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When Wall Ties Don't Work

21 April 2017

chris-coxon-talking-headWhen Scottish school walls come tumbling down, you’re unlikely to wonder if that has anything whatsoever to do with door and window installation. Read on, as Chris Coxon, Head of Marketing at Eurocell, explains…

Today, we’re going to talk about wall tie remedials. Which, you’d be forgiven for thinking, has nothing to do with doors and windows. Yet bear with us, as it touches upon a subject that is currently dear to our hearts and, as it turns out, many others in the building sector.

If you cast your mind back to January 2016, you may remember a story about Oxgangs Primary school in Edinburgh. High winds during Storm Gertrude that month tore nine tonnes of brickwork from a wall, injuring a passer-by and causing the school’s closure. Closer inspection of the wall revealed, storm force winds notwithstanding, serious concerns about the way the school – built in 2006 – had been constructed.

Oxgangs was part of a wider programme that saw 17 schools built or refurbished following a £360m deal between Edinburgh City Council (ECC) and a consortium under the Public Private Partnership 1 (PPP1) scheme. Following further investigation, the other 16 schools were closed too as Edinburgh Schools Partnership (ESP), which oversaw the construction and management of the of the buildings on behalf of ECC, was unable to give assurances that buildings built under the scheme were safe.

The safety concerns related to not only the quality of installation of wall ties, but also the absence of header ties in the steel structure. Following a BBC Freedom of Information-based investigation this month, it has been reported that at least a further 72 schools in Scotland were similarly affected, not only to the severe inconvenience of pupils; but also at great expense to local authorities.

For instance, in 2010, East Renfrewshire Council paid more than £870,000 to repair wall tie and other defects at St Ninian's High School in Giffnock, Glasgow.

Although the BBC claims that there are fears that there could be similar problems at other buildings – like hospitals and care homes – constructed under PPP schemes; it is hard to see how this financial and management model is directly or inevitably responsible for these building failures.

What is apparent, however, is that workmanship was poor – whether through a lack of skills, a ‘cowboy’ approach from sub-contractors or inappropriate pressure (deadlines, penalties etc) applied in other tiers of the build process.

What is also apparent is the total lack of inspection during the build too – whether from a traditional Clerk of Works; or Building Control. Of course, one could not expect the CoW or BC officers to be present for every course of brickwork; yet it seems incredible that any of these projects could have been signed off given the egregious without someone seeing something or there being a complete absence of inspection.

And this is how and where it links back to door and window fitting; as there is a growing awareness of quality issues arising from both a lack of supervision, effective communication of designs and specifications, and skill shortages. As a consequence, research shows it is conceivable that there are installation problems on up to 95% of new housebuild sites.

On that basis, we’re striving towards partnerships which both encourage education and supervision. In respect of education, again as we’ve said elsewhere, details are crucial and everyone in the process – designer, buyer, manager, contractor, fitter – should be fully apprised of what the specification demands, and how that is realised in practice.

And while it’s easier to blame tradespeople for installation failures, it’s more complicated than that (see education, above) and they can’t be held wholly responsible – especially in the absence of effective supervision. Site managers and other supervisors need to keep a close watch on installations, and be prepared to step in at an early stage if requirements are confused or things look like going awry.

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