To many reading this the era of the first decade of PCE Ltd, 1973 to 1983, will not even be a distant memory, and many readers will have little appreciation as to how the construction industry operated during this time in what was a rapid communication and digital free business environment and which at the start most calculations were being carried out on manual or basic electronic calculators and slide rules were very much in use.
It may be difficult to believe that during this period an often-contentious sticking point in negotiations between clients, main contractors and sub-contractors was the number of copies of working drawings to be supplied by the specialist contractor all of which had to be hand drawn, printed individually, packaged, and posted out to the designated recipients. Contractual agreements were reached with the number of copies of each drawing to be issued and an agreed cost/drawing copy should reissues be required due to design changes, etc, thus enabling cost reimbursement to the issuer over and above draughting and production costs that also may occur.
Mobile phone communication was still only a dream depicted in comics of the time. Many construction sites had very limited access to telephones, especially during the early days of their set up due to the vagaries of the General Post Office responsible at the time for such installation. Thus a specialist contractor involved near the start of a project often had to rely on using a nearby telephone box or that in a café to get in contact with its suppliers, hoping of course that the person they needed to speak to was at their desk and not out of the office or in a meeting, and if that was the case messages left with telephone receptionists got through. Thus if there was a constructional problem on site it might well be over 24 hours before the design office or factory department were aware and considerations to mitigate the problem start to be implemented.
Whilst the need to improve Health and Safety in the workplace was recognised, such requirements especially on construction sites would only be judged as very minimal by today’s standards. Certain leading main Contractors such as Taylor Woodrow, who at the time were responsible for the design and build of Nuclear Power stations, had instigated in the early 70’s the requirement of wearing safety helmets by all workers when on site, but that was all. The type of footwear, generally wellingtons, or stout walking boots were up to the individual as was their choice of their other clothing, none of it being reflective.
The previous decade, the 60’s, had seen the continued push to rebuild after the 2nd World War, important Infrastructure, Housing and Office developments being at the forefront of need. Many different precast concrete systems appeared on the market developed both within the UK and European companies.
Whilst the gas explosion in 1968 on the 18th floor of a 22-storey precast concrete housing structure, Ronan Point, bought the then boom period of high-rise precast construction to a rapid halt the precast industry diversified into other sectors and new product development. The Ronan Point collapse public enquiry led to a major amendment to the Building Regulations with far more stringent requirements for robustness and initiated the drive to implement more rigorous Quality Control procedures for site works throughout the whole of the construction industry.
The late 60’s saw the beginning of industrial uncertainty, but to one young individual, Vince Wetton, who had left school with no formal qualifications and had worked on construction sites to become both a qualified crane driver and leading a precast concrete erection gang, an opportunity.
Vince Wetton realised that with potential decrease in company workloads being employed by a company may lead to redundancy and thus being available to work for several companies had a better chance of not only maintaining an income as well as increasing his earnings potential.
Vince became self-employed offering his services, and that of his gang, to carry out a diverse range of erection work, often supplementing the inhouse erection crews of established businesses, and developing new business contacts with companies that had no erection crews of their own.
Self-employment gave Vince the opportunity to learn and acquire knowledge about the increasing number of building and construction systems he was being asked to provide erection services for, as well as the business acumen needed to survive in the harsh construction environment.
By 1973 the demand for Vince’s services was growing and it became evident to him that there was a business that he could build, much greater than could be sustained by continuing as self-employed, and that would provide both himself and clients the organisational, development, and safeguards required.
Thus on Monday 19th November 1973 a company, PCE Ltd, was registered at Companies House and immediately started trading.
The first ten years of PCE Ltd saw the business grow principally as an independent precast concrete erector based on the founders ethics and ethos’s – hard work, fairness to both clients and employees, innovative solutions offered to allow clients to build their structural and infrastructure projects faster, in a safe manner, a willingness to solve problems and difficulties as they occurred without adopting a false adversarial approach, thus initiating Company goals of offering Value, Safety, Speed and Quality, which have endured during the lifetime of the business and are such key features of it today.
If there was a problem on site due to lack of fit of components or supply delays as a sub-contract erector Vince would not wait for his clients to come up with a way to rectify such problems and reprogramme to minimise delays, but take a proactive approach to solve and reschedule himself, often before his customer became aware.
Large precast concrete companies of the time such as Dow-Mac Concrete and Fairclough Civil Engineering (Precast Division), later to be rebranded in the 1980’s as C.V Buchan, quickly realised the engineering skills that PCE Ltd, and particularly those of Vince Wetton, despite his lack of any formal education let alone in engineering, could provide in helping to formulate alternative design and build precast concrete solutions in place of initially client designed insitu concrete ones. Leading precast concrete design engineers such as Dr Howard Taylor, Design Director of Dow Mac, later to become a President of the Institution of Structural Engineers recognised Vince as a technical equal and a relationship of partnering developed between the two companies during the late 70’s and early 80’s resulting in many significant projects being carried out by both as time went on.
During this period Dow Mac developed their ‘Spanframe’ system with much input from Vince and PCE on the safe component handling and on site connectivity between the structural frame components, with the flooring components, 2.4 m wide Double Tee units being up to 18m in length and weighing over 12 tonnes, as well as logistic planning to ensure a fast erection programme.
In 1980 Dow Mac, who were the largest precast concrete company in the UK at the time, delivered their first Design and Build Spanframe structure with PCE subcontracted to carry out its erection. The three-storey precast concrete frame with a total suspended floor area of 2,200m2 was fully erected on site in only three working weeks. Within 7 years PCE Ltd was erecting multi-storey precast concrete frames and precast concrete cladding for Dow Mac with nearly 15 times the floor area at the rate of 1,500m2 suspended floor area/week.
PCE’s expertise of construction technology in overcoming difficult site erection challenges also played a leading role in Dow Mac securing a contract to build two warehouse structures for Kodak Ltd at Hemel Hempstead, each 156 metres long, 17.5metres high and 17.2metres wide. Each was constructed using vertical pretensioned Double Tees, with Double Tee roof units and no internal structure. PCE’s solution for the erection was to use a 14m long by 16m high movable gantry mounted on rails constructed of structural steel and ‘Kwickstage’ scaffolding that provided temporary stability to the vertical units until they were fixed in position with insitu concrete at their base and welding of shear connectors. A single Demag crawler crane with a 300tonne capacity and 78m long jib to handle all the wall and roof units, some of which weighed up to 33tonnes. Over 13,000 tonnes of precast units were erected on this project in less than 10 weeks.
The Kodak project was to be later awarded a major European award for industrialised buildings winning 2nd Prize from 42 entries received from 17 European countries.
The first 10 years of PCE Ltd thus saw it develop from little more than a one crew operation to become a well-respected and innovative predominately precast concrete erection business, partnering, in the true sense of the word, with the leading precast concrete companies.
All of this during a time period where the country underwent significant industrial decline with the three-day week in 1974 and difficult industrial relations including building industry strikes and ‘The Winter of Discontent’ of 1978-79.
Vince Wetton carefully steered his fledgling company through its first ten years, avoiding bad contractual obligations, developing good business relationships, employing and training the right people with similar ethos’s, to become the leading specialist erection contractor, and looking to continue to build the business going forward.
Norman Brown has worked within the construction industry for over 50 years and first had contact with PCE Ltd in 1983 which was the start of a long working relationship. Following a successful career with leading precast concrete companies, a specialist design and build contractor, as well as construction trade organisations, Norman has been a Consultant to PCE for over 12 years.