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High hopes: mast climbers

5 May Mast-climbing work platforms aren’t new but they are under-appreciated – at least that’s the assertion of one leading hirer. David Taylor reports

So you need access to the outside of a tall building for construction or maintenance work: you need scaffolding – right?

Well that’s the received wisdom in most sectors of the industry. But there is an alternative method, one that the proponents of which believe is under-utilised: mast-climbing work platforms (MCWPs or simply mastclimbers for short).

This article was first published in the March 2021 issue of The Construction Index magazine.  Sign up online.

Mastclimbers are nothing new – they’re not even that uncommon. And yet when it comes to specifying an external access solution, scaffolding is nearly always the default option. And that irritates Rob Munns, head of sales at BFT Mastclimbing, the Bedfordshire-based company that claims to be the UK’s biggest supplier of MCWPs.

“Trying to stick to facts and away from sales, I am frustrated that searching through local government tender portals etc, you typically only see a tender for scaffolding in relation to high-rise projects,” says Munns. 

“Why is the industry closed to other solutions and how can it move forward when it is only looking at what it knows?” he asks.

Munns is vehement in his promotion of the MCWP concept. Even though he accepts that scaffolding will always have a role to play, job-for-job mastclimbers are quicker, cheaper, safer and less labour-intensive than scaffolding, he argues.

 If BFT were a mastclimbing specialist trying simply to elbow its way into the industry and grab market share from scaffolding contractors, you’d be right to be sceptical about Munns’ assertions. But it’s not quite as simple as that.

Yes, BFT is a mastclimbing specialist and it does want more of the action – but “BFT” originally stood for “Boards, Fittings & Tubes”. The company is a scaffolding contractor that’s seen the light.

BFT was launched in 1997 by its present chief executive, 59-year-old Robin Head, who had run his own scaffolding businesses since the age of 18. BFT operated quite happily as a scaffolding contractor for several years before Head’s epiphany.

“We had a successful eight or nine years growing the business and then the turnaround point came along – funnily enough – when we were putting scaffolding up around the bottom of tower blocks as protection for these machines called ‘mastclimbers’,” recalls Head.

This was the first of eight residential blocks in the Luton area that were scheduled for refurbishment and Head was conscious that it was all one contract with the same contractor carrying out the work. “We looked and saw the performance of the mastclimbing company in question and said to ourselves: ‘we could do that, and we could do that better’,” he says.

It was not that Head hadn’t seen mastclimbers before, but there wasn’t much demand for them in southern England. “Predominantly, mastclimbers have been used mostly in the north – from Manchester up to Scotland,” says Head. “Scotland has always been a big user of mastclimbers.”

On the Luton refurbishment project, it was a Scottish hirer supplying the mastclimbers and Head could see that the company was struggling with the logistics, especially the labour supply. “Consequently everything was really slow and it would take weeks and weeks to erect these machines,” he says.

But Head could see the advantage of using masctlimbers and the client was keen to use them. So he offered to take on the access subcontract with mastclimbers, even though he didn’t possess any at that time.

“Yes, it was a big risk. From the financial perspective we made the decision that we were going to go out and buy enough machines to furnish the contract in Luton – which meant we had to purchase 60 machines.

“The idea was that over the course of 12 to 18 months we would buy those machines and start offsetting the finance with the sale of all our scaffolding stock,” he says. “We went from scaffolding contractor to full-on mastclimbers in no more than 18 months.”

This all happened in 2006/7, at which point the global recession hit. But despite the economic hardship – or perhaps because of it – BFT Mastclimbers, as the company now became, actually grew during this time.

Both Head and Munns believe that the economic and operational benefits of using mastclimbers were factors in this ability to thrive during recession; after all, lower costs and higher productivity are especially attractive when times are hard.

According to Munns, for a typical building of 25-plus storeys, mastclimbers offer a potential 80% cost saving compared with scaffolding. A marketing ‘white paper’ published by BFT in 2019 estimates that “if mastclimbers were used in every instance where they are economically compelling, the construction industry could see access costs circa £120m per year lower than if it used scaffolding.”

There’s no denying that mastclimbers require far fewer components than any comparable scaffolding structure. That yields numerous benefits: less transport, faster erection and dismantling and fewer operatives to install the equipment. BFT calculates that, project-for-project, mastclimbers require almost 70% less transport activity than scaffolding.

