A run-down, post-war development has long sat uneasily next to the 12th-century beauty of Exeter's cathedral and the majestic 800-year-old Guildhall.But before a new project to spruce up the city centre can begin, the 1950s blocks need to be torn down. Joanna Booth went to see how Wring Group is making space for the Princesshay scheme
OVER the next six months, Bristol-based Wring Group will cut a huge swathe across the centre of Exeter, knocking down a few streets-worth of tired, life-expired shops and office blocks. Sitting in among the main shopping and tourist areas, the job has to be done just right.
The firm did not have long to prepare for the tricky task, with just a twoweek lead-in time between signing the £1.5 million contract and starting on site.
'We went in at the deep end, ' says Wring's contract manager, Peter Williams.'We have been swimming to the shallows ever since!'
To get the job up and running quickly, Wring put an experienced team on site almost as soon as it got the nod from client Land Securities and also plunged substantial investment into expanding its fleet.Wring Group operations director Dean Wring felt that the scale of the job justified purchasing two new excavators from HM Plant to help out.
The job is split into four phases, following the construction scheduling of principal contractor Sir Robert McAlpine.Wring is starting at the southern end of the scheme and moving north-west, taking seven months to complete.
It also made sense for demolition to start in the Bedford Street area, where the shops being flattened are free from the many archaeological issues that affect much of the rest of the site.
Exeter's core is only one of five towns to have been designated Areas of Archaeological Importance under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 - the others being Canterbury, Chester, York and Hereford.
Fortified Exeter used to be a Roman garrison and evidence of a Roman road crossing the site was found when excavations reached formation level.On-site archaeologists from Exeter City Council also believe that there are the remains of a graveyard and a hospital somewhere beneath the buildings.
Trial pits in possible locations have so far found nothing but, as floor slabs are lifted up, archaeologists are present to check whether remnants of Roman Exeter lie beneath.
The greatest archaeological impact comes from the network of tunnels running underneath the town, passing beneath three buildings on site.
Dating from the 14th century, the medieval passages were built to bring in fresh water from the springs in fields outside the city walls.The Victorians updated the tunnels with brick arches housing lead pipes.Visitors are able to explore certain areas of the passageways and local legends tell tales of buried treasure, secret escape routes, walkways for nuns and priests and even a ghost on a bicycle.
Extensive surveys have been carried out to ensure that the structures that run under the site will not be damaged.'I've read a lot of figures about how deep the tunnels run, ' says Mr Williams, 'everything from 600 to 900 mm.
They're not very deep and we have to be careful.We're working with structural engineers to design additional propping within the tunnels while we demolish and we'll be monitoring vibration to make sure it doesn't reach damaging levels.'
Wring was also required to save many items of historic interest, from statues and wall plaques to park benches, so that they can be restored after the development is finished.
As well as archaeological implications, environmental concerns are paramount as works are taking place in the very centre of the city's bustling shopping district.
'There's no way to do this job without creating some dust, noise and extra traffic, ' says Mr Williams.Noise and dust levels are monitored when the site is open, between 8 am and 6 pm.
'The limitations of being in town don't affect our working hours at this time of year, but they will do as we move into summer, ' he continues.
The traffic management system ensures that the 60 muck-away lorries that visit the site every day keep out of the public's way as much as possible, although they are only allowed to visit the site between 8 am and 5 pm.
'On the surface it seems a bit silly that we stop working when the city centre shuts too, but you cannot change the rules for one exception, ' explains Mr Williams.
The project is a very public one - not only is it located right in the centre of town but there has long been discussion about the need to regenerate the area.
'Ninety per cent of people are pleased to see it go, ' says Mr Wring.'Ten per cent don't like change.'
Mr Williams believes that good site housekeeping is the way to keep the public happy.'If you sort those environmental implications, PR looks after itself.'
Mr Wring has dreamt up a novel method of dealing with dust issues.He has just purchased the company's second old-fashioned fire engine, which is being used to damp down the site.'It took me four months to find, but it only cost £5,000, ' he says.
An asbestos survey revealed about 100 tonnes of the material on site - not a huge amount considering the scale of the works, but very spread out.The removal teams move around the site ahead of the rest of the programme, removing fire boards and floor tiles.
The company generally recycles 85 per cent of waste from sites, and it is aiming to raise this total.
'Glass is the big issue at the moment, as they prefer it to be separated out of recycled aggregate now, ' says Mr Wring.'It is usually a problem to reclaim, but we've managed to recycle lots of it from this site.There were so many shop fronts that we got a local firm to come and take them out.'
He's also pleased that rises in steel price have slowed down.'It's a relief.
In some ways, it seemed beneficial to us.We'd tender a job with the reclaimed steel credited at one level in the account, but the price would have rocketed by the time we got on site. But it's all swings and roundabouts - buckets and other extras got much more expensive.Grabs have doubled in price in the last two years.'
