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Round table: Foundations for the future

barry turner

The government has set a target of 300,000 new homes to be built each year. Brownfield sites could be the answer, but just how easy is that target to meet?

In October, GE in association with Abbey Pynford hosted around table debate to explore the importance of using brownfield sites and marginal ground to efforts to meet government targets to build 300,000 new homes each year for at least the next 12 years. In particular, the debate centred on the role engineered foundations will play in dealing with the implications and complications of building on brownfield sites.

“We mustn’t lose sight that we can achieve these house building targets,” explained Abbey Pynford sales and marketing director John Patch. “Back in the 1960s, we were able to build 400,000 new homes a year. There was the capability, the willingness and the desire within the UK.

“While I suspect the government plucked 300,000 new homes out of the air, I think it is possible to achieve.

“Stating the blindly obvious, and looking at the 300,000 figure, we are looking at building far more on brownfield sites, and to that end we need to use more engineered foundations for those developments,” added Patch.

alan griffin

alan griffin

Alan Griffin and Barry Turner

Wheeldon managing director James Parkin agreed, but added that in the1960s there was the local political desire to build huge quantities of new homes.

“We have government policy from Westminster to build homes, but locally the politicians are often not approving planning consent. We have a lot of local nimbyism coupled with a planning system with officers with their hands tied behind their back. On average it can take up to two years to get planning permission now,” said Parkin.

“But it is more difficult to get planning permission on greenfield sites. Brownfield is easier.”

mike johnson (middle)

mike johnson

Sue James, Mike Johnson and Rob Withers

Tree and Design Action Group member Sue James added: “What people don’t realise, is that brownfield sites can actually be green. When we think about brownfield sites and consider the types of developments that can go on them, there is not one type of site and there is not one type of house.”

Are potential buyers reluctant topurchase properties built on brownfield sites, the round table was asked. Could this attitude be holding up housing developments?

“I don’t think so,” said Vertase Fli director Steve Edgar. “We worked on a really complicated site that was covered extensively in the local press when we were remediating it. It was called ‘one of the most contaminated sites in Europe’. It had a real stigma.

“We stayed with the developer until the houses were built and said that if they had any purchasers with queries we would answer them. So far we’ve had one enquiry and it is over 80% built.”

According to the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England there over 1M plots on contaminated land area vailable to build on.

“The next question usually asked, is are they in the right place?,” says Patch. “But on the basis that brownfield sites are generally in urban areas then it would follow they are in the right places, where people want to live.

“As an industry we are arguing, that brownfield sites are far more capable of being developed now than they were 10 to 15 years ago. But there is still an element that the site has to be bought for the right price and this then reflects the foundations that you are able to build and whether the ground needs remediation.

“If there is a trade-off and if it is too expensive to put foundations in and remediate, then the developer needs to wait until the price come down.”

james parkin and steve edgar

james parkin and steve edgar

James Parkin and Steve Edgar

Edgar agreed and said that he was definitely seeing difficulties in the value versus cost versus expectation, in his experience as a remediation contractor.

“You start to build up the costs, and I am sitting with developers and they are looking at their land value, our costs and then they add the build to it and it just isn’t going to work financially,” says Edgar.

“It is a lack of understanding of the costs by the vendors and some developers thats stopping them working.”

Parkin added: “As a developer I’m absolutely concentrating on foundation costs.” He explained that his firm leaned towards the value engineered foundations.

“I might have a site that has a dozen plots with standard trench footings, I also might have a plot with has an open cast that goes down to 10m, so I would avoid driven piles for a few plots because it is a prohibitively expensive option and we will come up with a different solution.

“But I don’t want to spend a load of money underground when there is no benefit, or perceived benefit, to the customer. The foundations have to be a cost-effective solution. I want innovative solutions.”

Association of Specialist Underpinning Contractors (Asuc) executive director Rob Withers argued that the industry was already being innovative, especially the members of Asuc within the piling and foundation industry.

“We are already there with innovation and it is our members who are innovating the most,” he said.“These are the firms with the innovative products and who won’t be demanding developers provide piling mats and will still supply the slab. They have smaller rigs, can be flexible and deliver what developers want.”

“The only way to make a site financially viable is to design around the site constraints,” explained Mears New Homes senior technical coordinator Alan Griffin.“You are looking at sites individuallyand it could be made ground, trees and so on. To make the site financiallyviable is where you engineer it accordingly.”

Patch agreed: “We want the engineered solution to become the norm, that is where we need to get to. There will be certain circumstances where we will engineer a trench-fill foundation because that will be the best solution at that point in time on that particular site, for that particular structure.

“We are not saying ‘let’s get rid of all trench-fill,’ but we are saying there needs to be a need to go down the engineered route.

”But there also needs to be a desire from clients – house builders– to go down this route. It is not only a better route, it is also more cost effective, more sustainable and indeed safer.”

john patch (2)

john patch (2)

Barry Turner and John Patch

Local Authority Building Control director of technical services Barry Turner said he thought that developers had to understand the benefits of engineered solutions.

“House builders need to understand what an engineered foundation is and what it can offer and how it can help them,” he said.

Edgar agreed that not everyone understood the benefits fully and that if there was more thought earlier on in the process, the cost could be accounted for.

“You can help people understand what the benefits are, if clients engage properly when the commercial guys are working out the figures. If it is not right, then it is our fault that all the costs are not taken into account.”

Similar to early contractor involvement with infrastructure projects, those around the table agreed that contractors should be involved earlier in the process. 

Edgar continued: “If you want to get it right, you go for planning, you get the layout drafted, you get the consulting engineer, you select the contractor and then put them together in a room and basically tell them to find the best solution. And you pay properly for that service, but it really pays dividends in the long run.”

“Collaboration early on is absolute key in providing the best engineered solution,” added Abbey Pynford director of engineering Mike Johnson.

Around the table

Steve Edgar, director, Vertase Fli
Alan Griffin, senior technical coordinator, Mears New Homes
Sue James, member, Trees and Design Action Group (TDAG)
Mike Johnson, director of engineering, Abbey Pynford
James Parkin, director, Wheeldon
John Patch, sales and marketing director, Abbey Pynford
Claire Smith, editor, Ground Engineering Magazine
Barry Turner, director of technical services, Local Authority Building Control (LABC)
Rob Withers, executive director, Association of Specialist Underpinning Contractors (ASUC)

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