Case study

RVA Group: Razing issues

The global demolition specialist bridges the client and contractor gap, managing complex and large-scale decommissioning projects. 

Image credits: RVA Group

There are five key elements to a successful demolition project, says Richard Vann, managing director of UK-based engineering and project management consultancy RVA Group. They are: defining the scope of work with the safety and health plan that underpins it; providing thorough site information; appointing the project team; choosing the right demolition contractor; and managing the execution.

“Any one of those fails and you’ve got a potential problem,” Vann says. “You can have the best documents in the world [but] if you give them to a contractor who is not going to pay any heed to them, it’s going to fall apart. If you don’t give them the right information, it’s not going to work [and] if you don’t manage the contractor on the site, it’s going to fail because commercial influences could drive the project rather than the focus on achieving environment, safety and health excellence.”

Vann has seen significant improvements in the specialism since he founded the business in 1992 (see “One-man band” box further below).

RVA Group

RVA Group is a specialist engineering consultancy based in Borehamwood, Hertfordshire, which manages decommissioning, decontamination, dismantling and demolition projects worldwide.

Founded by managing director Richard Vann, the company has completed more than 770 large-scale and complex projects for clients that include petrochemicals manufacturer SABIC, oil and natural gas producer ConocoPhillips and chemicals company Ineos.

The group provides industries including chemicals, manufacturing, and oil, gas and energy generation with a range of services. These start with front-end engineering, which includes conducting structural assessments and surveys, devising decommissioning and isolation strategies, and assisting and managing the contractor assessment and selection process so that the project team is competent and can meet the clients’ requirements.

RVA Group also provides works execution services, project managing the decommissioning, decontamination, dismantling or demolition; guiding and supporting the clients’ teams to ensure compliance and best-practice procedures; applying its technical expertise to assess and comment on contractors’ method statements; and cost control to protect clients from overspending.

It also provides services including contaminated land categorisation and management, CDM principal designer duties and third-party liaison.

The early 1990s brought the first iteration of the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations, and, though they lacked significant impact, says Vann, they were a step in the right direction.

“It was saying to people who were going to be involved in a demolition project, ‘You need to get the right team in. You need to pay attention to detail. You must demonstrate that you have thought about how you are going to manage safety and health.”

Other pressures also helped to stimulate demand for an organisation like RVA Group, which could add value through the glue of project management and matchmaking a client with the right demolition contractor (see “RVA Group” box). 

These drivers included a desire to replace ageing assets, many having been commissioned just after the second world war; environmental pressures which caused some manufacturing processes to be phased out; and a growing awareness among businesses that failing to reduce fatalities and serious injuries was damaging their reputations.

High-pass filter

“We fit in when you have a client who is an expert in their process plant and fully knows and understands all the hazards associated with it,” says Matthew Waller, the company’s group environment, health and safety manager.

“Then you have the demolition contractors with different levels of experience and expertise. Those at the top of their game who can handle the highest-hazard plants are a very small number. But [many others] have expertise in demolition methodology and techniques [...] and what you need is somebody to bridge the gap.”

RVA-Group-site-decontaminationPart of RVA Group’s role is to make sure that the demolition contractor has enough experience and expertise to complete the work and is willing to recognise when a task is beyond its capabilities and competencies.

Before sites can be decontaminated ahead of demolition, chemical residues must be identified.

RVA Group’s project managers invest a lot of time and energy in the first phase of the project – information gathering, site surveying and tendering. They collect data on every hazard, including those associated with former chemical processes, with the plant structures and with the decontamination activities, such as work at height and in confined spaces. A survey will even flag up the unusual risks, such as those posed by aggressive nesting birds.

“It requires us to gather a vast amount of information from many different sources,” Waller says. “We will use plant records, carry out interviews with site workers, and undertake physical surveys ourselves.”

Part of RVA Group’s service is to present this material in a document to give the demolition contractor a full perspective of the project requirements, the inherent hazards and how risks can be minimised.

“It also gives clients more commercial security because, if you’ve got good definition going into your execution phase, you can have more assurance over the financial outcome,” Waller says.

In three years’ time we won’t have a UK-based explosives engineering capability because they are all retiring

If there are information gaps, project managers will advise the client on filling them.

The analysis will not always allow them to neutralise a hazard “but at least we will have it under control, be able to manage it and will monitor the risk throughout so that we don’t end up with either a client or a contractor facing something that wasn’t expected”, he says.

One-man band

Hewlett Packard aside, the stories of early tech gurus developing their products in garages were mostly romantic fantasies. But when experienced demolition contractor Richard Vann set up as a “one-man band” in 1992, he did so from a tiny Yorkshire cottage, writing his first specification on the kitchen table and compiling his company brochures in the damp basement.

“I was trying to sell a concept that didn’t really exist,” he says of his decision to set up a business which would operate as “an intelligent friend” to clients with demolition projects. “I didn’t want my name as part of the business, but it was the only way I thought people would speak to me.”

