Demolition's changing status to waste handler

Written by: RWW | Published:

Demolition operators should no longer be regarded as part of the deconstruction sector, but more as waste handlers, says Howard Button of the National Federation of Demotion Contractors. The chief executive office explains how the industry is moving from being perceived as dirty and dangerous to modern and high tech.

The demolition industry, more than any other sector of British industry, has made enormous strides in occupational health, safety, the environment and methodology over the last 20 or so years. This is thanks in no short measure to the effort given by the practitioners themselves who have picked up the pace of improvement in both practical and academic achievements; meeting the challenges that modern day demolition projects demand.

If this sounds like a huge thumbs-up for the sector, consider what the average demolition contractor has to deal with on a daily basis. 

This comprises the removal and disposal of all or any type of hazardous substance or material along with the reduction and clearance of buildings and structures ranging from simple single storey to complex multi-storey structures of steel, concrete, timber and or composite materials. 

It also includes working in any environment; right across the board of industry, commerce, education, shipping, off shore, nuclear, oil, gas, etc.  

In addition, there is the requirement for segregation, identification, processing, disposal and or reclamation, recycling or re-use of waste materials and the supply of secondary aggregates to the construction and agricultural industries.  

In fact, you name it and a demolition contractor has been there and done it and got the proverbial t-shirt. If a layperson thinks that’s impressive, what will he or she make of taking down the modern iconic buildings of today and those of the future that will inevitably be jammed in between others and reaching up 60 or more storeys?

Demolition trade bodies

To accomplish activities like these means a demolition contractor and his operatives require a dedication that is not common with other types of industry. Those who work and live the business are generally in it for the long term with some companies having three or more generations of the same family involved.  The two main organisations representing the sector are the National Federation of Demolition Contractors (NFDC) and the Institute of Demolition Engineers (IDE): the former being the industry trade and corporate body and the latter providing competence and information levels to the individual practitioners. 

The NFDC has 170 corporate members who undertake approximately 95% of the demolition work carried out in the UK today. The IDE has 350 individual members whose occupations encompass the whole range of activities associated with the industry sector. 

In addition to these bodies, the National Demolition Training Group (NDTG), administered by industry practitioners and based alongside the NFDC at their Hemel Hempstead offices, provides the main thrust for operative and manager training with bespoke training and assessment schemes unique to the sector. 

The NDTG is recognised for its efficiency and expertise by the enforcing authorities and the larger construction industry who awards much of the work carried out by contractors.

This is an industry that owes much to the expertise of its workforce and its ability to adapt and change to increasingly diverse working environments unlike any other traditional workplace.  

Change in working practices

Over those 20 or so years the mode of working has swung from manual to machine operations employing an equally diverse range of equipment. 

The equipment in use today is invariably bespoke and manufactured by the world’s leading manufacturers. 

Visitors to a modern demolition site will be witness to robotic, high reach and traditional rigged machines as well as a full range of mini, micro and materials handling plant. 

Gone are the days when a demolition contractor’s plant and equipment left much to be desired; it now stands on an equal footing or is even better than that of constructors.

Industry guidance

A relatively new initiative for NFDC, in particular, is the production of industry guidance that addresses many of the issues relevant only to the demolition sector. 

The importance of this process cannot be marginalised if one considers that all previous types of guidance have been produced for the greater construction or building industry and have had to be adapted to fit the needs of the demolition sector. 

Whether legislation can also be produced as bespoke to the demolition industry is a matter of conjecture, but major changes could be on the way to re-position demolition as part of the waste industry rather than construction. 

With the legal definition of waste describing that which has been discarded or intended to be discarded as waste, there can be little doubt that demolition contractors are waste handlers and not constructors.

Future for the demolition industry? 

What can practitioners and the public expect of this sector that has shown how adaptable and innovative it can be? 

Well for starters, contractors will continue to demand the best that manufacturers can produce and that the plant and equipment of the future will almost certainly be electronically and robotically controlled and even wearable by operatives for finger tip control; having little or none of the vibration or ergonomic problems associated with manual handling of materials and tools. 

New processes for the actual demolition and processing of structures will come on stream with microwave technology a front runner, having been proved in controlled tests to be extremely effective in breaking concrete, brick, stone and mortars. 

Laser demolition has also been trialled on concrete and proved to be equally effective and, if both types of technology can be properly harnessed and made safe, it would revolutionise the way we manage materials handling.  

However, addressing the practicalities of the operational processes can only truly be efficient if all other aspects have been reviewed and adjusted to maximise performance. The demolition industry has proved how adaptable it can be in terms of recycling of arisings, but it continues to struggle to maximise a once flourishing salvage and re-use market that has diminished year-on-year. 

This is the result of poor quality building materials of which many are manmade composites with no resale or re-use value and are invariably costly to dispose of. 


Recognising that recycling opportunities are waning for what were traditional building materials such as stone and brick with increasing use of composites, foams, laminates and other potentially hazardous mixtures, the NFDC has developed an interactive materials identification and recycling tool DRIDS (Demolition and Refurbishment Information Data Sheets). 

The DRIDS system uses cutting edge internet technology to ensure that all possible demolition materials are not only effectively identified but outlets are also efficiently sourced geographically to reduce transportations costs.

In respect to salvage and reclaim, the future will continue to look bleak unless end-of-life cycle philosophy is engaged to ensure that these issues are addressed at the inception of a new development. 

Life cycle costing should be evaluated not only for energy efficiency and a reduction of carbon usage during the build, use and maintenance periods, but right through to end-of-life and the demolition or dismantling of the structure. 

DRIDS will at least, for the foreseeable future, provide the demolition contractor with an industry toolbox and the opportunity to ensure recycling levels are maintained.  

Developers, architects and product designers may wish to use the government’s built environment initiative, Building Information Modelling (BIM) to address end-of-life cycle assessments and to develop a greater understanding of the value of ‘design for deconstruction’. 

This should also help to galvanise change and focus perceptions of waste as being a commodity and not a cost.

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