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Project Atom: The explosive change heading for demolition

Three companies – Arcadis, AR Demolition and Alford Technologies – have come together to form Atom, a collaboration that proposes a safer method for explosive demolition in the wake of the tragedy at Didcot. Daniel Kemp takes a look at just what Atom is proposing.

“This is the iPhone moment for demolition.

“The day the iPhone came out, it changed the phone industry. The technologies that we’re going to be applying will open up so many opportunities for reducing time and increasing safety – that’s why we’re so excited.”

Construction News is sitting in a packed meeting room at Arcadis House, inside the consultant’s office behind King’s Cross station, as Alford Technologies managing director Roland Alford sets out the vision behind a new cross-company collaboration: Project Atom.

Gathered here are seven people from three different companies, representing one of the most intriguing new entrants to the construction sector for some time – and one that has the potential to completely change how industrial demolition is carried out.

The three parties are: Arcadis, the global design, engineering, consultancy and project management company; AR Demolition, specialist demolition contractor; and Alford Technologies, a progressive provider of explosives technology.

These three companies have come together in the wake of what happened at Didcot a little over a year ago to form Project Atom, with the belief that a different method of explosive demolition is possible. It’s one that promises to enormously reduce the risk to people, as well as save time and increase efficiency.

The proposition is simple, but striking. In the first instance, a power generation company with an old asset, like a power station, can contract with Atom to provide a complete turnkey solution. It will decommission the power station, demolish all of the structures, remediate the land and then build on it.

This turnkey approach, with one party promising to oversee the project from start to finish, is different – but is not the part that will rewrite the rulebook.

The real game-changer comes with the demolition package, which Alford and AR promise to deliver using new methods that require little, if any, pre-weakening of structures. What’s more, they will use technology that is already available and has been proven to work, yet has not been adopted by the demolition sector.

A better way?

This new method of demolition deploys the “best available and safest technology”, as Mr Alford puts it, to get the job done.

Innovation is at the core of the process, and is one of the uniting factors that has brought Alford, Arcadis and AR together.

AR Demolition GOUGH 2

AR Demolition GOUGH 2

 AR proposes using special bespoke equipment for power station demolition

Once on site, Arcadis as principal contractor will call on the expertise of AR and Alford to carry out the most high-risk package of works: the decommissioning and demolition.

The team proposes using existing site records and point cloud laser surveys to accurately and efficiently prepare detailed 3D models of built assets. These models could include asset information, such as size, weight, length and contamination to individual objects for future interrogation.

AR Demolition will then carry out the soft strip of buildings and structures, handle the planning of the CDM site and the demolition phasing, and clear any debris piles on the ground following explosive demolition. Using state-of-the-art decommissioning and demolition equipment, AR will strip, demolish and clear a site’s assets, using what it says are safer methods that use less manpower than traditional techniques.

“This is the iPhone moment for demolition. The technologies that we’re going to be applying will open up so many opportunities for reducing time and increasing safety – that’s why we’re so excited”

Roland Alford, Alford Technologies

The company has form in this area, pioneering the use of the OilQuick system for demolition plant in the UK, which is now used across the industry – and is also using the Kiesel system, which isn’t in widespread use in the UK. This is specialist demolition plant, capable of switching between various lengths of demolition front-end equipment with the driver not having to leave the cab.

Each change takes around three minutes instead of three to four hours, with all working at height / manual handling, environmental (spilt oil when hoses changed) issues completely eliminated.

AR managing director Richard Dolman also proposes using bespoke equipment designed specifically for carrying out power station demolition projects.

“My thoughts are that many people aren’t using the right equipment for this sort of work, and none of us have it,” he says. “When you look at a debris pile now, when people work on it, it looks like lots of little ants climbing all over it – that doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense.

“For me, less but more capable machinery is the answer, and rather than having half an eye on the next job you can use it on, it needs to be there for this power station, and it’s then our job to find another one for the machinery to go to after.”

The detailed 3D models can then be used to support the design of the later-stage demolition works, with full explosive modelling used to demonstrate how the building will collapse, exactly how many explosives will be needed and where they will be placed.

The end of pre-weakening

For the explosive demolition elements, Alford will use patented explosive tools and techniques designed to cut steel and breach concrete that are well-proven in the military sector – and that were deployed at Didcot to great effect.

Alford used its explosives to cut and kick out the middle two legs of Didcot’s boiler house first before quickly doing the same to the outer legs on the south side of the structure, causing it to hinge over its northern stanchions and ensuring it could only collapse in one direction, away from the debris pile. All of the charges were placed remotely using robots.

This method allows the team to carry out explosive demolition of large structures with little to no pre-weakening – not common practice in explosive demolition today.

Specialists 2017_Business Innovation_Alford Technologies_ROV

Specialists 2017_Business Innovation_Alford Technologies_ROV

Robots featured at Didcot but are only expected to be used for stand-ups

“Nothing is fully pre-weakened, so you don’t have a structure that could potentially fall because everything has already been cut,” Mr Alford says. “Critical components will be left intact and cut as part of the final demolition [using cutting charges].

“That allows us to look at the dynamics of it very differently, [rather than] do it the way it’s been done before where everything has to be stable when you cut it – we can have it so it’s inherently unstable when we do our cuts, so technically, we don’t even need kicking charges.”

This means that linear cutting charges will be used to carry out the final cuts on legs and walls, with gravity doing the rest. Traditional demolition methods in the UK do not use cutting charges; rather, cuts are done by hand on structural supports and then held together by tags, with explosives then ‘kicking’ the legs out of place to bring the structure down.

“Nothing is fully pre-weakened, so you don’t have a structure that could potentially fall because everything has already been cut. Critical components will be left intact and cut as part of the final demolition [using cutting charges]”

Roland Alford, Alford Technologies

So, if they work, why aren’t linear cutting charges being used already? It’s partly a resistance to change, and a reluctance to do things differently from the way they have always been done, Mr Dolman explains.

Mr Alford adds: “It’s possibly because people had tried using linear cutting charges and had had failures, because there are things you have to understand about how you use them and how you sequence them.

“Once they have had failures, there’s a reticence about adopting the technology because they say it’s not reliable. But it is totally reliable, it’s used in space and in all sorts of places – it’s just a bad application that gave it a bad rep, essentially. We don’t come with that prejudice and we proved our point at Didcot.”

Alford’s introduction

The demolition sector was rocked in February last year by the partial collapse of the boiler house at Didcot Power Station, which killed one man instantly and left three men trapped in the debris.

It took six months before the bodies of the trapped men were recovered, an unthinkable situation for their families, friends and colleagues. One of the primary reasons it took so long was the potentially unstable nature of the remaining standing structure.

A 25 m exclusion zone had been put in place around the structure, with no-one allowed inside. Once recovery workers had reached the exclusion line an impasse was reached, with the structure needing to be demolished before any further work could continue.

“They’d been scratching their heads and were erring towards doing it manually, saying that they just had to bite the bullet and accept the risk,” Mr Alford says.

“They called us up and asked me, out of the blue, do you think you’d be able to demolish a structure like this completely remotely? Immediately, my brain went into overdrive.

“I knew we had cutting charges, and we had various technologies for kicking used for explosive methods of entry, hostage rescue and that sort of thing – we could adapt that technology and it would allow us to push the legs.

“More and more of these ‘problem sites’ will come to market and need a proper solution to deal with them”

Dave Atkinson, Arcadis

“We could use EOD [explosive ordinance disposal] robots, we were familiar with that technology.

“The last bit of it was how we’d connect all the charges – I thought that would be the actual challenge, as we had to do this all remotely, with robots, and ensure that every connection was correct, because you couldn’t have any misfires.”

Alford took over the site as principal contractor and successfully executed the blowdown of the remaining structure on 17 July, entirely remotely, without having to put anyone at further risk by entering it.

Once Alford’s role at Didcot was over, it was faced with two choices: take satisfaction in a successful one-off project and go back to the day job, or see if it could do more in the demolition sector.

“We had become the principal contractor and designer at Didcot, but there was a huge ramping up and we had to get an awful lot of goodwill assistance,” Mr Alford says. “We realised we couldn’t continue to scale up to do an entire job – we needed partners and people.”

Didcot Power Station_boiler house blowdown_170716 6

Didcot Power Station_boiler house blowdown_170716 6

Alford’s work led to a successful blowdown of the remaining boiler house at Didcot

The firm was introduced to AR Demolition by a mutual friend, who thought the businesses would be compatible (see box). The two companies struck up a close partnership thanks to shared ideals based around innovation and safety.

Once the two parties had come together, it became clear that the involvement of a company like Arcadis would help take collaboration to another level still, and develop the proposition more fully.

“All of this is built on the back of the government’s plan – they’ve made it clear that by 2025, coal-fired power stations will be a thing of the past in the UK,” says Arcadis associate technical director Dave Atkinson. “More and more of these ‘problem sites’ will come to market and need a proper solution to deal with them.

“We’ve had mixed responses. The first client was interested [and] is not probably in the space where they can take this forward right now, but they wanted us to keep them engaged”

Dave Atkinson, Arcadis

“We want to get the right outcome, whatever project we get involved in. It’s not just taking down a building because it needs to be taken down; it’s taking it down in the right way, using the right methods, in the knowledge of what you’re going to deliver in the future with that piece of land.”

This last element, the masterplanning, theoretically allows the team to plan the demolition and clearance of a site in a much more holistic way, with the various elements of decommissioning, demolition and remediation naturally overlapping, and perhaps leading to some areas of land parcelled off for development much earlier, and before the whole site has been fully cleared.

Convincing clients

Atom has yet to secure a project to work on, but it is now at a stage where it can go to market, discuss the proposition with clients and deliver on its promises.

The team has had early-stage meetings with two power-generation clients already. “We’ve had mixed responses,” Mr Atkinson says. “The first client was interested; [it] is probably not in the space where they can take this forward right now, but they wanted us to keep them engaged.