Perhaps the biggest argument in favour of mastclimbers is the speed of erection. It takes about two days to erect mastclimbers on a 12- to 14-storey building, says Munns, and just two days to dismantle them. To scaffold the same building, you would need 16 days to erect the structure and 14 days to dismantle it.

There are safety and security issues, too. “Specifically relating to the Grenfell tragedy, I would ask…why would you want to wrap a flammable tower in even more flammable materials – those being wooden scaffolding boards?” he declares. “The industry would argue they can supply metal ones, but these are even more expensive to use,” he adds.

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Munns also argues that when refurbishing or recladding a residential block, the increased erection speeds reduce total programme time and minimise the disruption to residents. 

“And putting scaffolding up for the public to climb on surely makes mastclimbers the obvious choice,” he says.

“Blocking light with scaffold and sheeting for longer than necessary is surely going to have a further negative impact on the quality of life and mental health of the residents,” adds Munns.

Munns’ assertions are backed up by Daniel Clarke, director of Sheffield-based Wharncliffe Construction Planning. Clarke operates as an independent consultant advising on programme sequence, logistics, resource management and procurement. “I look at the options and find the optimum solution,” he says.

He agrees that most projects start out with the assumption that scaffolding will be the best access method but, he says, the best solution is always site-specific. “I meet the contractors and find out their preferences and I spend time with the subcontractors to find what will work best for them.”

Clarke was recently employed to advise on a contract for a new 12-storey, concrete-framed residential building on a narrow site in Sheffield city centre. “There was very little space for loadout and storage on site and the planning conditions imposed very strict limits on vehicle movements,” he explains. 

The default position was ‘let’s get a price for scaffolding’, so I did. I knew it would be expensive and it was. So I started looking at MCWPs,” says Clarke. “Nobody on the team had any experience of mastclimbers and didn’t know who to speak to or what to ask.”

Clarke discovered that while the cost of scaffolding was ‘several hundred thousand’ pounds, mastclimbers would cost around £100,000. “From that point of view it was an obvious winner,” he says.

On this particular contract, mastclimbers were used for about 80% of the external access provision, with scaffolding employed only for areas inaccessible to MCWPs – mastclimbers are not a panacea, he admits.

“You have to look at the pros and cons. If you use mastclimbers you need power, so that means you might need a generator as well,” observes Clarke. 

Mastclimbers might also not permit parallel working by different trades. Clarke cites a project on which the building façade comprised a combination of finishes including brickwork and curtain walling. “If you have two or three subbies working alongside each other you might have to split the access package up which makes it more complicated – they’ll all want access at all times. That’s where your scaffolding can help, because it allows access to the whole building,” explains Clarke.

Nevertheless, BFT Mastclimbing is finding that a growing number of main contractors and developers are prepared to substitute MCWPs where scaffolding would traditionally have been a shoo-in. 

Two recent residential developments in the London area illustrate this point. Developer Vistry Partnerships opted for mastclimbers for the construction of two tower blocks in Beckton, east London – but got off to a poor start and abandoned the method in favour of traditional scaffolding. 

This resulted in an unacceptable hike in costs and Vistry went back to the drawing board and approached BFT. Not only did the mastclimbers bring the cost down again, they also helped to claw back lost programme time, says Rob Munns.

A larger project, for another leading house-builder, involved three buildings up to 31 storeys in height. Since the building firm had its own scaffolding division, this was the preferred access option. But such was the scale of the project that the contractor would have had to use its entire inventory of scaffolding – and hire-in more. The cost was prohibitive and eventually BFT Mastclimbing was employed. 

Today, BFT Mastclimbing claims to be three times the size of its nearest competitor – it has certainly enjoyed rapid growth. Between 2010 and 2017 the fleet grew from 400 machines to 600 – at which point Robin Head sold the business to private equity firm Equistone.

The investor’s cash injection sparked a growth spurt – and “a spending spree”, as Head puts it. In the past three years, the fleet has grown from 600 machines to 1,650. 

In 2016, BFT turned over £6.3m and made a pre-tax profit of just over £1m; in 2020 the turnover figure was £15.3m and pre-tax profits had almost doubled to £1.7m. 

This article was first published in the March 2021 issue of The Construction Index magazine.  Sign up online.

Robin Head’s faith in mastclimbers has clearly paid off and while he believes these machines are still underutilised in the industry he knows that it’s always a case of “horses for courses”.

“Scaffolding is more flexible for those complicated structures,” he says, “and you have to scaffold houses – you can’t use mastclimbers for that.

“But we will always be more cost-effective above five storeys.”

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