To avoid any potential conflict of interest, he decided early on to offer services only to asset owners. “When you’ve got no money and no contracts, it’s a very difficult choice to make,” he says. “But I’ve stuck rigidly to the decision, as working with demolition contractors also, would at some point have put me in a compromised, no-win situation.”

When he set up operations from his kitchen, he says the industry’s attitude towards safety and management systems contrasted with that of the construction sector.

“The analogy would be that, if you were building a new power station, you’d have a whole host of professionals – structural, mechanical, electrical and civil engineers, whatever it might be – supporting that project build,” he says. “Whereas with demolition, it was, ‘Let’s reach for the Yellow Pages, get the local guy round and see how cheaply he can do it’.”

In the first few years the service was a tough sell. Vann grew the business through word of mouth and by speaking at demolition conferences. After moving to a small office in a converted hotel in Harrogate and taking on a part-time secretary, he spent much of his time driving the length of the country visiting demolition sites and going home to write specifications.

He adds that the plan was always to build the company so that it was the best at what it did and to become the market leader. Having moved via Ipswich to its current site in Borehamwood, Hertfordshire, the past few years have been spent planning the business’s long-term continuity. In October 2017, energy company EP UK Investments, part of Czech-owned EPH Group, acquired RVA Group for an undisclosed sum.

“When that happens, you can end up with people being distracted from ensuring that the job is executed with the minimum risk.”

Vann adds that the document is the project’s foundation stone. If it is not prepared correctly, everything that is built on it is potentially unstable.

Even for the simplest of projects the pre-execution phase can take between two and three months. For more complex jobs, nine to 12 months is common.

Waller cites the example of a hydrocarbon processing plant which, even if it is small, could host five, six or seven processes, all with different associated hazards.

This brings in construction material hazards such as asbestos, crystalline silica and flammable metals, he adds. It also covers physical constraints, including structural design, stability considerations and the defined sequence of demolition.

In the balance

The same commercial pressure for quick completion that characterises construction projects also applies to demolition. But, as soon as the execution phase begins, demolition contracting differs in that the rate of change accelerates, says Vann. For example, it may take five years to build and commission a plant but only 18 months to decommission and demolish it.

The contractor will price the job after assessing how much work it entails and how long the project will take. Commercial pressures can come to bear from either the contractor trying to do the job faster than it was priced in order to move to the next assignment and save money, or if there are indications that the work will take longer than envisaged.

A collaborative approach with the contractor is needed to mitigate the problems these pressures can bring, Waller adds.

“They’ve got to have the skills, the knowledge, experience and competence. They’ve got to be in possession of all the relevant information that they are going to need to base their commercial offer to the client, so you don’t end up in the middle of a job and having a commercial driver influencing the safe execution.”

Vann says that they also have to handle weighty client demands sensitively but firmly.

“In many cases, our role comes in at the end of an asset life and sometimes total site closure,” he says.

“Once the asset has become a non-revenue earner and a drain on profits, then they want it doing yesterday. Sometimes, our role is to say, ‘Look, you have to slow down here. You are going to have an incident, you may impact on the environment. There is a process to go through just as if you were building this asset and, if you miss out some of the key points, the chances are it’s going to come back to bite you’. We have to go through that discussion on many occasions.”

RVA-Group-unmanned-aerial-vehiclesIn 25 years RVA Group has backed out of only one project because the business’s philosophy and approach to safety and health was incompatible with the client’s.

“Aside from both the client’s and RVA’s reputation, I cannot go to bed at night and sleep comfortably knowing that they are sanctioning a contractor to do something that we have expressly said should not happen,” he says. “There were significant sums of money involved and I took the view that we had to walk away.”

Despite improvements in the sector’s safety record, Vann occasionally finds himself in situations where he has to challenge the client’s perception of risk.

“Quite often I’ll go and see a client and we’ll say, ‘You need this spec, and you need this and that and the safety plan’, and they’ll say, ‘Well, it’s only an office building’,” he explains.

“The scenario I give is, ‘Yes, it’s not a chemical plant or an oil refinery. However, if you fall off your bungalow roof, the chances are that you will kill yourself. If you fall off a power station roof, the results will be the same. The only difference is the distance the person has had to travel’. Therefore, the fact that it’s a small job and it’s not going to take long is not relevant.

“Sometimes, trying to get that through to the client is very difficult. Proportionately, more people are injured or killed on the industry’s smaller jobs because they are perceived as ‘lower risk’.”

Tools of the trade

Demolition contractors have multiple techniques to choose from in the execution phase – from reverse construction, which involves taking the structure apart section by section, to collapsing it with explosives.

RVA-Group-dismantling-of-plant-for-shipping-overseasVann says explosives are chosen – location permitting – because of a structure’s scale, height or composition. They might seem inherently hazardous but, “You give a Ferrari to a 17 year old and you are giving them a killing machine. You give it to a Formula One driver and he can earn a living out of it. Explosives are the same.