Exeter is a hotbed of work for Wring at the moment.The firm is nearing the close of another £1.5 million contract to demolish five schools.
'They build the new schools on the old football pitches, and then we demolish the old buildings, ' says Mr Wring.'It's a big year in Exeter at the moment.We're doing about 70 per cent of the demolition around here.'
The high level of public interest in this particular job has manifested itself in different ways - as well as public consultation and discussion boards on the city council's website, the local school children have been impressed by the demolition plant in action.
'They're there every lunchtime, staring, ' says Mr Wring.'I feel like we should build them a stand or something! People are fascinated by demolition - they're always asking if we still use a crane and ball.
Princesshay is a 53,000 sq m mixed-use scheme in the heart of Exeter. Land Securities' £200 million development will comprise a range of shops, centring on a flagship Debenhams store, and will also include residential apartments, cafes, bars, restaurants and public spaces.
The scheme is designed to regenerate a rundown area of the city centre, providing better facilities and access to its historical area.
Refurbishment works to buildings started at the beginning of the year and the entire scheme is slated to be finished in time for the 2007 Christmas shopping period.
The medieval almshouses and the City Wall will be made more accessible by the demolition of some existing buildings, and views of the famous Cathedral will also be improved.
There will be new Heritage and Tourist Information Centres and the total amount of public space will increase by 1,600 sq m.
Keeping it in the family
BROTHERS Dean and John Wring have demolition in their blood.The company was started in 1926 by their grandfather Joe Wring.He started SJ Wring Transport with a horse and cart, and extended into mechanical haulage, being the first contractor in Bristol and the south-west to carry out work at a fixed price.Their father took over the then subsidiary demolition arm.
Now the group carries out demolition, asbestos removal, contaminated site reclamation, facade restraint on listed buildings, plant hire and haulage. Since 2000, when operations director Dean (above) and commercial director John bought their uncle out, the group has expanded by 400 per cent.
'We wanted to expand.We didn't really expect such extensive growth, but you can't avoid it, ' says Dean Wring.'If you impress clients, jobs get bigger, and because demolition jobs start very quickly, you have to expand to keep up.You have to keep a walking pace, though. If you force too much investment, it becomes an animal you have to feed.'
Wring Group remains a family business, and Mr Wring grew up around demolition.However, he also grew up around rugby union, and having played the sport since he was nine years old, he took two years out to play at centre for home town club Bristol in the early years of professionalism.
Now back in the fold, business is booming.
'We have 14 projects in a 100-mile radius.We tend to stick to the south-west, but we have worked outside that area.We actually priced the work on Beirut airport, but we couldn't get insurance for our machines. It's a problem facing all British contractors.'
The next step is to expand into waste recycling.'We'd like to have our own recycling centres, ' says Mr Wring.'Due to the landfill legislation, everyone is trying to recycle more. It's a lot of work to get the system going, though.'
Expanding the fleet
WRING Group decided that the size of the Exeter project justified spending £590,000 on new plant to boost its fleet.
HM Plant was the only company who could guarantee the two machines the firm required in one month - the time limit set by the contractor.'They've been brilliant, ' says Dean Wring.'They bent over backwards to get this contract, and have got us specialist rigs with every conceivable extra in a brief time.'
HM Plant imported a Hitachi Zaxis 350 long-reach excavator and a Zaxis 650 H down to the Princesshay site.
'The 350 was chosen because it has 20 m high-reach equipment, as well as a modular joint allowing it to change between high-reach equipment and a standard excavator front, ' says Andy Baker, HM Plant operations director.'It can have a 2 m extension fitted, going up to 22 m, which is unusual for a machine of that size.'
It is also the first new 100 per cent Hitachi manufactured high-reach machine sold in the UK. Previously machines have been modified by other companies.
'The 650 is a much bigger machine, primarily to be used with a pulveriser for ripping up concrete bases. It's fitted with a standard H-configuration excavator front.'
Wring is having 35 m telescopic equipment manufactured for the 650 by Kocurek, which will be fitted in July.
HM Plant had only one month between receiving the order and the date the plant was required on site.
'Fortunately, we had a 650 to the required specification in stock in Amsterdam, 'Mr Baker explains.'So it was just a matter of getting it shipped up to our plant at Hebburn in Tyne and Wear to get it modified.'
The machine was fitted with additional hydraulic circuits and valves were checked.
At the time of order, the 350 was in transit between Japan and Amsterdam for stock - a lucky break as that process takes six to eight weeks.The configuration of the operating controls had to be altered from the standard Hitachi foot-operated system to the hand-operated alternative preferred on Wring's fleet.
'There's a big demand for this type of plant at the moment in the south-west, ' explains Mr Baker.'There's so much inner city regeneration, especially around Exeter and Plymouth.'