In July the new EU landfill directive will have a major impact on major civil engineering projects.Paul Wheeler looks at what piling firms are doing to comply with the new regulations
THE PILING sector is enjoying one of its most sustained periods of activity ever. Contractors this week variously described the market as very stable, buoyant, under control, very big, flat out, extremely busy, and holding up very well indeed.
The slowdowns forecast last autumn and again this spring have failed to materialise and, as an indicator of this intense activity, Stent has just achieved a record first-quarter turnover - up considerably on its first quarter last year, which was itself the start of a record year.
Furthermore, the outlook in the medium term remains strong.
It is rare in the piling business, where scheduling work beyond a few months is often as good as it gets, to be looking beyond the end of the year.
'We're looking to 2005 and even 2006, ' says Stent business development manager Cliff Wren.
The most buoyant sectors are housing and commercial/retail; and companies that take most of their work in these areas are in an especially strong position.
Geographically the south and particularly south-east are the hot spots. John Patch from Roger Bullivant says the development areas identified by Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, such as the Thames estuary and corridors up the M11 and M20, are noticeably busier. Scotland, too, is enjoying a boom, although the north of England and Wales, outside of Cardiff, remain comparatively quiet.
But while workloads are high, the industry has some big changes in store thanks to the impending implementation of the first part of the EU landfill directive.
From July it is estimated that the number of sites eligible for accepting contaminated materials - which, for instance, include soils containing bentonite, a common substance in piling - will drop from around 200 to a dozen.
While it is difficult to predict the detailed ramifications of this legislation, it is a fair bet that the cost of disposing of pile arisings will rocket and haulage distances to landfill sites will increase.
Any construction process that reduces lorry movements offsite will have an advantage. So displacement piles, be they conventional driven precast or the comparatively new auger displacement type, are bound to increase in popularity.
'More and more we're seeing contract specifications where zero materials offsite is a primary factor, ' says Bullivant's Mr Patch.
Equally, expect a big increase in ground improvement techniques that increase the strength and stiffness of whatever materials are in the ground by turning weak soils and fills into useable 'engineering'materials.
Keller is adding to the environmental attractiveness of one of its most popular ground improvement techniques, vibrostone columns, by using more reclaimed crushed aggregates instead of clean gravel to create stone columns.
Roger Bullivant has taken this concept a stage further. Its 'hardrock' column system uses surface-soil stabilisation techniques to create 'aggregate' on site. Bullivant improves low-grade materials by mixing in lime and cement, as in shallow-soil stabilisation. It then digs up the stabilised ground and uses this as the 'stone' in its vibro columns.
Most piling contractors see the changes brought about by the landfill directive as an opportunity, although there is a lot of uncertainty about the economics of some important foundation activities, such as large-diameter bored piling under bentonite and diaphragm walling.
The impact on basement construction could be dramatic, as basements face a double whammy because the cost of disposing of the soil dug from the excavation will also increase significantly.
The affects of the landfill directive are likely to be felt greatest at the heavier civil engineering end of the market simply because of the large quantities of materials involved, for example, in a deep large diameter bored pile.
And there aren't any obvious alternatives as displacement foundation systems have little precedent at higher loads needed in civil engineering applications.
With serendipitous timing, overcapacity at this end of the market has been eased over the last nine months by Keller pulling out of large-diameter bored piling to focus on other ground-engineering activities and the closure of Westpile and its subsequent purchase by established main player Bachy Soletanche.
THE AGE-old issue of profit remains a thorny one within the piling industry, particularly at the heavy civil engineering end of sector. Contractors argue that not only does their work require expertise and more investment in expensive specialist equipment than most other areas of construction, it also has higher risks.
Typical profit margins are a little more than two of per cent.The hope is partnering will improve this but so far few in the industry feel they have worked on truly collaborative projects.
'True partnering is fiction, being a preferred contractor is fact.And while this achieves early involvement and input into the design process, it is hard work and requires a larger commitment to resources, ' says Stent's Cliff Wren.
'Partnering is not well suited to geo-technical engineering.Our dealings are on a series of random projects, 'Martyn Singleton, Keller's business development director claims.
'Many of our clients are new and will not have another suitable job for years. It is difficult to maintain a strong on-going relationship.We have preferred bidder status with many contractors and with some we are assured a minimum volume of work for which we have a pay-back agreement.'
Stan Mimms, group marketing manager with Pennine, says many clients 'cluster' activities and geo-technical works are not sufficiently valued to be in these clusters.'As a result, geo-technical specialists are often still not involved early enough for value engineering and 'joined-up' solutions, ' he says.
Philip Woodcock, northern business development manager of Van Elle, is more upbeat.He says it creates fresh business opportunities in new sectors, helps share risks, enhances packages and encourages innovation.
Bachy Soletanche enthuses about partnering too, particularly at Heathrow's T5.
'We are involved in an increasing number of partnering agreements, 'managing director Martin Pratt says.
For now, it seems partnering is best suited to big projects.Tim Chapman, associate director with consultant Arup, says it has worked well on CTRL, where 'we have been able to work closely with the client and contractors to make the project more buildable and avoid most problems'