Infrastructure in 2014: A matter of collaboration
The temporary works sector has increased its engineering capability to meet the demands of complex projects.
The UK’s temporary works sector is recognised as being engineering-led, innovative and able to respond to the challenges of even the most complex architectural and structural designs. Despite the push for more off site construction, these skills are likely to be as much in demand as ever in the years ahead, coupled with a requirement that sites are safer and more productive.
“Construction in the UK has always been a very traditional engineering-focused industry, and we have some very experienced engineers. The Olympics really showed the nation’s engineering skill,” says RMD Kwikform regional director Roger Bafico, who adds that temporary works is part of that engineering-focused tradition.
Bafico says the biggest push on the temporary works sector is for jobs to be done as efficiently as possible, with fewer operatives but without compromising safety. “Contractors are looking at any cost you can take out while maintaining safety,” he says. “The need to do it with less men, and the only way you can do that is with innovation in formwork and temporary works techniques.”
Like many firms within the supply chain, RMD sees the best opportunities for taking costs out of the construction process being achieved by earlier engagement in the process, as well as by looking at the whole project cost, not just the initial cost of individual elements. “It’s all about the overall price for the job, not about ‘how cheap is this bit of kit?’,” says Bafico. “There is no point in having a bit of kit that’s very cheap but takes a lot of labour to put together.
“The industry needs to change from an attitude of ‘I’ve won the job, now what am I going to do?’ to one of getting the key players involved early on,” he continues.
Traditionally, says Bafico, contractors contact temporary works suppliers once the design is finalised, asking them to quote for whatever formwork, falsework or propping is needed to facilitate the building of that design. But involvement with a specialist earlier in the process could result in slight changes to the permanent works that make the temporary works much easier - and cheaper in the long run.
He says RMD has had some success in this area, working on concrete gravity bases for wind turbines: “We were involved very early, so were able to suggest different formwork solutions to save money by changing the structure itself. They see formwork as being very labour intensive, so wanted ways to make that process more streamlined.”
“The industry needs to change from an attitude of ‘I’ve won the job, now what am I going to do?’ to one of getting the key players involved early on”
Roger Bafico, RMD Kwikform
In general, though, while there is a lot of talk about early engagement, Bafico says that, “in reality, at the front line, it’s not happening”.
He adds that this is, in part, because of the hierarchical nature of the industry, with the subcontractor in the middle. “What we would want in order for real innovation is for the three of us - the contractor, subcontractor and supplier - to get together and all help each other,” says Bafico, who thinks the widespread introduction of building information modelling (BIM) may provide an opportunity for the supply chain to get more involved in the early stages of major projects. “The whole project will be going through that process, so it should be possible to identify problems early on,” he says.
Early involvement may be even more essential in the future, as Bafico says he is seeing a trend for contractors to tackle bigger and bigger jobs. Examples include residential developments that would previously have been built in separate phases now being built in one go.
“Traditionally, they would do one phase at a time, or one area at a time or one building at a time,” he explains. “Now they want to do it all at once, which puts pressure on formwork companies to have the right stock.”
Another recent trend is for contractors to reduce their own temporary works capabilities and rely more on their suppliers to do the detailed design work. “Because of the recession, more and more contractors have changed their temporary works offices so that they are more about checking than original designs,” explains Bafico, who says that RMD has increased its design force greatly over the last couple of years to respond to this trend.
RMD Kwikform engineering director Ian Fryer adds that when he first joined the company all the large contractors had substantial temporary works offices. “Over the years the numbers have gradually dwindled; and the number of engineers on site willing to design temporary works has reduced; and the number of time served joiner foremen has reduced,” he says. “So the level of skill on site has reduced and, as a result, the industry is relying much more heavily on suppliers.”
However, Fryer warns contractors that, ultimately, they may have to start paying for the engineering expertise that firms like RMD provide. “There is a huge cost associated with the design and detailing of temporary works,” he says. “For the majority of schemes there is some engineering involved, and someone has to pay for the engineering.”
At the moment, contractors just pay a hire charge for temporary works equipment, and on some jobs the level of engineering expertise required to work out what is needed may not be reflected in the rate the company can charge for that equipment.
“Because we are being asked to take many more risks and work on many more demanding projects, we are considering phasing in design charging on some of the higher risk jobs,” says Fryer.
He says the amount of engineering input is only set to increase as more clients want temporary works designed in accordance with Eurocodes. “The analysis of temporary works systems demanded within Eurocodes can be much more complicated than previous codes,” says Fryer.
The temporary works industry is currently trying to agree common practices for designing to the relevant Eurocodes, but it does demand a very different approach, according to Fryer. “Proprietary temporary works equipment is like a huge kit of Meccano - standard systems of parts that can be put together in thousands of different ways,” he explains. “Historically we have published allowable working loads, because people on site want to know how much load they can put on a prop, for example.
“Eurocodes revolve around use of the characteristic strength of the equipment, but that is the ultimate load. We don’t want to publish that information, because some people on site could assume it is the load they could apply.”
Whatever happens, however, Fryer says RMD’s objective is to “make it so that the finished temporary works solution is no more difficult for the customer to use whilst complying with required design codes”.
RMD Kwikform regional director Roger Bafico says the company is continually reviewing its extensive range of products and works closely with experienced users on site during their development to make sure they will provide exactly what the contractors are looking for.
He says that the firm’s new Ascent safety screen system was a great example of this. “We tried out the new product with the contractor, then we listened to what they said and made some changes that made the difference,” he explains. “We do that a lot - we try to involve others, including the equipment manufacturers and the people on the ground who are going to be using the equipment.
“We always try to put new equipment on a site to try it out - the end user has so much to bring to the party.”