UK Portable Sanitation Early Adopters Build Their Own Restroom Trailers

Site Equip hit the London-area market nearly 30 years ago and had to introduce construction contractors and event planners to the concept of portable sanitation

UK Portable Sanitation Early Adopters Build Their Own Restroom Trailers

The Beach Hut trailer unit is set up to serve guests at an outdoor wedding.

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When Geoff and Sonia Gilbert of Lasham, England, bought three portable restrooms in 1988, they were getting in on the ground floor of a nearly nonexistent industry in their country — but one on the verge of exploding.

In the beginning, their main task was to introduce potential customers to portable sanitation and to convince them to use restrooms. Ten years later, after legislation came in regarding sanitation requirements on construction sites — as well as the development of an event industry — the market was dictating what it wanted. That led the couple to expand service offerings, create unique themed restroom trailers and set up their own trailer manufacturing facility. Their near-monopoly was over and competition became fierce.

Today, the company operates three divisions under one umbrella legal entity called Site Equip — Site Equip for construction work, Site Event for event rentals, and Site Build for manufacturing restroom trailers. About two-thirds of their work is servicing construction customers, one-third events. They have two 5,000-square-foot buildings on their 2.5-acre property: one for offices and maintenance and the other for manufacturing.

In 2015, they opened up a small second location 80 miles east in Paddock Wood, England, to more easily accommodate the increase in work in that area. Their service territory covers most of the south of England, including London.

The Gilberts’ two children also work for the company. Amy Gilbert, who used to tag along with mom in her car seat, now has degrees in event management and employment law, and she is a company director. Adam Gilbert joined full time in 2016 after getting a degree, traveling, becoming a qualified ski instructor and working for a London wealth management firm. He’s now in charge of their event division. In the winter, the company has about 35 employees, increasing to 50 in the summer. Operational personnel are cross-trained for each division, an arrangement that works especially well with the seasonal nature of their event business.

ON THE GROUND FLOOR

It was while working on a construction site in 1988 that Geoff Gilbert, a civil engineer, first learned about portable restrooms. “He just wondered why hasn’t anybody thought of this before,” Sonia Gilbert says. Geoff Gilbert convinced his wife that they should get in on this great idea. They started out by buying a franchise from a local company and then struck out on their own a couple years later. Geoff Gilbert kept his job while Sonia Gilbert, a new mother at the time, gave up her career in transport finance and recruitment and ran the business with the help of part-time drivers.

Business was slow at first. “The industry in this country is only 30 years old,” Sonia Gilbert explains. “We had to sell the idea — that it’s not connected to mains (municipal sewer), we come out with a tanker and empty it, and we clean it out.” After three years and diligent effort on their part as well as new sanitation laws for the construction industry, they had sufficient income for Geoff Gilbert to quit his job and join full time.

About that same time, Site Equip was asked to provide units for a ploughing match (an agriculture competition), and thus began the creation of their event division — called Loos R Us in those days. At the time, there really wasn’t an event industry in the country. Sonia Gilbert says, “Now you’ve got boutique festivals, music festivals, and every weekend there’s a marathon — all sorts of things that weren’t around back then.” Meanwhile, they also expanded construction offerings by adding mobile offices, storage containers, fencing, and safety equipment including signs, ladder guards, and fall-arrest systems.

Once again, they had to do some convincing to get the event division going. Event organizers didn’t want to provide units because the cost came right off their bottom line. But as events became more popular, people got used to seeing them and then started expecting them. Eventually, they became legally required.

To stay at the forefront of the industry, the company put its first restroom trailer on the road in 1991. Again, they had a selling job on their hands, but the idea took off with event companies who then sold the idea to their clients.

BUILDING THEIR OWN

It wasn’t long before those clients started demanding something different. “People were getting bored with straight white, blue or green trailer units,” Gilbert says. The company’s response was to create their own custom-designed trailers. They began dabbling in manufacturing in 2010 and by 2014 they started Site Build. The Gilberts hit on the idea of making themed trailers for their customers, achieved by using vinyl wrapping on the exteriors of standard trailers and providing coordinating features on the interiors.

