Mace continues its series on the lead times of trade packages, which are mostly unchanged or slightly shorter.
John Gravett takes a closer look at enquiries, tenders and workloads for reinforced concrete frames.
The average lead time for major concrete works is nine weeks. The primary factor determining lead times for concrete frames is materials procurement, specifically steel reinforcement (rebar), where four-week procurement times are not uncommon. Smaller projects can easily see significantly shorter lead times, with some contractors being asked to start only two weeks after appointment.
With concrete frame lead times five weeks shorter than those for steel frames, concrete contractors claim that this gives their product a major advantage. Although steel may offer faster on-site construction, concrete contractors argue that their earlier on-site start means they could reach the third or fourth storey before steel erection could even begin.
However, the present healthy levels of order times across the market, as well as limited additional capacity, suggest that lead times may extend further throughout the summer.
Looking around the skylines of our major cities, it is clear that the construction market is far stronger than it was a few years ago. Although some contributors to the Gardiner & Theobald tender price survey have reported reductions in the number of enquiries received since the beginning of the year, these have increased in value. One specialist concrete contractor reported that its “order books are already looking healthy, and turnover this year will certainly show an improvement on last, but from fewer projects”. Another suggested that its present downturn may be a result of having had virtually full order books – and had made design teams aware of this.
Concrete contractors in particular cite private finance initiative projects as a major growth area for enquiries, especially in the health sector. Ray Hull, construction director of Byrne Brothers, said: “Despite advances in steel frame technology, reinforced concrete remains the firm favourite for hospital construction, as it offers greater flexibility in terms of services routing.” He believes that concrete construction is most suitable for high floor loading.
For retail developments, too, reinforced concrete frames are said to have the edge over steel – particularly with the main “anchor” stores. This is because steel frames “bounce” more than concrete, a characteristic not favoured by many major retail clients.
Structural steel contractors have claimed that they are winning an increasing market share over their concrete counterparts, who in turn acknowledge the progress made by the steel sector (7 May). This is particularly evident in the London office market, where there are many enquiries for substructure schemes – often multistorey basements – that will carry a steel-framed superstructure.
Looking to longer-term enquiry levels, structural engineers are still reporting plenty of new work, so it is likely that enquiries will filter through to contractors. Some detect a slight slowdown in the commercial office market – hardly surprising as it has grown by 55% since 1994 – but this has so far been balanced by growth in other market sectors.
<b>Orders and workload</b>
One major concrete contractor admitted it was “not actually looking for work at present, as order books are healthy for the rest of this year”. Some are reluctant to take on any additional work due to the lack of available labour.
Nick Wright, chief estimator of Swift Structures, said: “There is certainly a shortage of skilled labour and skilled professionals. Everyone is working at full bore.” The tight labour market means that formwork carpenters are earning up to £850 a week. That said, prices have still not reached the levels of the late 1980s, which saw rates of £900 a week.
As with other insitu trades, many operatives who left the industry are reluctant to return, and there have been few apprenticeships over the past decade to attract a younger workforce. Many contractors now find themselves with a diminishing workforce.
Other sectors have invested heavily in technology to increase productivity and efficiency, and cut costs. Being an insitu industry, this is less easy for the concrete frames sector. Most improvements in efficiency have come from using bespoke formwork and table systems, and some use has also been made of self-climbers on walls. These systems rely on a heavy initial financial outlay, and although they have the potential to make the process more efficient, as one contractor put it: “At the end of the day, output on concrete frames is reliant on the weather – and we can’t control that.”
The private commercial sector continues to be a major source of workload for most concrete contractors. The five-year plan for London Dockland's Canary Wharf should provide substantial orders for concrete contractors in the South-east. One concrete contractor says: “Before the last recession, we concentrated very hard on projects in the South-east – 95% of
our workload was commercial work in the City of London. In the early 1990s, recession decimated the London marketplace. Our lack of experience in other regions meant we struggled to survive. It’s not a mistake we’ll make again.”
Tender prices for reinforced concrete frames have recovered slightly in the last two years, but still stand at pre-recession levels. Contributors to the Gardiner & Theobald tender price survey forecast rises averaging 4% for 1999 and 4.5% next year, largely a result of increasing material and layout costs, but the concrete frames sector seems more unstable than most.
Rebar has already had three price increases this year, amounting to a 10% rise, and another has been announced for July. High workloads and a tightening labour market could be a formula for even greater tender price increases.
Tenders, however, are still being competitively contested. Most concrete contractors agree that increases in costs are still having to be absorbed. All in all, a 3% tender price increase over 1999 looks more likely.
Partnering for many concrete specialists has not been the success it has been in other sectors. Many feel they are still seen as a “low-tech” element, and are not approached for design advice in the early stages of traditionally tendered projects, so cannot contribute to value engineering the design, as by the tender stage the design is frozen. Typically, it is on design-and-build schemes that concrete contractors are able to contribute significant design input.
Private finance initiative schemes may be setting a trend for contractors' design input. Chief estimator at Swift Structures Nick Wright notes happily: “PFI teams suck you dry of ideas – you really get the opportunity to contribute to the project.” But PFI projects have also come under fire, with fixed price tenders being requested (but not always given) for schemes until 2004. The unpredictability of rebar means fixed prices are often given for projects of 18 months or more, but with a price fluctuation recovery on rebar.