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Underground movement

by CW Guest Columnist on Nov 14, 2012

Dan Louis.
Dan Louis.

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Although there are still many economic uncertainties in the world today, the demand for new and revitalised infrastructure is as strong as ever.

Many cities are still growing quickly, and older cities are grappling with severely ageing infrastructure. These demands have led to a strong increase in underground construction projects, particularly in the transportation sector.

Examples include significant underground metro projects being tendered or underway in Doha, Riyadh and Hong Kong. Many other large tunnelling programmes are also moving forward in the region, including the UAE, Singapore, Turkey, India and even Iran.

Global constructors such as Samsung C&T are mobilising to meet these demands. Tunnel Boring Machine (TBM) manufacturers report strong demand for their equipment, even though the state-of-the-art machines can cost more than $30m each.

Beyond TBM projects, demand remains robust for conventional forms of underground construction, including traditional cut-and-cover techniques, mined and sequentially-excavated tunnels and micro-tunnelling.

Although underground construction is typically a necessity for water and sewer infrastructure projects, they often do not represent the lowest upfront costs for transportation projects. However, due to the ever-increasing density of built infrastructure, and the stronger demand for sustainable and eco-friendly construction, these projects are often being driven, so to speak, underground.

The long-term advantages of going underground are the main reasons behind this continued strong demand. From a pure cost standpoint, the ‘whole-of-life’ considerations provide much of the economic justification.

After all, underground projects typically have a longer design life and lower operation and maintenance costs than their above-ground counterparts. However, the main driver behind many of these decisions to go underground is founded on the desire to maximise sustainability and minimise impacts on the environment.

Underground projects will present less visual, noise, air/water quality and related impacts. As cities become more complex and sophisticated, the value of these benefits increases. And these goals also apply to the increasingly-stringent requirements during construction.

In response to the new complexities, and the consequent demands on project costs and schedules, the use of design-build/EPC and even alliance contracts has increased. This requires greater collaboration and cooperation between owners, designers, constructors and project stakeholders, as well as promoting innovation.

Global contractors with experience in sophisticated construction markets have already seen these changes first-hand, and have learned to focus on the sustainability, environmental and community needs from the very earliest stages of the project.

Contractors without this experience and perspective have often suffered, particularly when pushing into new markets where they may be prone to underestimate the strength and fortitude of the clients, environmental agencies and the local community.

Along with these developments, each city will need to find the right balance between increasing sustainability and environmental goals and the costs and time required to delivery these badly-needed programmes. If too much emphasis is placed on the former, costs will rise, as will delivery time (and the associated disputes).

In such cases, the end users of these projects will not be well served. Conversely, if too much focus is placed on low-cost delivery, then the recent progress with sustainable, long-term goals could be jeopardised. Strong leadership and perseverance will be needed to find this balance and to push forward.

Dan Louis is VP, Civil Engineering Centre, Samsung C&T.