The evolution of demolition

By Dr Terry Quarmby24 May 2022

The demolition sector has a relatively short history in that its emergence as a specialist sector started at the end of the second world war.

The then British government headed by prime minister Winston Churchill called for contractors to take up the mantle and help clear up bomb damage.

Dr Terry Quarmby Photo: Dr Terry Quarmby

Many building contractors answered that call and switched from their historical work to focus on demolition and site clearance.

One can assume, especially in the London area, that work packages were organised and paid for from the public purse and in other instances by industrial giants wanting to reorganise and rebuild their damaged buildings and infrastructure.

What we do know for certain is that many towns, cities and ports around the United Kingdom suffered hugely from bombing and required the same work to be undertaken.

In those days and for many years following the war, contractors who specialised in demolition and dismantling worked for their clients direct rather than a larger construction specialist.

In fact, it would be the 1980s before such a practice became common place as developers and large client bodies looked to homogenise contracts and deal with one entity.

Rules and regulations for contractors

The larger builders and civil engineers who took on the role of principal contractor were quick to capitalise on this good fortune and presumably saw an opportunity to increase profits by taking on additional work and responsibility.

However, with that responsibility came the realisation that many of their preferred demolition contractors operated on a different set of work ethics and with little regard for statutory legislation.

Even in the 1980s risk assessment and method statements were not standard fare for demolishers. An in-depth understanding of the workplace regulations commonplace either.

As a result, the larger builders and civil engineers who employed a sub-contract demolition contractor did so with rigid rules set for those contractors to adhere to their instructions and policies.

Understanding the process of demolition 

Despite the number of demolition projects undertaken and successfully concluded it remains a conundrum as to why so many in the building and civil engineering sector fail to understand or grasp demolition methodology and its processes.

For many demolition contractors, it appears that clients view the act of demolition as being a necessary evil that should be undertaken as quickly as possible and dismissed from memory just as quickly.

Builders and civil engineers, in general, also fail to comprehend that to take a structure down safely and successfully there needs to be an elementary understanding of how it was erected and what its support mechanism is.

The practice of awarding one work package to one contractor who in turn will split that package into sub-contracted bundles has become routine for the construction industry.

So much so that many management contractors now take on new build projects with the intention of sub-contracting every aspect of the contract, including the demolition and site clearance work.

The major effect that this has had on demolishers is that profit margins have dramatically fallen as quotations for work are squeezed as competition with rival contractors increases.

Even if successful in their bid, margins are squeezed even more by having to accede to unrealistic demands on workplace health and safety and site rules that have been inflicted by client managers that are ignorant of demolition practices.

This has led to more demolition contractors refusing tenders initiated by the larger builders, civil engineering contractors and middle management agencies.

Many demolishers are now tendering direct to the initiating clients who comprise a large cross section of Industry, local government, government and non-governmental bodies and others.

It does mean that work opportunities may diminish, but on the plus side it allows a contractor to dictate its own work processes and manage its own affairs.

How demolition has changed

So how has the demolition sector changed from that mentioned earlier in terms of an understanding of workplace legislation and a health and safety culture? The answer is “massively”.

Over a period of 30 years the demolition industry has transformed from one of ignorance and apathy towards regulation, to being a leader in the application of workplace regulation and the arbiter of a safety culture not only on site but towards working with and in conjunction with its clients and the public.

The sector has worked with and encouraged leading plant and machinery manufacturers to develop bespoke equipment that meets the needs and desires of a modern-day demolition industry.

The plant and equipment procured by most demolition contractors is of the highest quality and reaches efficiency levels to rival any other sector. The workforce is now one of the highest trained and supervised in all industries.

Site and senior managers have access to academic institutions that provide degree courses bespoke to demolition engineering.

Can demolition contractors be trusted to take on the role of principal contractor? Thirty years ago, the answer may have been “no”.

Today it is a normal and common practice. What many demolishers are finding is that those who could traditionally be relied upon to interpret and initiate workplace regulations – large builders, civil engineering companies and middle management agents – are failing to keep abreast of the changes to legislation and modern work methods and often misquote or misinterpret those regulations within pre-construction information sent out to their sub-contractors.

The modern demolition sector and its practitioners are in a very healthy condition and continue to focus on change to meet the advancement of science and technology to make the workplace safer and more efficient.

  • Dr Terry Quarmby has been engaged in the demolition sector for 50 years. He is a former president of the United Kingdom’s Institute of Demolition Engineers.
  • You can read his article on safety in demolition here.
  • For more coverage of how a demolition contractor can step up to main contractor, see the May-June 2022 issue of Demolition & Recycling International.
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