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  • Writer's pictureDr Terry Quarmby

‘THE YEARS THEY ARE A CHANGING’ an informative piece by Dr Terry Quarmby for Demolition Hub

‘THE YEARS THEY ARE A CHANGING’ an informative piece by Dr Terry Quarmby for Demolition Hub

Where we are today


Just like the words of the song, each year brings along change to both industry and the environment.  The socio-economic impacts of industry on our everyday lives massively dictate how we live and spend our leisure time.  The concerns raised for our environment equally impact on how we perceive and progress industry.

Today, much is made about addressing the impacts that modern living has on every aspect of our lives. Eighty three years ago at the inception of the NFDC the greatest challenge facing the UK population was managing to achieve some kind of normalisation experienced before the declaration of war with Germany. 

What we have ended up with is a vastly different UK where change has occurred on so many fronts at times so quickly that getting used to one aspect was impossible as the next change rolled over the one before.  People have changed, perceptions, notions and ideas have advanced, equipment, tools and machinery have evolved to such proportions that anyone waking up from a suspended animation would have a great deal of difficulty recognising their surroundings and fellow man.


This year the National Federation of Demolition Contractors is 83 years old and it’s fair to say it bears little resemblance to that which started in London in 1941. However, some of the early problems appear to be similar, a federation meeting in 1949, described in an NFDC historic article, attempted to address the need to facilitate a faster utilities disconnection process.[i]  Oh! How we all wish this had been achieved as the problem still confounds us today. 

Sadly we have no living NFDC members who could recount the early days and regale us with the experiences, good and bad, of those times.  I imagine at best we may have members who remember what the industry was like in the 1950’S through to this day.  My own experiences only go back as far as 1964 when as a fifteen year old I was thrust into works dismantling by my employer a scrap metal dealer in West Yorkshire. 

Even at that late period, some 23 years on from the foundations of the Federation, the business end on site, was a scary place where muscle power was a prerequisite of a successful career and those who lacked the muscle very quickly had to learn to graft hard to retain a job. What many of the talented youngsters, who work and manage our sites today, would make of this period one can only guess but it’s clear that muscle power, for the most part, has been replaced by hard edged machinery and innovative tools. 

I think I can speak for most that those changes have been more than welcome and have had a marked effect on efficiency, safety and cost.

However, we can also attribute many changes in our work practices and our thinking process as a result of the inception of the Institute of Demolition Engineers (IDE) which was founded in 1976. In a little less than two years the IDE will be fifty years old, a celebration that’s sure to be marked as a milestone in bringing a professional image to individual practitioners.

If the NFDC can be regarded as the glue that joined demolition companies together, the IDE must be regarded as the light which illuminated an industries professionals and changed the perception of demolition as a black art into a truly scientific process.


In the beginning


On 2nd January 1941 the US began building its ‘liberty’ ships to support the war effort in Europe.  Four days later US President Franklin Roosevelt gave his “4 freedoms” speech (freedom of speech, worship, want and fear) and on those same liberty ships, presumably, the US sent over cranes, vehicles and specialised plant that was immediately put to work on clearing the war damaged buildings and structures from our towns and cities.

From the early mechanised aids utilised to demolish and clear the millions of tonnes of damaged structures and resultant rubble, the workers of that period could never have envisioned the sparkling array of equipment available to today’s demolition contractor.  Those early contractors and their workers, one imagines, were held in high esteem by members of the public, the heads of local authorities and the government departments as they toiled relentlessly in the quest to make Britain a safer place. 

However, over the subsequent decades the public standing of our industry sector has taken a few blows and has been the butt of more glamorous sectors to the point that we were largely dismissed as an inconvenience to be tolerated, particularly by the construction sector.  Our skills were denigrated and at best described as an ‘art’ rather than a science or valued enterprise.  It seemed to many that we had hit rock bottom and that we needed to build on the foundations started in 1941 to change people’s perceptions, opinions and mind sets. 

Without the NFDC and the IDE in place it is debatable as to whether the situation would have changed and if so how much progress would have been made towards achieving the standing that our industry sector currently enjoys. 


The future


Let’s not kid ourselves that we are by any means the finished article, there is still a long way to go to reach the dizzy heights that some of our more illustrious cousins in the construction sector have reached.  We still lack the academic sophistication of say the Institute of Civil Engineers etc but we did manage to develop two degree courses and to be publicly backed by a large and influential University.

The NFDC as a trade body, more than holds its own especially when it comes to lobbying government for changes to legislation and the production of specific industry guidance.  The NFDC has single handedly been responsible for providing a medium for debate, consultation and training and has dutifully proffered accountability for the actions of its members. 

From the original ‘five’ founding members in 1941 there are now one hundred and twenty member organisations UK wide who’s share of the UK demolition market is around 95% of annual turnover totalling around £2,000M.

The IDE is a unique organisation that is unparalleled anywhere in the world. Its 400 members are comprised of the top echelon of demolition practitioners. Many of those members are the principals and senior management of NFDC member companies and are ideally positioned to comment on and to influence the work undertaken by the Institute.

