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Mark Anthony's Blog

This is Mark Anthony's Blog.

The Green Paradox

February 12th, 2010

Like its cousin the construction industry, the demolition sector has suffered from the slings and arrows of economic misfortune during the past 18 months. Demand has slowed and any work that has continued has been consistently “value engineered” to ensure that, when the dust settled, any meagre profits remained with the client or main contractor, not with the demolition crews.

Like construction, demolition has borne these cycles of boom and bust before (and will undoubtedly do so again); and as deep and prolonged as this latest trough might have been, there is now the faint whisper of recovery in the air. And following one particular high-profile public pronouncement, some demolition contractors are even allowing themselves to imagine another boom beckoning on the horizon.

What sets this possible upturn aside, however, is its root cause. While previous upward curves in the fortunes of the demolition industry could be traced back to the need for more – houses, office buildings, sports arenas – the next boom (if it happens) is likely to be a result of the need for less.

The UK Government’s chief construction adviser Paul Morrell has been charged with ridding the construction industry of its carbon emissions in order to meet ambitious targets to reduce the country’s overall carbon footprint by an ambitious 80 percent by 2050. And in a recent interview with The Times, he said that some of these reductions will require the demolition of swathes of city centre buildings erected in the 1960s and 70s.

Morrell, who took up his new post at the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills at the end of November last year, said: “In the Sixties, everything was built cheaper, faster and nastier. Although you can do some things to buildings from the Sixties and Seventies, like replacing the roofs, there are some places that need to come down entirely.” He said that problem areas were likely to be places such as Newcastle city centre, where a lot of buildings went up in the Sixties and Seventies. Other towns that could undergo an eco-makeover could include Slough and Aylesbury. “The buildings that pose the most difficulties are semi-industrialised, highly inefficient, badly insulated and so ugly that they are not worth refurbishing,” Morrell added.

According to the British Property Federation, property is responsible for 50 per cent of the UK’s carbon emissions. The Government has a target for all new commercial buildings built from 2018 to be zero-carbon, but a strategy for how to deal with existing stock has yet to be established. Meanwhile, The Policy Exchange think-tank, has estimated that Britain would need to spend about £400 billion on new and refurbished infrastructure by 2020 to address historic underinvestment and to kick-start transition to a low-carbon economy.

All of which will be like music to the ears of the beleaguered demolition industry that has long since completed its work on the London 2012 Olympic development and has been scanning the horizon for the next impending upturn in fortune. However, while demolition contractors would unquestionably welcome such a large-scale city centre clearance campaign, the industry is more conscious than most of the potential environmental impact of the buildings erected to replace those demolished.

As an industry, demolition prides itself on its environmental credentials, and members of the National Federation of Demolition Contractors (NFDC) regularly achieve recycling levels of 95+ percent that put their construction cousins to shame. But while bricks, slates, timber and concrete have all been the source of additional revenue in the past, there is a growing concern that the construction industry’s continuing lack of foresight could lead to another environmental black hole in the not too distant future. “In older buildings, virtually everything can be recycled, reused or salvaged in some way,” says NFDC chief executive Howard Button. “But more modern buildings often contain materials that cannot be reclaimed or which are cross-contaminated to the point that they hold no commercial value and renders them non-recyclable.”

Of course, it would be nice to lay the blame for this problem at the door of naive architects of the past who were blissfully unaware of the environmental havoc that would be wrought by their profligate use of materials that were ultimately destined for landfill. But, according to Button, these policies remain today. “Architects are continuing to specify composite materials for buildings that are being erected now,” he asserts. “In 20 or 30 years time when that building is being demolished to make way for something else, those materials are going to one place - a large hole in the ground – with all the environmental issues associated with it.”

Button, along with other members of his industry, is convinced that the solution lies in an End of Life Directive, similar to that imposed upon car manufacturers, with reuse or recycling “designed in” long before a structure is built. “As an industry, we can only handle the materials that we find within the structures we’re demolishing. And while we have pioneered many innovative recycling and reuse systems and solutions, we are now working on buildings from the 1980s containing materials that simply cannot be reclaimed,” Button continues. “Ultimately, this will have a negative effect upon the environmental impact of what is ostensibly a very green industry sector. More worryingly, that is likely to mean a greater level of materials going to landfill and a growth in demand for increasingly scarce virgin materials.”

And that, according to Button, is the sting in the tail. While traditional construction materials can be readily processed and often reused on-site, processing or disposal of these more complex composite materials generally requires them to be transported off-site for handling and processing by specialist third-parties. “As soon as materials have to be hauled or transported, any carbon reductions made by the removal of an inefficient or poorly insulated building will be undermined by the carbon emissions of road transport and, in some cases, incineration of materials. As an environmentally-aware industry sector, we welcome any Government initiative that will lower carbon emissions and make the UK greener, particularly if it means more work for this sector,” Howard Button concludes. “But unless the UK Government insists that construction is planned with future demolition and dismantling in mind, we will all be exactly where we started 20 or 30 years from now.”