“Over the years, the hardware has developed, so there are more precise and stable explosives. You can design certain modes of collapse to make structures go in a certain direction or collapse in a certain sequence.”

The demolition of cooling towers is a case in point. Vann notes that, in principle, the structures stay near their design state and within their design capacity until the contractor presses the button and it loses that integrity instantly.

“A cooling tower is known as a thin-walled structure, so it has a shell that might only be five inches thick in certain parts,” he says.

“Once you start doing those mechanically, there is always the potential that, if you start chopping something like an egg shell, it will all collapse in an uncontrolled manner and that has implications.”

Replenishment anxiety

The only problem explosives pose for Vann is the result of his sector’s failure to invest in creating more of those Formula One drivers.

RVA_Group_remotely_controlled_machineryA past president of both the Institute of Demolition Engineers and the Institute of Explosives Engineers (IEE), he has repeatedly raised concerns to the IEE that the institute and the demolition industry are not training a new generation of demolition specialists.

“Probably in three years’ time we won’t have a UK-based explosives engineering capability because they are all 60-odd years old, and they are all retiring,” he warns.

“Other than going abroad – and even then you don’t have a massive choice of contractors – the explosives engineering discipline in the UK will disappear.”

One area where the sector is moving forward is in its exploitation of new and emerging technologies; the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for survey work is one example.

RVA Group’s explosives engineer Charles Moran is licensed to fly UAVs, which has helped the business to collect a wealth of site data with almost no risk to staff, particularly during the survey phase.

“I was working with a [demolition] contractor and we carried out a finely detailed inspection on a flange joint and a flare tip at 60 m without sending a man off the ground,” says Waller.

“We will still have to go up there sometimes to execute the work, but we’ve got sufficient information from our use of UAVs that we didn’t have to send men to the top of the flare stack to carry out inspections of the bolting arrangements.”

Vann adds: “There have been situations where we’ve been on a plant that has been standing for 45 years and you walk on the staircase and your foot goes straight through it.

“The cost of scaffolding to get someone up there is in the hundreds of thousands [of pounds] on some projects, or you buy a UAV. I call a £1,000 investment for a UAV throwaway technology. If we lost three UAVs in a year, it’s upsetting but it’s not life-changing.”

In the execution phase, the biggest advance over the past ten years has been the new range of demolition heavy plant. “These are very specific and high-tech pieces of demolition equipment, which to the untrained eye may look like excavators,” says Waller.

“However, they have upgraded hydraulics and a lot more capability and dexterity. The tools you can fit to these machines for cutting metal, pulverising concrete and manipulating equipment are developing at a fantastic pace.”

From a safety perspective, this “cutting-edge” machinery, which does also include excavators, but remote-controlled ones, has reduced or even eliminated the need for workers to enter hazardous environments.

“If you go back 15 years, the number of workers at the demolition workface carrying out work by hand and the exposure hours was extraordinary,” says Waller. “It’s definitely having a positive impact on the safe execution.”

Nuclear option

RVA Group has carried out projects in the nuclear sector, albeit outside the structures housing the reactors. It was the first demolition firm to manage the use of explosives on licensed nuclear sites in the civilian sector, initially bringing down the cooling towers at Chapel Cross power station and then those at Calder Hall, the world’s first and oldest industrial-scale nuclear power station, at Sellafield in Cumbria. It took two years to demonstrate to the authorities that explosives were the best approach.

“We don’t work inside the reactor side of operations,” says Vann. “If we do get something that involves that, we will bring in a specialist partner to help us.”

Though the project managers’ expertise does not extend to managing nuclear risks, Vann is prepared to invest to develop his team’s skills if he is offered this type of work.

All the project managers are qualified engineers and have accumulated a wealth of industry experience from having led projects in high-hazard process industries. Waller cut his teeth in oil refining, steel manufacturing and glass making.

“It doesn’t really matter what the plant makes, whether it’s making fuels or detergents or base chemicals,” says Vann. “As long as we understand what the hazard is and know what the chemicals we are dealing with are, we can design and provide mitigation measures for dealing with that chemical.”

RVA Group’s global operations mainly cover Europe, the US and South-East Asia, although outliers have included Turkmenistan. “A different safety culture applied,” he says. “People [were] working from ladders and using undersized equipment.”

Vann adds that RVA Group will work anywhere with the right quality of client. “We’ve been very strict in the criteria,” he says. “Number one: safety compliance; number two: delivery of the project to the client’s requirements; number three: are you going to get paid? We are in the business where we cannot afford to get it wrong [because] of the inherent risk.”

Some countries, however, are out of bounds. The safety of staff is paramount, and Vann says the business doesn’t chase money. “I wouldn’t accept work in a war zone, for instance,” he says. “There is enough work around that we can grow the business in stable environments.”


Nic Warburton is acting editor, IOSH Magazine

 Nick Warburton was previously acting editor of IOSH Magazine. Before that he was editor of SHP and he has also worked on Local Authority Waste and Recycling and Environmental Health Practitioner

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