How green is your building? Ross Reyburn talks to Tony Hyde, a man predicting a much-changed Britain in the construction world.
“If I go to a cocktail party and say I am a builder, they instinctively think you lay bricks. They don’t think you are a trained professional.”
The remark comes from Tony Hyde, group managing director of Thomas Vale Construction, the award-winning Worcestershire-based civil engineering and construction group of companies.
“There is a mental block in the UK. ‘Oh you build buildings, right ok.' They don’t realise that you’ve probably had seven, eight years training.”
Far from being a bricklayer, he is playing an active role in promoting a greener future for Britain in which he can see us abandoning traditional UK building.
“Using brickwork and blockwork is quite a poor construction method,” he points out. “You have to excavate the material for clay brick, mould the material in kilns. And then bricks are very expensive to bring to site.
“The UK is one of the few countries using cavity construction where you have to inject insulation and have an inner leaf of blockwork.
“Architects and clients are moving away from those high energy usage and not too efficient traditional methods to timber framed and steel-framed construction you find in mainland Europe and North America.
“They are more energy efficient, they use less skilled labour to build so they out some of your uncertainty in the construction process.”
Thomas Vale has just signed a partnership agreement with Coventry-based E.on, one of the UK’s leading electricity and gas suppliers, so together they can offer renewable and sustainable energy solutions.
“A lot of public sector clients are asking what we are doing in the way of sustainability,” says 53-year-old Hyde.
“There are lots of consultants who don’t know what they are talking about. E.on can bring in the best technology doing all the calculations needed.”
He predicts geothermal energy using ground source heat pumps will become a major player in the sustainability field. They may cost twice as much but the financial equation is swaying the geothermal way as the pumps can halve a building’s carbon footprint as well as saving up to 70 per cent on heating and cooling costs in a world of ever-rising energy prices.
Hyde can see an energy tax on unsustainable buildings in the future as well as property owners being able to charge more to buyers or tenants if geothermal is lowering fuel bills.
He also sees a retrofitting market for geothermal.
“In Hereford they are looking at a scheme for 30 year-old council houses. If people can’t afford fuel bills the move will be to retrograde existing council properties with pumps or solar panels.
“After proper insulation, I would say the method offering the fastest payback is ground source heat pumps.
“I recently went to Bavaria – every new home they were building had ground source heat pumps. Unless there is a new emerging technology, they will be used in virtually every new development scheme in Britain.
“It is the one sustainable energy source with a reasonable payback. You can be talking about three to eight years – it can be 20 or 30 years with wind turbines or solar panels.
“It is an emerging technology. You are not relying on the sun, a problem in the UK. They are not unsightly or making a noise like wind turbines. It is just a hidden, unobtrusive method of getting energy from the earth - I think it’s got to be the future.”
Born in Birmingham, Hyde had a fairly nomadic childhood as his father had a varied career that included working as a club steward, running The Bell pub in the Welsh town of Talgarth and acting as a chauffeur for one of Britain’s most controversial politicians, Enoch Powell.
“My father was born in Bilston,” recalls Hyde. “He started work when he was 14 in the town steelworks and by the time he was 16 he had lost two fingers. That was the reason he came out of the metal bashing industry into the pub trade.
“Working at the Conservative club in Wolverhampton led to him acting as chauffeur to Enoch Powell. I was very young at the time but I remember my father later always remained very loyal to him.”
More vivid is his memory of his brief schooling in Wales where teachers unsuccessfully tried to teach him the Welsh language.
In 1971 after leaving Stourport High School with six O Levels, Hyde joined Thomas Vale as an indentured engineer at the firm’s Lombard Street offices in the middle of Stourport-on-Severn .
He can remember a somewhat unglamorous start to his career as an indentured engineer being paid £3 10 shillings (£3 50p).
“The first day I was put in the post room to steam off stamps on incoming post that hadn’t been stamped and put them in a tin so we could re-use them. That was how frugal the business was in those days.”
Founded in 1869, the company at this time was mainly engaged in contracts involving sewage works including a providing major pumping mains system around Stourport.
It was not always edifying work.
“I did see people who walked across sewage treatment works and slowly sunk to their waste and we had to hose them down,” recalls Hyde. “We didn’t really work much more than an hour’s travelling distance away. We used to wait for tenders to come through the letter box. The directors’ idea of marketing was probably going down the golf club.”
Hyde left Thomas Vale to join Wimpey as a planner working at the firm’s Chester Road offices in Birmingham on work that included building Trident House in central Birmingham and working on a critical path analysis project for the Mini production line at Longbridge.