US Contract, Global Issue

November 2nd, 2009

On Sunday this week, the crowds will gather to say a fond farewell to the Executive Inn, affectionately known to Owensboro, Kentucky locals as the “Big E”.  The hotel, which once played host to the likes of Frank Sinatra, has been the subject of much conjecture ever since it was slated for demolition.

First it was embroiled in a low-bid furore; then there seemed to be a huge confusion over the method that would be used to fell the building with suggestions that TV executives had been involved in the decision process; and this past weekend, the Big E played host to teams of fire fighters as pre-weakening works caused multiple fires within the structure.

But when the sound of this Sunday’s implosion has faded and the dust has settled, what will be the legacy of this once popular hotel venue? Well, in my opinion, ol’ Blue Eyes will forever be linked to Vegas, not Kentucky; demolition will remain an inexact science that often requires contractors to analyse multiple methods (with or without TV executive input) before the most appropriate process is selected; and for all the training in the world, fire remains an ever-present danger whenever demolition workers use hot cutting equipment.

Instead, the Big E’s lasting legacy is likely to be the overwhelming and subsequent closure of the demolition waste area of the local landfill which is already bracing itself for the arrival of 65,000 cubic metres of rubble. Worse still, local city officials report that the cost of creating a replacement demolition waste area will be close to $1 million.

Sadly, that $1 million is merely the tip of a large and unnecessary iceberg that could so easily have been avoided if the contractors and city officials embraced the levels of recycling and materials reuse that are now commonplace in Europe and Scandinavia.

How much of that 65,000 cubic metres, I wonder, actually needs to go to landfill. Certainly, being a hotel, the contract is likely to contain a fair degree of gypsum and other “soft-strip” material which would certainly bulk-out the waste volumes. And the chances are that the structure will contain at least some asbestos that would be destined for the landfill. But 65,000 cubic metres?

Here in the UK, the members of the National Federation of Demolition Contractors annually achieve a recycling rate of more than 95% of all waste arisings. In fact, while the calculations of demolition costs might take a week or two, the average UK demolition contractor could provide a pretty accurate estimate of recycling rates and resale values based on little more than a 20 minute site walk-around.

And yet in the US, those calculations are largely bypassed and are replaced merely with the cost of haulage to the nearest tip. Now I understand that the US has far more space to play with.

I realise that landfill space remains relatively plentiful and comparatively inexpensive. And I know that Americans are a long way from exhausting the nation’s natural resources of aggregates and other virgin materials. But surely we have now reached the point in time when such arguments are no longer about the remaining resources of one nation but about the rapidly diminishing resources of one world.

There is a gaping hole in the ozone layer above the Antarctic but no-one has suggested that this problem belongs solely to the handful of local people and scientists that call this hostile landscape home. Instead, its effects on global warming are being addressed globally.

Likewise, each time a US demolition contractor consigns a ton of “waste” to landfill, he is not only dumping a potential resource that he could personally resell at a profit; he is depriving the world of a ton of potentially valuable material; he is creating the unnecessary demand for another ton of the world’s virgin aggregates; and he is filling in another of the world’s remaining cubic metres of rapidly diminishing available landfill space.

In the case of Owensboro’s Big, that is 65,000 cubic metres of wasted resource; 65,000 cubic metres of virgin material to replace it, and 65,000 cubic metres less available landfill space in the world.

My guess is that these facts won’t get a mention in the exclusive TV footage.

ODC could wipe out Kyoto gains

September 29th, 2009

Any environmental gains made by the Kyoto agreement could be wiped out if Governments fail to address Ozone Depleting Substance foam issue. That's the harsh message that was delivered to the Institute of Demolition Engineers' seminar last week by expert Peter Jones of Peter Jones Associates.

Listen to an exclusive podcast of Peter Jones presentation now.

Audio Podcast



What price sustainability?

September 21st, 2009

The demolition industry has consistently improved site safety levels by removing manpower from the most hazardous site areas.   But the drive for greater levels of recycling and sustainability threaten to put men back in harm’s way, reports Mark Anthony.

It is a crying shame that the site accident statistics for the demolition industry are combined with those from the less safe construction sector.  If they weren’t, it would be plain for all to see that the demolition business has probably made the greatest strides of any industry sector in the field of workplace safety.

