Our series on specialist markets continues, this time with analysis of the piling sector’s lead times and costs from Gary Bibby of Gardiner & Theobald. Plus, Robin Wood of Cementation Foundations Skanska talks about the latest trends in the piling market

Market overview

In comparison with four years ago, the general buoyancy of the piling market in the south of England has been getting gradually quieter as many large-scale projects, including the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, have drawn to a close. In turn, this has led to increased competition within the sector and promoted consolidation. Some of the larger players have struggled to remain commercially afloat and have downsized by selling off some large-scale associated plant.

In addition, there has been a down-shifting effect, with contractors that are conventionally geared up for larger scale projects bidding for medium-sized projects. This in turn has pushed the medium-sized players into the smaller project market, with the effect of leaving the smaller companies with no orders in their books, forcing them out of the market altogether.

Despite these trends, the lead times for piling have generally remained unchanged at an average of about five to six weeks. But in some cases, the shortening of lead times has been promoted to gain competitive advantages. The reduced volume of work means that plant has become readily available. Throughout some of the harder times, contractors have been forced occasionally to bid for work with very low profit margins in order to maintain their plant investments.

Throughout these relatively slow times, there has been no shortage of enquiries regarding budgets for piling works, indicating that there have been projects waiting for a turn in the market. Although there is still a large element of slippage in these projects, it is predicted that major schemes such as the London Bridge School, and London’s Elephant & Castle regeneration scheme and Heron Tower will be on line by 2005, making the sector once again buoyant. There is also potential for future work associated with the London bid for the 2012 Olympics.

Outside London, where the struggle for land is less of a problem, the sector has remained relatively buoyant, with obvious hotspots in areas where regeneration is taking place, such as Newcastle, Manchester and Leeds. This is set to continue as the emergence of larger schemes spreads from the South. A concern with this anticipated rise in work is that during the relatively slow period, there has been a lack of recruitment, training and retention of good, experienced staff leading to a general labour force shortage. There are also concerns that as the work in the South picks up, buoyancy in the other regions will begin to fall.

Hot topics

Sustainability in piling

With the ever increasing popularity of sustainable solutions in construction, more and more sectors are looking to work towards proposed “green goals”. Piling is no exception, as the development of geothermal piling proves.

This process involves using cast in-situ piles – in addition to their load-bearing role – as conduits for pipework systems that tap into the temperature zones deep below a building. Because these zones remain at a constant temperature, approximately 13°C, the use of geothermal piles coupled with heat exchangers can assist the heating/cooling systems. This process has the potential to significantly reduce the energy required.

Rear visibility on piling rigs

Regulation 28 of the Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998 states: “Every employer shall ensure that, where self-propelled work equipment may, while in motion, involve risk to the safety of persons where the driver’s direct field of vision is inadequate to ensure safety, there are adequate devices for improving his vision as far as reasonably practicable”.

Principal contractors have accepted that secondary mirrors and CCTV monitoring are an adequate method of compliance with this regulation. However, the Federation of Piling Specialists’ (FPS) safety and training forum argues that the tried-and-tested use of a banksman to oversee the operation is still the best way to manage this risk and this is still the method favoured throughout the sector.


The FPS is against the practice of withholding retentions, a subject currently the topic of much debate. The federation adopted the following policy at its AGM in February 2003: “In line with the House of Commons trade and industry committee report on the use of retentions within the construction industry, the FPS agrees that the withholding of retentions is an outdated practice, which should not be necessary in a modern, productive industry that delivers a high-quality product … It is FPS policy that members are free to negotiate their own contract terms and that they should continue to offer alternatives to cash retentions.”

As a result of this, it is now commonplace within the market for contractors to provide a retention bond in lieu of being subject to retention under the contract.

Specialist Q&A

Cementation Foundations Skanska is one of several ground engineering businesses within contractor Skanska, making it one of the biggest foundation organisations in the world. The company operates worldwide on projects from soil nails to diaphragm walls. Here we talk to managing director Robin Wood.

