solved Watson!, Engineering, Irregular Features, Posts that are far longer than I first intended, Tenuous Link of the Day, The Railways, The Underground, Tunnels with tags , , , , , , , , on June 3, 2011 by awickerman

It is a common complaint among engineers that the profession is under-valued, the conversation then normally ranges over the usual topics;  Why are photocopier repair men called engineers? Why don’t we have something like the German Engineer’s Law to protect the name engineer? Why is it that providing the power, gas and water people need is ignored while shagging ex-Big Brother contestants a matter of national concern? In truth these are not good or even original questions, but it does get the conversation going in the pub which is often the main thing.

What never get mentions is the habit of the engineering profession of doing it’s level best to repeatedly bugger up it’s own chances. Consider the ICE London Civil Engineering Awards. Look at some of these past winners;

  • 2010 – Infrastructure Award: King’s Cross St Pancras Underground Station Redevelopment – Phase 2
  • 2009 – Greatest Contribution to London Award: Heathrow Terminal 5A
  • 2008 – Special Award: Wembley Stadium

King’s Cross Phase 2 was a nightmare, this brief history barely covers half the problems but suffice to say horrifically late and well over budget cover it quite well. T5A construction (as opposed to the fit out and staff training) was in fact on time and on budget, but frankly that was irrelevant to the general public perception of the whole project wasn’t it? Nothing really needs saying on Wembley Stadium,  but for those who’ve forgotten it was several years late, over twice the original budget and that the at least one of the multiple court cases over the construction was still going earlier this year.

The pattern you should note is that for most of the population the ICE London branch goes around giving it’s best awards to late, over-priced or otherwise flawed projects. Sure from a purely technical viewpoint they were a triumph for the engineers involved (commercially not so much, particularly not Wembley which the FA got on a fixed price. Genius I tell you), but they are not calculated to make the profession look good, particularly at the showcase event of the year.

Still for those who insist the profession has a higher status I bring good news. This year’s infrastructure award went to the Boris Bikes, a scheme with all the civil engineering content of the average banana, but one that will doubtless garner many fluffy headlines and approving nods from the Guardian….. It’s enough to make a man turn to drink really.

Car Park of Death!

Posted in Engineering, Even Stevie Wonder Saw That Coming, Posts that are far longer than I first intended, Rantings with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 29, 2011 by awickerman

Via Tim I discovered the Observer’s architect critic has joined the chorus demanding the horror of Preston Bus Station be saved. The main argument appears to be that it ” it embodies the spirit of its 1960s age”, you can argue if that is a good or bad thing visually but in the world of civil engineering, particularly those parts related to large concrete car park type structures, that is reason enough to flatten it. Indeed the man himself admits the reason before attempting to dismiss it;

“The bus station is not alone. It is part of a company of buildings from the 1960s and 70s that fall victim to a vicious compound of circumstances. They are tough, not obviously charming and carry a label no PR expert would have chosen, of “brutalism”. Some have serious technical problems, albeit often exaggerated. Some have serious technical problems, albeit often exaggerated

I will now demonstrate why those serious technical problems have not been exaggerated. We begin in the 1960s when reinforced concrete was a new idea and building huge civic structures in the brutalist style was all the rage. After the architect had produced his swooping lines and grand gestures for the new Preston depot he handed it over to the designers to do the actual hard part of making it work and not fall down, and here is were things went a bit wrong. To be blunt the concrete specifications of the time allowed fairly weak, porous concrete and didn’t require much cover to the reinforcing steel, for those interested in water/cement ratios and porosity of concrete I commend you to this handy government guidance. To add to the fun the design codes of the time were also a bit ‘optimistic’ on concrete strength in shear so most designs weren’t really strong enough and didn’t have the safety margins the designers assumed.

So fast forward a few decades to the 1990s and these chickens begin to roost, car parks start rotting far faster than planned and a few demolition contractors get nasty surprises when the buildings fall apart faster than expected. The big change is probably Pipers Row car park, the top floors of which quite dramatically collapse overnight;

Pipers Row Car Park, pride of Wolverhampton. It got it's own HSE report you know, where do you think I nicked the photo from?

After the HSE investigation a whole generation of material engineers relax knowing their careers will be safe for life, looking after corroding 1960s/70s car parks will be a job for life for anyone who cares to do so. While the collapses generally get avoided these days that doesn’t mean the buildings are OK, it just means they get demolished earlier than expected leaving the owners to try and explain the problem to confused punters looking to park. A good one was Heathrow Terminal 3 car park;

Once a car park stood here, not anymore obviously.

You may be forgiven for thinking this was just part of the ongoing 'permanent rebuild' strategy for Heathrow Airport. However this is the old T3 car park, the one that was conveniently opposite the terminal till it was condemned by a mate of mine due to massive corrosion. So this car park was demolished and a new one built further away. If you've ever been at T3 and wondered why the car park is so far away and why the pick-up/drop off area is so huge, that's why.

This is still a live problem, a quick google throws up a car park in Nottingham that got the old ’emergency closure’ treatment a couple of years back and only last month a Southend car park collapsed during demolition, the top five stories letting go as they had corroded far worse than previously thought. It should now be obvious why Preston Bus Depot has to go, it’s not going to last long in any event so better to take it out while it’s safe before it decides to do the job itself.

I will leave the final word for today to another article in the Guardian, quoting a former Secretary of State for culture when the first listing of the depot was rejected;

“It therefore appears to the secretary of state that the main attractive feature of the design was the result of a miscalculation which led to a poor quality of construction.”

Why Germans Can’t Tunnel #1

Posted in And thus the Mystery was solved Watson!, Tunnels with tags , , , , , , , on September 13, 2010 by awickerman

An occasional series looking at why the Germans are the last people I would ask to build a tunnel. Today’s lesson was prompted by the on-going archiving at work which dug up this fun project from the vaults;


Today’s triumph of German precision and efficiency is the 1994 Munich U-Bahn collapse. Essentially while using the world’s least reliable tunnelling system they managed to bugger up construction of the U2 line tunnel so badly the road above collapsed under the weight of a passing bus. Hilarity failed to ensue when several of the passengers failed to escape in time.

This is bad enough but it’s not like they weren’t warned; there had been a very similar (if non-fatal) collapse while building the U1 line. German tunnelling collapses is the gift that keeps on giving, so this series should run and run.

A Comparison

Posted in And thus the Mystery was solved Watson!, Irregular Features, Your cut-out-and-keep Guide with tags , , , , , , on May 23, 2010 by awickerman

The new Construction Minister has been announced, a fact I realise is probably of negative interest to most readers, but hey it’s a risk you take reading this blog. First off it should be noted Construction is never actually considered importance enough to get a full time minister, it’s normally combined with a few other areas and then given to a second string Minister of State (or worse an Under Secretary which I believe ranks below ‘tea boy’ in terms of importance)

However let us now compare the current chap and his predecessors and see what we can learn;

Looking over the last few years construction has rejoiced under;

  • Baroness Vadera – Investment Banker who saw ‘Green shots of recovery’ in January 2009. So not even a good banker.
  • Stephen Timms – ex-phone consultant for Logica who is probably most famous for thinking IP address stood for “intellectual property address” despite being Minister for Digital Britain). That or recently being stabbed by a nutter in a Burkha. One or the other anyway.
  • Most recently, Ian Lucas – a personal injury lawyer who has done a lot to work on producing documents on de-carboning construction. Sod all to stop the collapse in orders or haemorrhaging jobs, but maybe I’m being uncharitable. Perhaps he worked out the paperwork wasn’t helping so realised only by decimating UK construction can he cut carbon. No jobs = No carbon.

If these seem unimpressive idiots who know nothing about their brief don’t worry, with nine ministers in less than eight years they don’t have any time to do much serious damage. That also means they can’t do any good either, but that was only ever a theoretical possibility.

So who is the new chap? Well it’s Mark Prisk. He’s been shadowing the job for years, he’s a qualified survey and has actually has worked on construction sites and even ran his own surveying consultancy. Therefore there is massive pressure on his shoulders, should he fail the case for ‘Employing ministers who have had real jobs and who know about their subject’ will take a hefty blow.

Good luck Mr Prisk, a great deal rests on you not being an idiot.

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