Ever-improving levels of training have, unquestionably, played a role in the continual decline in site accidents, incidents and fatalities.   But a change in work practices and an ever-increasing mechanisation has been the primary driver, with high reach excavators and remote-controlled mini excavators largely replacing the man with a sledgehammer of yesteryear.

Certainly, in the past 20 years since the high reach excavator was introduced and embraced by UK demolition contractors, the annual count of accidents and fatalities has reduced as the popularity of these machines has grown.
But if the focus 20 years ago was the removal of manpower from the “work face”, then the focus today is recycling and materials resource efficiency.   And while we all want a cleaner, greener world, this drive towards sustainability threatens to put operatives back in the danger zone.

During a recent presentation to the Institute of Demolition Engineers, President Terry Quarmby revealed that an initial study suggested that the growth in recycling had been mirrored by a growth in reportable, on-site incidents.   While these were, thankfully, of the non-fatal or life-threatening variety, any increase in accidents needs to be taken very seriously indeed.   And in a hard-hitting presentation, Quarmby also stated that:
•    architects and designers are undermining sustainability initiatives by an increasing use of non-recyclable and composite materials
•    demolition industry waste return figures are combined with those of the construction sector to help bolster the construction sector’s less-than-impressive statistics
•    the construction industry is unlikely to achieve Government targets to reduce waste to landfill by 2012.

“As an industry, demolition is bombarded with new directives and recommendations from the likes of WRAP, the BRE and CIRIA and a multitude of non-Governmental organisations, all of whom are keen to fight the sustainability cause,” Quarmby says.   “But I firmly believe that what we really need is a radical rethink on the primary use of materials on new build to facilitate the ease of re-use and recycling.”

Quarmby says that the demolition business’ livelihood has long hinged upon its ability to find a home for the materials generated by its activities, but that this ability is being undermined by the use of new-build materials that are either difficult or prohibitively costly to recycle or that no-one actually wants.   “Twenty or thirty years ago when we were demolishing Edwardian or Victorian properties, all of the materials could be passed on very easily for re-use,” he says.   “Today, we’re dealing with a very different range of products including a large number of composites.   We need to go back to the drawing board to reduce the use of these non-recyclable materials, and it is the architects and designers that must take the lead.    Designers have a huge responsibility but, at present, they’re sitting on the fence, following client instructions, and not thinking about the ramifications of the materials they choose and specify.”

Quarmby is similarly critical of the construction sector’s still poor record on waste and recycling.   “According to current statistics, approximately 50 million tonnes of construction, demolition and excavation waste is sent to landfill each year,” he explains.   “According to figures from the National Federation of Demolition Contractors, the demolition sector is achieving recycling rates of more than 95 percent.   That landfill input material is coming from somewhere and it’s not from demolition.   We find the thought of sending aggregates to landfill abhorrent, yet it remains commonplace within the construction field.”

Against this background, Quarmby believes that the construction industry will fail to meet Government targets to reduce materials to landfill by 2012, even with the figures from the demolition sector bolstering the statistics.   “This is a hugely ambitious target and it’s only three years away,” he asserts.   “Demolition is sending a miniscule amount of materials to landfill, even if we include the arisings from soft strip operations.   But construction has a long way to go and, based on present figures, I would personally question their ability to meet these targets.”

However, Quarmby’s greatest fear is for the safety of his fellow demolition workers.   “Thanks to the development of modern work practices and the increasing use of highly specialised equipment, many parts of the demolition process have become a one man, one machine operation and that man is largely isolated from the demolition area.   Aside from a few blips along the way, this has been reflected in a steady but marked decrease in the number of accidents on UK demolition sites,” he says.   “The problem with the level of recycling and materials segregation that we’re now being asked to achieve is that not all of it can be accomplished mechanically.   This is forcing men back into potential danger areas.   Even with the level of training this industry now provides, that is bound to lead to an increase in accidents.”

Concerned over this potential danger to his fellow demolition workers, Quarmby has conducted his own initial research.   And while the findings are not entirely conclusive, the signs are plain to see.   “The sustainability drive began in earnest at the turn of the new millennium.  At the same time, the number of accidents in the demolition industry began to increase,” he states.   “And the figures are significant.   Over a 10 year period, site accidents were up by as much as 60 percent.”

Although he’s convinced that the increase in recycling and the increase in accidents are linked, he has called upon demolition contractors to maintain records on the precise cause of any accidents that might occur.   “We need to gather as much information on this subject as we possibly can,” Terry Quarmby concludes.   “As an industry, we are totally committed to the sustainability cause.   But if it is causing harm to our workers, then we need that information to share with Government and to help them steer future work practices.”

To listen to a full audio podcast of Terry Quarmby’s presentation, please visit: