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A good man in an emergency

PILING

Ground Risk Management is a rapid response service which troubleshoots construction problems around the country.

Andrew Barker goes on site with its team of inspectors

SPENDING a day with site supervisor Hywel Tidley feels a bit like shadowing a paramedic. The phone does not stop ringing and Mr Tidley, who heads up the inspections arm of Ground Risk Management, would spend most of his day in breach of the law were it not for a neat in-car system.

With four inspectors behind him, the rapid response team roams around the Midlands like a gang of superheroes, on hand in case of a crisis. A service of this kind is virtually unheard of in the heavily contractual construction industry.

The 'blue siren calls' as Mr Tidley terms them are what makes the job worthwhile for him. He clearly thrives on the unpredictability of the job.

'Any day can be quite frantic between 10 am and 3 pm. We're here to provide first aid. The range of things we get involved in can be any thing f rom highway adoptions to street access, burst water mains and big environmental clean-ups.'

You name it, they have got it covered.

But that is not to say they do not have contract work.

When not saving the day, the team routinely checks on sites where GRM has performed ground investigations or provided geotechn ical support. It's all par t of an ethos of getting involved from the outset and seeing it through for the duration of work below ground.

Mr Tidley's first-aid analogy is a good one, considering the number of people who go to him with a problem as you would a school nurse. Some of the time, he will make a verbal diagnosis, but generally a team member speeds along to troubleshoot in person.

One thing is for certain, word has spread about GRM. Mr Tidley receives emergency call-outs 'freakily often.' For this reason, he is recruiting a sixth team member.

Mr Tidley believes GRM has a responsibility to act as a watchdog for the client, keeping an eye on the ground workers who have a habit of encouraging the building inspectors to advise going deeper.

This tends to up their est imate to an 'artificially high' price, he says.

Consequently, Mr Tidley has found it increasingly common for clients to call upon GRM prior to the NHBC assessments as a precaution against needless extra work.

'House builders are very good at every thing above slab level but below, they haven't got a clue.

'Historically, they will tend not to challenge because they've got contingencies in their budgets and they will accept that there will be a 10 to 15 per cent load-on cost in foundations.'

This is an extra cost GRM reckons it can curb.

It seems this is only the start of the benefits of GRM's ongoing supervision. Mr Tidley gives an example of a job in Coventry to illustrate a typical emergency call-out. Developers of a former scrap yard called up because some blue, jelly-like liquid had appeared on site.

In accordance with protocol, they had to stop digging. Their original consultants were down in Exeter so unable to be on site unt il the following week. Five days of delay would have been a significant cost to the development, in the region of £5,000. GRM was called in to clean up the mess.

Its solution was to dig out the contaminated substance and re-pile the foundations. By the next day, all was back on track.

'If I was a client, my first reaction would be, what's the need? I've got a site manager, a foreman, a contracts manager. But, they're not good at managing unforeseen things. They can't be out on site when they've got so much paperwork to deal with, ' Mr Tidley says. An important string to GRM's bow is to relieve pressure on the site manager. Mark Tiverton, site manager for Morris Homes, testifies to this.

'The reality of being a site manager is that we don't know everything, but we're supposed to, ' he admits.

'GRM's response time is phenomenal. Sometimes I can have somebody on site within two hou rs. We employ them to vet every thing before NHBC makes its checks on the foundations.

'As a site manager, I have a technical drawing that I follow religiously. But GRM can save the company thousands of pounds by tak ing it in-house, shallowing up in places and engineering a solution.'

Mr Tidley divides his time about 50:50 between the off ice and sites. But, it is crystal clear wh ich type of work he prefers. Tu rning up on a site with no pr ior knowledge and just a short briefing from the site manager is what gives him a kick. When he joined GRM four years ago, site inspections were not even a service the firm provided. But the directors decided there was a market for supervising new residential builds.

At first, Mr Tidley made about 15 site visits a week , lasting around three hours each - a pretty tall order for just one man. So, as the work load steadily increased , they took on more staff.

It began as a one-man service around the Buxton area in north Staffordshire but it now stretches from South Yorkshire, down to the M25, east to The Wash and west to Herefordshire. Each inspector covers a 50-mile radius. Mr Tidley says they are looking to increase coverage down to Bristol and for this reason they're recruiting another member to the team. His philosophy is that for anything design-orientated , structural, geotechnical or environmental you need that extra on-site presence.

GRM's policy is to document every th ing as it makes checks and assessments. This way, every pound saved for the client in the long run can be calculated and compared to its own costs.

'How else can you prove you're worth it?' asks Mr Tidley. He makes the impressive claim that the average saving on a large-scale housing development amounts to somewhere between £120,000 and £200,000 per quarter.

'Then the site managers can go to their board and say yes, we spent money on GRM's services but we saved hundreds of thousands of pounds by doing so.'

Where does the future lie for GRM's site inspection supermen? Surprisingly, it's not in the south-east, in spite of the scheduled upsurge in housing developments within the area. He sees the south-west as the emerging market, due in part to the scant competition.

'There's a need out there, ' he says. 'House builders are not going to pay for something they don't need.'

On-site with Ground Risk Management Barrow on Soar, Leicestershire, David Wilson Homes

THIS unusual site for a housing project is made of pockets of green and brownfield areas. A cluster of lime kilns from the 14th century does not help matters. Accordingly, a mixture of ground beams and piles were used to handle the differing make-up of the ground types. The developers were aware of the kilns' presence prior to purchasing the land, but not their extent. This was only discovered once GRM had done its ground inspection. In the end, only 30 per cent of the plots could be built with traditional foundations. Recent problems have included sorting out misalignment of steel on piles and overseeing the work. 'We insisted the subcontractor made the alterations. It had to rip everything out and start again, ' says Mr Tidley. All in all, the delay only lasted 36 hours.

But had GRM not been there, the concrete would have been poured. Mr Tidley believes that without GRM's intervention, building would have been subjected to 'potentially exaggerated movement, resulting in cracking and possible structural failure'. He puts the maximum cost at £50,000. After that event, the developer gave GRM carte blanche to manage the subcontractors when required.

Citypoint Derby, Morris Homes

THIS is a brownf ield site that previously belonged to Derby College, which will hold 600 new homes. GRM designed the ground beams for the Morris plots (Barratt and Kings Oak are also building on site), but after piling and ground-beam construction there was a problem. The managing director for Morris made changes at the 11th hour about the placement of staircases and bay windows. GRM was rushed in to assess whether the footings were compatible with the changes. 'They faxed our office, the engineer got on the case straightaway and the following morning there was a resolution, ' says Mr Tiverton. Much to the site manager's delight, there was no need to return to the drawing board and redesign to accommodate the managing director's demands.