“The other client we spoke to is probably thinking along the old way of doing things at the moment, but have realised that by doing that they’re screening innovation out of their process. They’ve seen what’s happened, so want to put [established] strong processes and procedures in place – but by doing that, they’re limiting innovation.”

There is, understandably, a reticence among clients so far as well due to the nervousness of giving another large power station to a new entrant to the market, as Coleman & Company was at Didcot.

But Mr Alford emphasises that Atom feels it has demonstrated the viability of the proposition thanks to Alford’s work at Didcot, while Arcadis’ involvement, with global expertise of overseeing complex decommissioning and industrial demolition projects, should also help ease client’s concerns.

AR Demolition Stoke 2

AR Demolition Stoke 2

AR has won a number of CN Specialists Awards in recent years

The team admits it doesn’t expect Atom to be on site within the next 12 months.

“As much as some people would like it to go back to the status quo, it got to a point where I don’t think it can now,” Mr Alford says. “It’s a matter of the customers waking up to that, and realising that they don’t want [what happened at Didcot] to happen to them. They were hoping they could do it with a little side-shift, but are probably realising that there needs to be a fundamental shift.”

This also dovetails neatly with the fact that the incident at Didcot seems likely to have some sort of effect on legislation or regulations around explosive demolition, whether driven by government, the HSE or clients.

In particular, the team is united in its belief that, in the event of a stand-up (where a building has not collapsed properly following the detonation of explosive charges), no person should be allowed to re-enter the structure. Alford demonstrated that it has the most robust contingency plan possible thanks to its work at Didcot: remotely operated robotics.

“Do I see us using a lot of robots in future? Not at all – other than when you have a stand-up, and I think the HSE or someone else should be saying that no person will ever return to that building, because we’ve shown you don’t need to”

Jez Earnshaw, Alford Technologies

“I don’t think this is probable, but what’s the worst case? You blow the charges and the structure remains standing,” Mr Atkinson says.

It is often the case now that, in the event of a stand-up, someone will enter the structure, inspect and replace the charges. “You’re then [standing in] a structure that you’ve got no idea how it’s going to behave,” Mr Atkinson says.

Jez Earnshaw, who oversaw the Didcot project for Alford Technologies, explains that the company’s use of robotics should mean that this never has to happen again.

“We used a lot of robots [at Didcot] because of the restrictions we had placed on us.

“Do I see us using a lot of robots in future? Not at all – other than when you have a stand-up, and I think the HSE or someone else should be saying that no person will ever return to that building, because we’ve shown you don’t need to.”

And this is what Project Atom boils down to, and why it is so exciting.

It’s a disruptive new method of explosive demolition – one that is potentially far safer and more efficient than the method that has been used for years.

Many construction and demolition companies can be very resistant to change, because of low margins and the high-risk nature of much of the work, especially the case in explosive demolition.

But Alford’s emergency work at Didcot might have been the first glimpse of what the future of explosive demolition looks like.

It looks like some clients are beginning to agree that there has to be a better way – and if they make that decision, the sector will have to innovate like Atom to survive, whether it likes it or not.

AR’s involvement

AR Demolition, run by managing director Richard Dolman, has gained a reputation in the last few years for striving to find different ways of completing traditional demolition projects, and for pioneering the use of innovative plant – winning a number of CN Specialists Awards in the process for health and safety, training, and project excellence.

With Mr Alford on the lookout for a partner in the demolition sector, he was introduced to Mr Dolman by a mutual friend who felt the two companies’ outlooks were compatible.

“Just as we weren’t able to do everything, AR couldn’t do the explosives part and weren’t yet ready to do a big power station job without that,” Mr Alford says.

“But we realised that, rather than just trying to joining an existing big player and be diluted – with our message to do things differently – we needed to find somebody who’d think the same way and be doing similar things on their side.”

Mr Dolman explains that he has not worked on a major power station demolition project yet, but that it had been a sector of interest to him and his company.

“I’d be a liar if I sat here and said I’d been watching the guys who’ve been doing these big, heavy decommissioning projects and thinking they were doing them all wrong,” he says.

“But I remember having a very experienced demolition guy on a site of ours with a fairly simple structure to take down – it was quite tall, it was made of steel, and he said: ‘Right, we’ll cut all the legs all the way through, we’ll cut one of them in two places, then pull that piece out, and the whole lot falls over’.

“I was completely amazed by this suggestion of cutting all the way through a 30-40-tonne structure – I said we’d find a different way of doing it.

“As I understand things, these huge tens of thousands of tonne structures [at power stations] are done in a similar way – and as far as I go, that just doesn’t feel right. But I wasn’t in that field – and that’s as far as it ever got with me.”

That was, until he saw a filmed interview with Mr Alford and other members of his team where they expressed their disbelief that the demolition industry would cut structures of this magnitude to the “point of almost collapse”, in Mr Dolman’s words, before using explosives to finish them off.

This was something of a Eureka moment: the realisation that there might be a different way to carry out these projects, using best practice from outside of the demolition sector.

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