Robin Wood
Robin Wood

What type of projects does Cementation Foundations work on?

At the moment we’re working on retail schemes such as White City with contractor Multiplex, and purely commercial London schemes such as No1 Bankside with Bovis Lend Lease and Land Securities. We also have a five-year framework deal with London Underground PPP consortium Tube Lines, and are working on some large PFI schemes, both with Skanska and other PFI contractors.

Is the piling market healthy at the moment?

At this time of year, when people have been away over the summer, you often find that the start date of some jobs slips a few weeks while you wait for the decision-making team to be assembled. And because we’re the contractor that starts on site first, any delay in putting together the team has an impact on our start date – the project only starts when we are on site. Two summers ago, the market had a real spurt, when it was quite silly for six months. Since then it has settled quite softly down to where it is now.

Who are the main players in the piling arena?

There are three multinational players: Cementation, Bachy Soletanche, and Keller. Then there are companies that are very strong in the UK such as Stent Foundations. Also, there are those medium-sized firms that are associated with larger companies: firms such as Norwest Holst and Laing O’Rourke have in-house piling operations. Finally there are the niche players such as Fondedile, with specialist operations.

What are the benefits of working internationally?

The Skanska Foundation Group is run as a virtual company. It allows knowledge transfer between different countries so that we can bring a particular skills base from one part of the company to support another part in another country. I’m in Amsterdam at the moment, where we are working on the new $1bn north–south metro line. Hopefully, working on this project overseas will help sharpen our skills ready for when Crossrail eventually gets under way in London.

One of the key issues for piling contractors is health and safety, and in particular the use of CCTV in place of a banksman for reversing a rig. Does Cementation still use banksmen?

I cannot see one of our piling rigs let loose without a banksman – he is the eyes of the rig operator at all times. As an organisation we are putting a huge effort into health and safety. We’ve even brought on board the same team of people that Bovis have used for their incident- and injury-free (IIF) approach. We have put our house in order as far as procedural issues go for safety. The challenge for us now is to address the behavioural issues to improve safety still further.

What are the latest developments in the piling industry?

The last step-change in technology was the continuous flight auger. The technique of using screw piling is becoming more popular, but the method has been around for a long time – it is just that it has been gradually refined over the years. Some of the new high-rise developments in London are going to put more and more stress and strain on a building’s foundations and piles. There are a lot of people looking at ways to squeeze out every bit of extra capacity from piling schemes at the moment.

Is there any merit in a piling contractor getting involved early in a project?

Yes, the earlier we’re involved, the more likely it is that we can undertake real value engineering on a project.

Are retentions still an issue for piling specialists?

There is no common policy on retention; we will try to persuade clients not hold on to retentions as we beleive this is an outdated practice.

What is the key issue currently affecting the piling industry?

Recruitment and the retention of appropriate staff is getting harder and harder. A problem for piling contractors is that piling is a transient business at site level, which creates particular recruitment issues. There are not that many people looking for a job that will take them away from home from Sunday night through to Friday night. To overcome this problem at Skanska, we are working to make our workforce multiskilled nationally. In the future, when we have a piling project in Wales for example, we can use a trained Welsh workforce, which has the advantage for them that they can return home each evening after work.


The decision on a procurement route depends on the nature and complexity of each project. Also, consultants and contractors tend to have different preferred routes.

The ideal procurement scenario for a piling contractor

  • Direct contact with the client to ensure the best design and most appropriate piling technique
  • Early involvement in a project to explore all piling options and methodologies
  • Provision of a good site investigation report to highlight potential problem areas.

The ideal procurement scenario for a consulting engineer

  • Having a specialist engineer to design a piling solution that is not limited to one specialist contractor, in order to ensure competition between contractors at the tender stage
  • Responsibility for the design going to a single party to ensure it is co-ordinated between the structural and geotechnical engineers
  • The piling contractor being involved at an early stage for guidance on the latest piling methodology and techniques
  • A good site investigation report being made available.

