As site agent for contractor Dean & Dyball, Beer is responsible for the construction of a £900,000 lifeboat station and visitor sundeck at the tip of the pier. The view, however, comes at a price. According to Beer, the site's isolation and exposure to the extremes of the Essex weather has made this "a job with a difference".
Bundled up in chunky sweaters to keep out the biting wind, Beer looks more like the skipper from one of the flotilla of scruffy fishing boats bobbing close to the pier than the man at the helm of a construction site. "It's very, very exposed here," he says, justifying his taste in fashion. "The wind hammers this site. There have been times when it has been in excess of force six and seven for days on end – it does start to wear you down."
Beer estimates that a total of three weeks' construction time has been lost to the extremes of the weather.
Having battled against the elements for the past five months, the 30 × 7 m lifeboat station, designed by architect Bond Design Associates for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution and Southend-on-Sea council, is now nearing completion. Its western red cedar-clad walls, punctured with porthole windows, shelter the new boathouse and the lifeboat crew's first-floor training room. A 13 m high glazed tower, known on site as "the watchtower", marks the building's rear elevation. A zinc-clad, timber-decked roof sweeps upward from the training room like a wave engulfing the second-floor control room. A gang of carpeters is assembling sections of a sustainably sourced ekki hardwood sundeck on the boathouse roof.
Reaching this stage of construction required careful co-ordination of materials delivery to the isolated site. This is all the more important since the council insisted that no construction material was to be transported along the grade II-listed 1889 pier. "Everything on this site has had to be delivered by sea," says Beer.
To ensure a regular supply, the contractor hired a boatyard a few miles upriver at the fishing village of Leigh-on-Sea. The yard was used both as a collection point and a storage space for materials before their voyage to site in a barge especially chartered for the project – weather and tides permitting.
Beer's supply vessel only docks once a fortnight. "We had to carefully plan what materials would be needed for the two weeks between deliveries," he explains. Even the office furniture had to be packed into crates and shipped to site. A small 1.5-tonne capacity crane bolted to the pier deck allowed the contents of the barge to be lifted on to the pier.
Work started on site last September with the removal of a temporary boathouse from the 1980s – built to replace an earlier lifeboat station that had been informally demolished by a ship – and the original Victorian raised sundeck, both of which had been condemned as unsafe. It was fortunate for the contractor that the section of pier on which the new building was to be erected was a later concrete addition from the 1920s, rather than part of the original timber structure, much of which had been destroyed by a catastrophic fire in 1976.
After the superstructure had been demolished, bagged and deposited in the supply barge, the first task was to strengthen the existing concrete deck. Huge I-section beams had to be fitted between the pier's concrete legs to carry the extra weight of the new building. This task was made slightly easier by the fact that the pier already had a second concrete deck beneath the main promenade – the only problem was that this deck disappeared beneath the river at high tide. By keeping one eye on the tide, it was possible for the contractor to nip beneath the pier and lift and bolt the beams into position from a scissor lift before returning to the promenade deck.
With the beams in place, construction of the boathouse itself posed no serious problems, weather conditions aside. But when it came to erecting the watchtower's steel structure, a special mini-crane had to be shipped to site.
The contractor had to source a crane small enough to be transported in sections, each weighing less than the 1.5-tonne capacity of the pier crane, so that they could be lifted from the barge. Once assembled, the crane was just tall enough to support each of the 13 m long steel columns. "Logistically, this was the hardest part of the project," says Beer.
If getting materials to site was one problem, getting men to the workplace was another. "The workforce has to catch the tourist train to the end of the pier every morning," explains Beer. But, in winter, with the pier receiving few visitors, the train runs to a limited timetable. To ensure that his workforce was on time in the morning and to save them the 1.3-mile walk back at the end of the day, Beer chartered a special train to trundle them to the exposed site at the end of the pier and back again.
It is obvious that Beer is enjoying the challenges this project has thrown at him.
The public are interested in what is happening on this site and are very positive about the scheme. "It's a high-profile project in a public place with full local support," Beer says, contrasting it with some of the road schemes he has been involved in before. Beer says this positive attitude is shared by the team on site, and in the quality of the work. "They don't get this enthusiastic about a bridge over a motorway," he says.
The lifeboat station is due to be completed by early June, with the RNLI expecting to disembark from its present temporary accommodation, later in the year. "We'll be finished here just when the weather's starting to get better," Beer sighs. For all its problems, the isolated site seems to have won him over: "It's a beautiful job, I'll be sad to leave it."