Environmental :: Research & Initiatives

Why Risk It?

22 September 2020

Our campaign ‘Why Risk It?’ is designed to support housebuilders and developers on mitigating risk from the ground up.  Its aim is to raise awareness of real risks in the ground and how they can be resolved from impact on cost and programme to gaining approval of potential developments and making sure it is a green solution.

Sometimes considered as a peripheral issue, ground risks can become much costlier if not considered in a timely manner and real opportunities for savings in terms of sustainability and construction costs can be missed.

In our first piece, James Clay and Dr Adam Fisher take part in a Q&A session to discuss the role Brownfield or Previously Developed Land plays in future development and consider key areas that optimise the management of ground risks.

It is often perceived that there is not enough room for new development, and land supply is a key drag anchor on development – what are you thoughts here? 

An important point to note – “There is no principle shortage of land” says James Clay, Partner CampbellReith

“England alone has a land area of just over 13 million hectares of which, about 11 per cent is developed. The key issue is obtaining land for development that is not only available but commercially viable and meets broader planning objectives. These can sometimes be ‘competing interests’; brownfield land is often available in the areas where development is favourable, but does sometimes come with a perceived increase of ground risk’.

What about when the only land available for development is a former industrial site and affected by land contamination issues/risks, such as former landfills, gas works or military sites which come with the associated complexity of issues this can present?

“This is not necessarily a negative issue” says James. “This sort of land has been at the centre of regeneration policies by successive governments for many years, and that was certainly evident as a force for good as I grew up on the former industrial heartlands of Sheffield”.

“There is a large amount of land that has been transferred from former industry to current productive uses and still more land that is going through the process that currently sits within landholdings of the government (e.g. the MOD) or private ownership. This land has a massive potential value to our economy, environment and communities. Organisations such as the DIO and Homes England are key ‘public sector’ organisations who, in tandem with the private sector, have the appetite and knowledge to bring these sites back to productive use.”

As the UK plans its future towards SMART cities, better connectivity and improved infrastructure including homes and schools, is there an opportunity for brownfield sites to provide the solution?

“As a practice we have worked on all sorts of former industrial sites in major cities, including military arsenals (Woolwich Arsenal), shipyards (Woolston Riverside) and airfields (Daedalus) and we are currently working on the remediation of several landfills.” continues James.

“Provided land issues are thought about carefully, they can present a major opportunity to unlock ideal sites. One of our significant schemes, Kilnwood Vale, was once partly a former landfill that will ultimately become a new community of 2,500 homes, a primary school, neighbourhood centre, retail space and elderly care facility – what an opportunity. We’ve been fortunate to work for an informed Client that has allowed us the time to unlock the site with a cost effective design solution.”.

In our view is the development of Brownfield (or Previously Developed Land), declining as a proportion of overall development land?

“It is apparent that PDL has declined as a proportion of overall land development, despite policies such as Brownfield Registers and there has been more development of ‘green’ sites.” states Dr Adam Fisher, Partner CampbellReith.

“There is a balance to be struck here. PDL sites may require a greater involvement associated with ground issues than those on former agricultural land, but they do have other benefits and are often fundamentally sustainable in terms of location and recycling of former redundant land”.

Adam adds, “It is also worth remembering that, from a geotechnical perspective at least, Greenfield does not always mean low risk, as our works on sites with landslips, natural voids, mining legacies, radon issues etc. highlight. There are many brownfield and greenfield sites where the potential issues are readily resolvable provided they are considered early and fully”.

“The key to success is a joined up design process that encompass professionals who understand the opportunities in the ground. If we consider site levels, layouts and risks from the outset, we can often deliver sites that have virtually no waste removal and have cost effective ground engineering solutions.  What is most important is that services for ground investigation, ground assessment and design commence early and are integral to decision making. The most significant problems result where there are surprises or initial budgets were not cognisant of the key risks/issues in the ground”.

In summary, what are the top three risks developers need to be aware of?

1.     Do your homework early.

It is a well-trodden ‘trope’ but there really is no substitute for initial investment in understanding the conditions and constraints of a site at the early stages. Considering the potential issues at the initial desk study stage is the optimal opportunity to identify and commence management of ground risks and resulting opportunities without spending large sums. At this early stage, ground conditions should be interpreted by seasoned professionals with whole project experience and knowledge to inform site viability, risk and cost assessment; problems often stem from limited appreciation of key issues early in the project lifecycle.

2.     Good risk Assessment opens the door to cost savings.

Whilst there is a lot of complexity in terms of the assessment of contamination and geotechnical risks, it ultimately comes down to a process of understanding, and appropriately mitigating risks through an iterative process of expert assessment and design. When done properly, this can result in savings, for example by avoiding waste removal via reuse of soils or through value engineered design.

3.     Recognise that ground risk management is an iterative process

The process of ground risk management is iterative whilst the construction process is often linear.  When ground risks are identified and investigated early, cost effective solutions can be established that fit with the wider project timeframes and objectives. Due to the inherent uncertainty in the ground, this may require phased and targeted investigations and then ongoing, expert evaluation of the ground during the construction phase. The process yields opportunity and value when it is recognised, but uncomfortable surprises when it is circumnavigated. Understanding this allows developers and housebuilders to obtain the undoubted benefits of the ground risk management process.

Allow time so that the process can add real value. Whilst there can be uncertainty associated with the language of ground risk management, this should not prevent it forming a key point of discussion throughout the design development process (now easier than ever with the use of modern communication technologies).

Why risk it? is a campaign designed by our geotechnical experts with many years’ experience in the management of ground risks. As a practice, CampbellReith has worked on some of the most complex ground evaluation and remediation projects in the UK, contributing to major regeneration and future infrastructure developments. Over the coming weeks we will be considering some of the key issues to consider such that ground risks are understood and managed and related opportunities are realised on all projects.