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Innovation underpins the rise of Bullivant


It may have taken his entire career to develop it but Roger Bullivant looks set to nally launch what he claims will be a revolution in housing foundations.

Alasdair Reisner discovers why this may prove to be the most protable in a long line of Mr Bullivant's innovations

SCANDALOUS. Totally unacceptable. An out-andout tragedy.

These are all words used by Roger Bullivant to describe the blight caused to homeowners by subsidence in the early 1970s. Back then homes nationwide were displaying a worrying tendency to sink as the soil beneath them shrank in dry weather.

The fact that insurance companies did not cover this risk left people in the terrifying fear of seeing their most valuable asset fail with no chance of compensation.

The seriousness of the situation was highlighted by a spate of suicides among those whose homes were affected.

'It was a salutary experience for me, ' says Mr Bullivant. 'I was going out there and seeing a huge number of homes that were totally and utterly destroyed. If your house is broken you can't sell it. You can't move away from the problem. There is no recompense. It was a human disaster. It wouldn't reach the papers but it was chronic. We were seeing it every week. It was sickening.' Yet out of this troubled ground grew the early shoots of Mr Bullivant's business. Having left his job at Clugston in 1971 Mr Bullivant set up the company that now carries his name.

Initially the firm was a general building and civil engineering contractor, finding a niche role grouting up new oil and gas pipelines. It was this grouting expertise that would see the first stage in the expansion of what is now a £100 million business. Mr Bullivant approached the National House-Building Council, offering to grout under homes that had suffered from subsidence, reversing its effects. By that time insurance companies had started to cover subsidence risk, opening up a market worth hundreds of millions of pounds a year for any firm with a viable cure.

'Using existing methods these houses used to be under repair for between 13 and 20 weeks. People used to have to live in caravans or hotels. We pumped grout into the foundations and the result was dramatic.

The floor would rise like a pudding and the slab would lift up. All the internal walls would lift and the roof would straighten, ' says Mr Bullivant.

But as an engineer Mr Bullivant recognised this was sometimes just a 'quick fix'. He was honest enough to admit that the same problems could rear their heads again if further subsidence occurred.

His solution, endorsed by the NHBC, was to use a minipiling rig to pin pile the homes after grouting, securing against further movements.

Not everyone was pleased with this development.

'For us it was a significant technical breakthrough but we were criticised quite severely for what others thought was overkill, ' says Mr Bullivant.

Time and results would prove Mr Bullivant right.

From a £3 m illion business in 1983 the firm doubled in size on an annual basis for the next three or four years on the back of this underpinning work.

But Mr Bullivant remained troubled by the fact that such problems could arise in the first place. Surely it was possible to come up with a foundat ion system that prevented them. Resolving this question has occupied his mind ever since.

Fortunately as a company Roger Bullivant was well placed to come up with some of the processes, materials and equipment that would help it overcome the problem. Since it was established Mr Bullivant has enforced a strict regime of reinvestment that has seen around 3 per cent of profits ploughed back into research and development, far more than many main contractors.

In 1987 this investment paid dividends, with the introduction of the precast pile for the housing market.

It could not have come at a better time. By the start of the 1990s insurance companies were looking at the huge payouts they were mak ing on subsidence claims and began to pull the reins in.

Underpinning work, at that point Bullivant's bread and butter, dropped from an estimated £500 million nationwide in 1991 to just £100 million in 1992.

'It was also inevitable that, working through the broken stock as we were, it would dry up, ' says Mr Bullivant. 'That has happened and what was once a vibrant industry is now a mature market. So you have to find a new market. Even when you are on a rising star you have to innovate to get onto the next one. The precast pile was born out of that. Now we have 1.5 million metres of precast piles in stock. Nobody else does that in the world.' During this period the firm was also setting up a network of offices around the UK to ensure wherever the firm bid for work (and it has worked at both Land's End and in the Shetland Isles), it could do so with local knowledge.

With the precast pile taking the business to new heights, Mr Bullivant's company set about developing something to put on top of it. By the mid-1990s the firm was ready to launch its modular house foundations system, a product that offered design, manufacture, delivery and installation of a complete foundation and floor system all under one package.

But happy though Mr Bullivant was with this product, he still wanted more. As a result, and after nearly a decade of further improvements, the company is now piloting SystemFirst for Homes, a system of stainless steel foundation beams covered with polystyrene insulation and concrete floors.

'It's a super system. What it boils down to is that we are taking the prefabricated elements and constructing them on site. It is a factory produced modern method of construction that arrives on site in kit form. As a result it can be assembled quickly, which offers costeffectiveness. It can be done for the same price as existing systems but technically it outperforms them, ' says Mr Bullivant.

There is even more to come. He says th is is just one iteration of SystemFirst.

'What you can see today still has a precast concrete cap on it so it is st ill not the completed product. There is st ill more work to be done on the piled element. I think there is probably about three more stages of development to go.' While he will not go into detail of what these developments m ight be ? perhaps hoping to stay ahead of any rivals that might try to copy the system ? it is thought they might include use of new plant to speed up the installation of piles or other support systems, allowing whole foundations to be prepared much faster than currently possible.

Asked to predict the future for the SystemFirst house foundation, John Patch, director of underpinning and minipiling at Roger Bullivant, pulls no punches.

'This will be the new face of cast foundations, ' he says. 'It is economic and it will allow the construction of engineered foundations on any site. We just received our British Board of Agrément certificate this month.' 'All houses will be built like this in the future, ' adds Mr Bullivant, adding that the firm has spent £20 million developing the system to get it ready to put into the marketplace.

Mr Patch offers a ready-reckoner of the effects the new system could have on the business.

'As a share of our current turnover, housing foundations stands at £33 million. That is our growth area. If you consider that the UK builds 200,000 homes a year and the typical cost of a foundation is, say, £7,500, then you have a £1.5 billion market, ' he says.

'You could argue that we will take a third of that market ? that is not unreasonable; we have a third of the precast market ? then we are looking at business worth £500 million. That is significant amount of money for a £100 million-turnover firm.' He points out that this merely represents the potential gains in the UK. The firm has been careful to maintain global patents so the potential to export that system around the world could bring further bumper dividends.

For the time being it remains to be seen whether the firm manages to achieve these bold estimates, although Mr Bullivant says he has a habit of getting his way.

'We are confident we will achieve that. Everything I have tried to do in the past has turned out like I said it would. We have never missed a target yet, ' he says.

But there is one factor about the future Mr Bullivant cannot ignore. At some point soon he will inevitably have to hand over the reins of the business he set up to a successor as he heads off into retirement. Asked about how he thinks this will happen, Mr Bullivant goes momentarily silent as he ponders the future.

'It is ever so odd. It's a difficult one, ' he says finally.

'It's a very pertinent question. It is difficult because I thought at one time I could split the business up into its constituent parts, but it has become so complex. I don't know how you would split it.

'The point is I want to carve out a way to meet the expectations of all the people who have worked hard, the executives of the firm. I'm not really sure how to deal with it.' With the SystemFirst house foundation looking set for take-off, not to mention other innovations from the firm holding his attention ? its geothermal heating business and the small matter of the 53 ha care village he is planning to build on the site of the f irm's Burtonon-Trent headquarters, for example ? it seems likely Roger Bullivant the man will still be involved with Roger Bullivant the business for some time to come.