Calculating risk

At tender stage, contractors will carry out a tender risk assessment. Each identified risk should have some measure of risk probability, impact and a proposal for management of that risk.

A typical piling contractor’s tender risk assessment would identify:

  • Site constraints: includes access, working space, headroom, obstructions, site topography
  • Safety and environment: includes safety, working hours, noise and vibration restrictions, ventilation, road cleaning, pile platform
  • Specification: includes tolerances, depth limits, technique, watertightness, settlement, testing
  • Ground conditions: includes site investigation, hard or soft dig, obstructions, water level, sulphates, salts, contamination, mining activities, voids in chalk, excessive overbreak
  • Design: includes adequacy of information, safety factors, settlement and suitability of design, alternatives
  • Programme: includes anticipated lead time, plant and labour availability, design time, permits, method statements, sectional completion milestones, holiday periods, working hours, material availability, interfaces, contractor workload
  • Contract and pricing: includes adequacy of documents, scope of work, ground risk, lump sum or guaranteed maximum price, applicable damages, interfaces, extension of time risks, payment terms, retention/bonds/ guarantees, credit-worthiness, fixed price period, shared cost savings
  • Miscellaneous: includes aggregate tax, landfill tax, inflation, material market instability, new legislation.

Procurement options

  • Design and build: piling contractors are given the design parameters (pile loadings; soil conditions from the soil investigation report; pile positions and so on). The contractor’s responsibility is to design the most efficient and risk-free solution, which will provide the client with the optimum design in terms of cost or time or both. This makes it essential that the piling specialist selected is capable of installing a range of piling solutions.
  • Traditional procurement: the independence of the design and its responsibility remains with the consulting engineer. A small number of design engineers still insist on designing pile solutions – however, experience has shown that the consulting engineer’s solution may not be the optimum. This can result in the contractor requesting that the technique is changed to save the client time and money.

Piling times for cast in-situ concrete

Generally contractors bore the hole for a pile in the morning, and cast or install the pile itself that afternoon. Normally a pile must be bored and cast in a day since a pile cannot be left open or partially cast because of the risk of collapse and for health and safety reasons.

Unknown ground obstructions can cause delays as the obstruction is removed or the bore driven through it. With some obstacles, the pile will have to be abandoned, back filled, and a new pile started.

Assuming there are no obstructions and there is a 15 m depth, typical piling rates are:

  • 600 mm diameter – up to five piles per day per rig
  • 900 mm diameter – up to three piles/day/rig
  • 1200 mm diameter – up to two piles/day/rig
  • 1500 mm diameter – up to 1.5 piles/day/rig
  • 1800 mm diameter – one pile/day/rig

Market players

There are various types of piling systems, and piling contractors do not have the ability or plant to carry out all types of piling.

The Federation of Piling Specialists is the representative organisation for piling contractors. The FPS website (www.fps.org.uk) lists approved members for each piling technique. All members are said to have been assessed by an independent auditor to ensure high standards of technical ability, quality management, safety, training and environmental commitment.

Aarsleff Piling
Hawton Lane, Balderton, Newark, Nottinghamshire, NG24 3BU
Tel: 01636 611 140
Fax: 01636 611 142
Email: piling@aarsleff.co.uk
Website: www.aarsleff.co.uk

Bachy Soletanche
Foundation Court, Godalming Business Centre, Cateshall Lane, Godalming, Surrey, GU7 1XW
Tel: 01483 427 311
Fax: 01483 417 021
Email: geotech@bacsol.co.uk
Website: www.bacsol.co.uk

Cementation Foundations Skanska
Maple Cross House, Denham Way, Maple Cross, Rickmansworth, Herts, WD3 2SW
Tel: 01923 423 100
Fax: 01923 777 834
Website: www.cementationfoundations.skanska.co.uk

