Comment – Someone else’s problem…

Mark Anthony
This time last week, I received an email from an MSc Building Surveying student from Kingston University who is currently writing her dissertation on “designing for ‘end-of-life’ of high-rise buildings in London”. She wanted to pick my brains on the subject; a process that could be completed in a matter of seconds. I explained that I am but a mere journalist but – having written Rise of the Super Towers – the brain-picking went ahead anyway.

The resulting conversation wound up lasting almost an hour and a half and covered a multitude of subjects including the challenge of demolishing increasingly high tower blocks, the use of hard or impossible to recycle materials, the 911 tragedy, Grenfell Tower and – weirdly – the pyramids.
During our discussion, I was struck constantly by just how smart and insightful this young lady was. Not in a patronising “oh isn’t the little lady clever” way; more in a “why isn’t she in charge of government policy” way. Even though she was asking the questions, it seemed that she already had most of the answers.

All of which set me thinking about how it is that a young student can identify a significant future challenge when central and local government, planning authorities, architects, specifiers, clients and construction companies cannot. By the time we hung up the phone, I think we had deduced the problem that lies within the problem. And ironically, it seems that the problem will remain a problem all the while it is someone else’s problem.

An architect designing a shiny new central London tower block is seeking to create something that marries form and function but which also carries his or her design aesthetic. The specifier that then takes that creation is likely enamoured with sexy new materials that are thermally efficient, fire retardant and kind to bees. The construction company tasked with taking that design and those materials and making flesh the architect’s vision a reality is generally chosen based upon price and wants to get that high rise finished so they can get paid. Meanwhile, the local authority is just happy to see additional housing or office space going up in their backyard. National government can point to the positivity of this inward investment, and to the accommodation or employment that this shiny new edifice will bring. And the client will be busily rubbing their hands together in eager anticipation of financial windfall that is about to drop.

As you can see, there are multiple layers of stakeholders involved in bringing this imaginary tower block to life and to grace the London skyline.
You will note that at no point during this fictional new development was there any mention of demolition or of what might happen in 20, 30 or 40 years’ time when the building reaches the end of its viable life. You will note also that, to varying degrees, any legacy responsibility for that building begins and ends when construction ends and its occupation begins. Unless it falls down, makes its occupants sick, or is found to be melting the paint on cars parked close by, that building is now someone else’s problem. Ultimately, it is the demolition man or woman’s problem.

It is the demolition industry that will have to figure out how to tackle the bizarre shape of the building created by the architect. It is the demolition industry that will have to figure out how or even if the “super-materials” specified can be reused, repurposed or recycled. It is the demolition industry that will have to devise a way to deconstruct a massive building that was thrown up by the lowest bidder. And it is the demolition industry that will have to accomplish all this whilst conforming to safety and environmental legislation to satisfy national government; and bring down the building without closing a road, creating noise, dust or vibration, within specific hours of the day, and without disturbing the single great crested newt that has taken up residence in the buildings fire suppression plumbing, and – thereby – avoid falling foul of local government restrictions.

In short, those involved in the creation of a new tower block can wash their hands of the building as soon as the curtain go up inside. It is demolition that will have to get its hands dirty to deal with that creation. And demolition will be required to do so with those dirty hands tied tightly behind its back.

Frustrating though this is, it is also entirely understandable. Those companies and individuals involved in the building’s design and construction will have long since moved on when the time comes for their creation to be demolished. Many will have retired. This is exacerbated at local and national government level as, in all likelihood, those involved at the point of conception and construction will have been voted out or up long before that building reaches the end of its useful life.

Yet for all of this, I firmly believe that the demolition sector is partly responsible for the failure to build for future demolition; that it is an architect of its own challenging future.

Nothing I said to the super-smart young student and nothing I have written here is in an way new. People like Dr Terry Quarmby have been banging the “end of life directive” drum so hard and for so long that its beat has now become background noise, even though it marries perfectly with modern legacy and sustainability thinking.

Demolition’s problem is not that it is not talking about this subject. It is that it is talking to itself about it.

There was a time when the National Federation of Demolition Contractors (NFDC) had one or two tame members of parliament that – in return for a posh lunch and the chance to socialise with some rufty-tufty demolition men, could be called upon to fight demolition’s corner and to lobby to make demolition’s life better or easier. To the best of my knowledge, this is no longer the case. While construction has expanded and deepened its lobbying power, the UK’s demolition trade body has surrendered theirs.

The NFDC is represented within Build UK, an association most of the nation’s biggest and most influential Tier 1 construction companies. But the Federation’s aim is to encourage Build UK members to work with its members, a position that renders the NFDC an obedient lapdog that will jump through hoops to satisfy its much larger master. (If you think I am overstating the imbalance of that relationship, consider this. Just a few weeks after Build UK was forced to admit that NONE of its members had adhered to its own late payment initiative, the organisation’s head was invited to speak at the NFDC AGM in front of an audience of the very people that were being financially crucified by tardy payments by those Tier 1 contractors. And she had the temerity to suggest that her members needed the help of those in attendance to make payments on time. In a balanced relationship, she would have been held to account. She received a round of applause.)

The NFDC also has a place on the board of the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB), affording another opportunity to possibly influence the future direction of the sector. But with CITB grant funding at stake, any such influence is seemingly compromised, leaving the demolition sector with a training regime that is overblown, overly-complex, over-priced and over here.

In a normal world, the Institute of Demolition Engineers (IDE) hosts a pair of seminars that have traditionally demonstrated the very best of demolition. Those seminars are an opportunity to showcase the sector’s prowess and to share its challenges and concerns with a wider audience. But, in recent years, attendees from outside the demolition sector have been notable by their absence, leaving the industry to talk to itself once again.

This ongoing failure to engage, to lead and to influence will make no difference whatsoever to local and national government. It will make no difference to architects, specifiers, construction companies or clients. The only people that will be impacted are the demolition men and women of the future.

Our failure to make our voices heard today is annoying and frustrating. That failure will be a far bigger problem in the years and decades to come; a problem for someone else to resolve. Now doesn’t that sound familiar.