Building on Solid Foundations

2 December 2010 (Last Updated December 2nd, 2010 18:30)

Now that the financial crisis has passed its peak, design-build projects are beginning to roll out once more. Sarah Blackman speaks to the experts to find out what developers and designers need to do to ensure they don't make the same mistakes twice.

The competition in the construction industry has never been so tough. Big-time designers and developers are shrugging off financial crisis talk, picking up the pieces and starting over. And, this time they mean business.

Already, the sector is showing signs of growth. In the UK, much of the economic boost came from construction in the second quarter of this year; the sector added 4% to the 9.5% jump in the overall economy as it recovered from the slump.

In the US, McGraw-Hill Construction, part of The McGraw-Hill Companies, recently released its 2011 Construction Outlook, which predicts that the level of new projects will increase by 8% to $445.5bn, following the 2% decline predicted for 2010.

 The French construction sector is also expected to accelerate by 2.66% in 2011 to €116.1bn ($141.7bn) with the help of major upcoming projects, such as the Tours-Bordeaux high speed rail development and stadiums for the UEFA European Football Championship to be hosted in the country in 2016, according to France Infrastructure Report Q4 2010.

"Demand for new projects isn't as high as it once was, so designers and engineers are relying on reputation to get ahead."

And, in the UAE, where many skeletal structures were abandoned at the peak of the downturn, the construction industry is expected to witness a compound annual growth rate of around 20% from 2010 to 2013, the UAE Construction Industry Outlook for 2012 revealed last month.

But, the demand for new projects isn't as high as it once was, so contractors, designers and engineers are now relying on their reputation to get ahead, and, in these hard times, those who cut corners will be left behind, as Ramboll associate director of facades Agnes Koltay explains "If you move into your new flat and cannot sleep because of noise from the street, this is difficult to fix.

Maybe the developer saved some money on material costs by reducing the glass thickness of the windows, but their reputation for being quality housing providers may suffer in the long-term."

"The same goes for loud ACs, occupied elevators, tight turns in the parking garage, or a series of inconveniently located fire hose cabinets. The building will not fail, but these qualities would separate engineering and good engineering," Koltay adds.

So before the world's construction players attempt to turn over a new leaf, there are lessons to be learned and if a finished project is to stand the test of time, the design-to-handover process needs to improve.

Half a job

During the construction boom - before the days of belt tightening and spending cuts - time was the biggest issue for builders. Companies were focused on completing one project and moving on to the next without accounting for the challenges that might lie ahead, and how their development would be managed on a day-to-day basis once they had left the site.

All too often contractors and developers envisaged a finished project running like clockwork before the concrete was even poured, as Koltay reflects "Quick delivery considerations often forced a compromise in quality on architects, developers, or contractors."

"The early involvement of a consultant can also help streamline the procurement strategy."

But today's need for budgeting also means that jobs are still being finished half heartedly "Nowadays for the ongoing projects, cuts are forcing a compromise in quality so there is no real change in the end result," adds Koltay.

On the surface it would seem that developers and architects are facing a no win situation with a lack of budget and the pressure of building projects to an excellent standard but some companies are finding that careful advanced planning is working in their favour.

Better to be safe

The key theme in many of today's biggest on-going projects is the involvement of expert consultants, who can provide developers with sound advice, in the early stages of a development right up to the time of completion. This reduces risk, and where fewer mistakes are made, the construction programme reduces, as do the costs.

At the Dubai Pearl, a mixed-use project in the UAE, developers, designers and consultants worked together to determine how smoothly the project will be operated in the future. Design details, from the signage in the car park that will keep traffic to a minimum to how much laundry would be delivered to the site, were carefully planned out.

It is also vital that an architect stays with the project from start to finish, explains Koltay "Projects these days often have design changes on-the-go, which is understandable, as the economic environment is changing and following it renders the project more viable by maximising the expected return."

"If a finished project is to stand the test of time, the design-to-handover process needs to improve."

A project that experienced many design changes is 1 World Trade Centre in New York City. Originally, the tower was designed with a glass base but this worried the New York City Police Department and, for safety reasons, the project was redesigned with a concrete protection wall around the lobby, which would be covered with glass prisms.

Other disciplines, such as structural and MEP engineering need full time site presence. These experts can advise on sustainable power and water solutions that would save developers from the costly procedure of retrofitting their buildings in the future.

The early involvement of a consultant can also help streamline the procurement strategy with the client to ensure the contractor is ready to deliver the project. It is crucial that the designers and contractors are on the same page from the beginning of the development to avoid unforeseen circumstances and disputes.

Companies such as Ramboll, Arup and the UK's Bowmer and Kirkland, are able to reduce the number of uncoordinated or misunderstood issues, which may cause complications or pose limitations to the design in a later stage, because they have all the major engineering disciplines under one roof and take on whole projects from start to finish.

Koltay explains "We are just a few desks away from the other disciplines; we can call a mini-meeting any time and check on feasibility of a solution from the point of view of other disciplines before we spend time documenting it."

"We frequently keep a conversation with contractors along the process, which is getting more intense at tender stage," she adds.

Developers, designers, engineers and suppliers all have contradicting views of what their ideal development would look like upon completion but, if they wish to handover a successful project, they must take off their rose tinted spectacles and look at how they can work together to take advantage of their full range of skill sets.