The first two themes played off the rural environment they’re in — the Shepherd’s Hut and the Potting Shed, followed by the Gypsy Caravan and the Beach Hut. Each trailer came with one male and one female luxury suite, but their more recent Horse Stable has one male and two female suites. Amy and Adam Gilbert came up with the idea for their newest unit — Shabby Chic, a three-female/one-male configuration — by pouring through Pinterest photos to find out what interior features were popular. The unit has been short-listed for an award from Hire Association Europe and has been especially popular for weddings.

Sonia Gilbert says the creative process goes something like this: “You write it on the back of an envelope, then talk to a very talented chippy (carpenter) and say, ‘This is my idea. Make it work for me.’” The units have been immensely popular. “They’re a talking point. They’re not just a toilet.”

Another advantage of building the trailers themselves was being able to design them for maximum functionality. Gilbert says, “You want something that’s durable and easy to turn around to the next client — easy to clean it all out, to empty.”

They also build shower trailers and mobile offices, and they came up with the idea of ticket booth and exhibition trailers.

THE WORKHORSES

Their 3,000 standard restrooms came from Satellite Industries and PolyJohn Enterprises. Satellite Industries also supplies their sachet-type deodorizers.

Event and construction restrooms are kept separate and are easily identifiable by color — green for events, blue for construction.

Gilbert points out one difference between U.S. and England portable restrooms. “In the U.K., there are no drop tanks,” she says. “Every toilet in the U.K. is a flushing toilet. The market changed for us about 20 years ago when Satellite Industries started making them.”

Besides serving numerous events and construction projects throughout southern England, the company supplies portable restrooms for tug boats and film crews, including the 2012 James Bond film Skyfall. For the London 2012 Summer Olympics, they provided units for some of the security forces.

The company has 12 Mercedes Sprinter vacuum trucks, all under three years old. They were built out by Rapide Tankers with steel tanks, which range in size from 300 gallons to 2,000 gallons. Waste is taken to a local treatment plant.

RELENTLESS FOCUS ON QUALITY

The Gilberts have been pioneers in improving the standards by which the industry and their own company operate. They were founding members of Portable Sanitation Europe, where Gilbert recently served on the board. “It was people in the industry putting together a code of conduct and trying to help each other out,” she says.

The importance of operational excellence is instilled in their employees, who often undergo training. The company runs two Certificate of Professional Competence courses each year — the government-required training for truck drivers to become certified. The U.K. also has a set of competency standards for different occupations, so company employees go through training and testing on the standards relevant to the sanitation industry. Company-specific training helps ensure quality and consistency of work.

“You always get people who take shortcuts,” Gilbert says. “That’s not what we’re about. We’re about reputation, longevity and quality of service. I think that’s why we’re still here 30-odd years later.” It’s also why the company was able to easily weather two major recessions.

STEADY GROWTH

Business plans for the future are for growth, but in a way that is controlled and manageable. “We think it’s a good business model to grow slow but sure with a good foundation,” she says. “We’re not in it for a get-rich-quick sort of scenario.” She also emphasizes it’s essential to have the right people in place who are committed and believe in the business.

The company and the industry look different today than 30 years ago. Gilbert says, “We’ve seen a huge amount of change not just with what we’re providing, but with the expectations of the clients, as well. If you get a very posh wedding, they want something that’s even better than they can get in their homes.”

But whatever customers want, Site Equip is going to do its best to give it to them. She says, “At the end of the day, we just want to please the clients — to surprise and delight them.”


Not your usual delivery

In 1989, Site Equip in Lasham, England, received a request from a construction client for portable restrooms. However, this was anything but a routine request as the work site was in a tunnel. To deliver the units, they had to custom-tailor an approach. Health and safety laws prohibited companies from transporting units by attaching them directly to a crane, so Geoff Gilbert — who co-owns the company with his wife, Sonia Gilbert — designed a transport frame that could be attached to a client-provided crane.

The unit was made of steel, had an attachment at the top for a crane hook, and was sized to solidly secure one portable restroom. Sonia says, “The toilets were put on the frame, lifted into the tunnel onto a wheeled railway, and then railed down to where the workers were.” The system has since been used on a number of tunnels and other industrial projects, such as on top of London’s 95-story Shard skyscraper and on the Forth Bridge in Scotland.




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