Dew Construction
PO Box 35, Featherstall Road, South, Oldham, Lancashire, OL9 6HH
Tel: 0161 624 5631
Fax: 0161 678 0289
Email: piling@dewpitchmastic.co.uk
Website: www.dewpitchmastic.co.uk

The Expanded Piling Company
Cheapside Works, Waltham, Grimsby, DN37 0JD
Tel: 01472 822 552
Fax: 01472 220 675
Email: general@expandedpiling.com
Website: www.expandedpiling.com

FK Lowry (Piling)
5 Pond Park Road, East Lisburn, BT28 3RQ
Tel: 02892 501 470
Fax: 02892 501 471
Email: fkpiling@lagan-group.com
Website: www.fklowry.co.uk

Fondedile Foundations
Eaton Court, Marylands Avenue, Hemel HempsteadHertfordshire HP2 7TR
Tel: 01442 281 280
Fax:01442 241 628
Email: enquiries@fondedile-foundations.ltd.uk
Website: www.fondedile-foundations.ltd.uk

Oxford Road, Ryton on Dunsmore, Coventry, CV8 3EG
Tel: 024 76511266024
Fax: 76305230
Email: info@keller-ge.co.uk
Website: www.keller-ge.co.uk

May Gurney
Trowse, Norwich, Norfolk, NR14 8SZ
Tel: 01603 727 272
Fax: 01603 727 402
Email: piling@maygurney.co.uk
Website: www.maygurney.co.uk

Mowlem Piling & Foundations
Foundation House, Eastern Road, Bracknell, Berkshire RG12 2UZ
Tel: 01344 426 826
Fax: 01344 742 095
Email: daphne.devine@mowlem.com

Pennine Vibropiling
New Line, Bacup, Lancs, OL13 9RW
Tel: 01706 877555
Fax: 01706 879754
Email: vibro@pennine-group.co.uk
Website: www.pennine-group.co.uk

Piling Solutions
Old School Hall, Well Street, Bury St Edmunds, IP33 1EQ
Tel: 01284 766 333
Fax: 01284 749 930
Email: info@pilingsolutions.co.uk
Website: www.pilingsolutions.co.uk

Rock and Alluvium
SBC House, Restmore Way, Wallington, Surrey SM6 7AH
Tel: 020 8255 2088
Fax: 020 8241 6934
Email: enquiries@rockal.com
Website: www.rockal.com

Roger Bullivant
Walton Road, Drakelow, Burton on Trent, DE15 9UA
Tel: 01283 511115
Fax: 01283 511866
Email: marketing@roger-bullivant.co.uk
Website: www.roger-bullivant.co.uk

Simplex Piling
Pyebridge Industrial Estate, Main Road, Pyebridge, Nr Alfreton, DE55 4NX
Tel: 01773 606 006
Fax: 01773 606 106
Email: info@simplex-foundations.co.uk
Website: www.soil-engineering.co.uk

Stent Foundations
Pavilion C2, Ashwood Park, Ashford Way, Basingstoke, RG23 8BG
Tel: 01256 400 200
Fax: 01256 400 201
Website: www.stent.co.uk

Old Scarva Road, Tandragee, Co. Armagh, BT62 2ED
Tel: 028 3884 1765
Fax: 028 3884 1815
Email: info@taranto.co.uk
Website: www.taranto.co.uk

Van Elle Piling
Kirkby Lane, PinxtonNottinghamshire, NG16 6JA
Tel: 01773 580580
Fax: 01773 862100
Email: info@van-elle.co.uk
Website: www.van-elle.co.uk

Dolphin Bridge House, Rockingham Road, Uxbridge, Middlesex UB8 2UB
Tel: 01895 258266
Fax: 01895 271805
Email: estimating@westpile.co.uk
Website: www.westpile.co.uk