Despite declaring we are not the finished article, great strides have already been made in the advancement of educating the workforce and management. Both organisations have played their part in this effort through the schemes managed by the Training Group for site operatives and the degree courses for management, managed by the Institute.

There is always room for improvement and its clear that the Chairman and President of these proud organisations continuously call for more action.


Perhaps referring to the NFDC merely as a trade body is unfair because it’s so much more than that. We, as corporate members, tend to look towards the federation for the interpretation of legislation and regulation that affects our operations; we assume that our rights, privileges and legal concerns will be addressed by the federation on our behalf. We rely on the federation to represent our interests on socio-economical, environmental, health & safety and training matters.  But most of all we know that federation membership unlocks doors and provides a degree of comfort to potential and current clients. 

Without the NFDC our industry sector would still be struggling to be heard in the corridors of power.  As individuals we are at liberty to join other organisations in the search for personal aspiration, such as the IDE and many of us do just that whether it’s to further our education, meet likeminded people or gain accreditations, the reasons are varied.

In general, organisations other than the NFDC and IDE, unless they are multi-nationals and conglomerates, need a collective and that collective has to be united to be strong. That’s where the NFDC and the IDE over the years, has consistently proved to be a force to be taken seriously by industry, government and NGO’s alike.  We are united through central governing committees that provide a strong voice and an equally strong lobbying power.


Whilst we are aware of the Institutes and the Federations past and their achievements to date. The question is what about the future? Whilst membership grows slowly and that’s not a reflection on poor marketing or management, it’s a direct result of the intensity and cost needed to start a new business or to expand from a small enterprise; The present memberships of both organisations, as alluded to earlier, is made up from the top performing and top earning demolition companies and individual practitioners operating in the UK today.

If expansion of member numbers is constrained by external forces it should have no consequence on expansion of technology, innovation and learning.  The NFDC and IDE members have, for the most part, been instrumental for the rapid advancement in demolition plant, equipment and methodology. 

The spending power of the members sees no abatement in the desire to renew or replace old and or inefficient machinery and as long as this continues we should expect that manufacturers of these goods will continue to innovate and build ever better models.  Should we continue to believe that bigger, higher and heavier is the way forward then it appears that our appetite is being sated. 


The UK demolition industry has for many years been at the forefront of demolition machinery innovation and its practitioners give continuous feedback to manufacturers and suppliers.

We are therefore fortunate that in the main, improvements in technology and innovation made by plant and equipment manufacturers,  generally improve our image and our efficiency to work better and increase our earning potential.  We are in other words, in a very strong position to exert some influence on other sectors as well as government and NGO’s.


The NFDC and the IDE through its chief executive and President, are aware that a number of issues related to waste, reclamation and recycling in general, is a topical and critical concern to the UK, in particular, but also the world. 

With the predicted end of landfill in the UK we are far from finding all the answers to an alternative solution.  So much so, that we cannot hope to channel the enormous amounts of waste produced annually, through present facilities or those likely to come on line between now and 2030.

 As practitioners dealing with this problem on a daily basis we are acutely aware that the majority of modern building products are neither reclaimable nor recyclable and that disposal costs continue to spiral upwards.  Designers and manufacturers of the built environment need to get their heads together and start the process of healing rather than being in denial. 

The NFDC as a strong lobbyer and with spending power can bring about change in other directions.  Several years ago, the IDE members during a seminar, were introduced to the power of microwave technology thru a presentation given by the Faraday Institute in which we witnessed how microwaves cracked and or shattered concrete to leave the reinforcing bars clean and an aggregate product that looked as though it had been processed through a crusher. 

Could this new technology be an answer to one of the conundrums facing our world.  After all we could cut personnel health and safety issues for ‘hand arm vibration’, work at height, manual handling, cuts, abrasions etc, the list goes on. 

We could even reclaim modern bricks laid in hard mortars because the moisture in the mortar would be broken down.  We could literally drop the concrete off the re-bar where it stands and reduce the need for heavy plant.  Whilst this is only one notion it certainly is not outlandish or impossible to achieve, if we can harness and control the power.


It is never a wrong or inopportune moment to decry the lack of infrastructure or development of waste management solutions. The UK Government has known about the problems of a growing waste dilemma for years yet has done very little to alleviate the need for waste solutions such as incinerators, waste for energy plants and biomass works. Nor does it seem to consider that what we put into the built environment will at some stage in the future require to be taken out and disposed of.

Is it being disingenuous to blame the Government wholly? Perhaps one could apportion some of the blame onto the Construction Products Association whose members make a plethora of products and materials that would never lend themselves to re-use and or recycling and are invariably hazardous by nature. Or should we blame the architects and developers who design and build using cheap and inherently hazardous materials, knowing full well that re-use and recycling is improbable.

One thing is certain. Unless there is a major step change in how we build and what we build with for the near future and beyond, the amount of waste created will become impossible to manage. When that time arrives one can envisage that the disposal cost will be significantly higher than the build cost.  That is one problem that the NFDC or the IDE cannot be expected to solve. 


By Dr Terry Quarmby




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