Five years later he was working for in the Middle East for Wimpey Laing on American military township projects in Saudi Arabia and the Yemen. “When I was over there, I wasn’t aware of any issues of religious tension – perhaps I was naïve.”
Back in Britain in 1981, he chose to return to his Worcestershire roots as a senior planner with Thomas Vale rather than being posted abroad again.
In 1987, Metsec, the Oldbury engineering company, bought the company’s share capital for £1.8 million. Then after the recession in the late 1980s, Hyde was one of the five directors involved a management buyout funded by the venture capital firm, 3i.
“We bought the company on Black Wednesday in 1992,” he remembers. “We did the deal about two o’clock in the morning and interest rates went up to 15 per cent that day.
“I remember saying they can’t stay up otherwise the whole country will go bust. At the time we borrowed collectively about £1.5 million. For a few guys earning around £50,000 a year, it was a lot of money. I remember having to sign my house away.”
The buyout was to herald the transformation of Thomas Vale from a relatively small provincial general contractors into an award-winning civil engineering firm in the construction field with a national reputation.
Appointed managing director in 2001 and more recently group MD, Hyde has helped mastermind a turnover figure jumping from £60 million to more than £200 million.
As well as Thomas Vale, the group’s companies also include Fitzgerald Contractors in Birmingham handling road construction, Electec in Stourbridge (electrical fittings), PJM Adams in Wolverhampton (street lighting) and Forum Training, which provides best practice training for some 4,500 people in the industry generally annually at the Stourport headquarters.
The group’s recent roll call of awards includes being voted Building Magazine’s Contractor of the Year in the medium-sized category in 2005, 2006 and 2007. Also last year it also gained the ultimate accolade, Supreme Contractor of the Year.
“We are the only contractor in the country to have won the Supreme Contractor award twice aside for Taylor Woodrow,” he says “It is pretty good for a little company in Worcestershire.
Hyde regards better practice as a key reason for the transformation in the group’s fortunes. In 1992 probably one day a year per employee was devoted to training. Today the training budget is £2 million and employees average five days a year training.
A founder member of the Department and Trade and Industry’s better practice programme, Thomas Vale has also developed a NBQ qualification for business improvement with Wolverhampton University.
Today it is delivering its projects on time – back in 1992 Hyde recalls the firm taking 20 per cent longer as was the norm with many other firms.
Hyde pursues better practice targets in his field with almost missionary zeal. Zero landfill for the firm’s waste products is a target for 2010. He regards the traditional operational methods of many UK contractors as archaic.
“Just drive down the road and you can see five men looking down a hole waiting for the concrete to be delivered, he points out.
“You can walk along a dual carriageway and you can see miles and miles of cones with three men working.
“If you go to America and Japan, they aspire to zero defects on a building. In this country you get leaking roofs, unfinished paintwork. A recent national survey showed very poor satisfaction among their clients for the quality of product they were receiving.
“If you hand over a very good quality product, people remember you for the dripping tap. You need to put it right straight away. We got 24/7 call centre with a team of eight people on the road to put right defects.”
On a more positive note, he does feel UK contractors have upped their standards dramatically in the decade but there remains a long way to go to match the best world standards.
“Earlier this year, I was in Japan for four weeks and it was a shock to the system to see how far we are behind.
“We have got another ten years before we catch up in the delivery of buildings in the UK. It is all about a properly trained workforce.
“If you go to Japan, you can look down a trench and you will see workers doing planning and business improvement. In the UK, a manager is probably three positions removed from the guys in the trench – we detach the guys in the hole from the managing process. In Japan everyone takes ownership of doing a job properly on time.”
Thomas Vale is aiming to takes its present £200 million turnover figure to £400-£500 million in the next five years despite the current economic crisis.
There are two factors helping the group combat the present economic chaos. Three years ago it decided to work only with blue chip developers avoiding entrepreneurs who had over-borrowed from banks. And it made a conscious decision to aim for partnership contacts, such as its ‘Decent Homes Programme’ with Birmingham City Council, that means more long-term contract security and more direct involvement in projects.
“Even with the recession this year, our growth rate is 19 per cent,” says Hyde. “Last month we had a record turnover of £20 million.
“We are very risk averse today. I need to respect the livelihoods of the 850 people we employ.
“I would hope the current recession lasts six weeks but in reality it is going to go on for 18 months. I didn’t want a correction as severe as we are having but we needed a correction.
“It will benefit the housing prices market – houses were becoming unaffordable. Hopefully we will get some reality back in the financial sector in the City.”