Strong foundation

CW looks at the business constraints and technological advances

An example of a typical piling-rig operation underway.
An example of a typical piling-rig operation underway.

CW looks at the business constraints and technological advances that keep piling contractors on their toes.

The slowdown in the construction industry has had a particular impact on such specialised sectors as piling, as these contractors are usually first on-site in terms of enabling works and ground preparation.

“Like all contractors, we had our share of sites that were either terminated or suspended. However, what has aggravated the situation is the shortage of liquidity, and the over-exposure that some developers have had in the market,” says Edrafor GM Pierre Fayad.

“We were hit by the downturn in the last quarter of 2008,” says Australian Piling Technology LLC managing director Marwan Ammache. However, a good performance in the preceding period lessened the impact.

“In 2009 we had to accept smaller projects, and big ones with low grossing margins just to stay in business. In 2010, business ramped up.

However, collection was a major concern. So far, we are off to a good start in 2011.” Ammache says the company has adapted by decreasing its pricing in order to ramp up its competitiveness.

RIC Middle East MD Mounir Matraji says the negative side of the downturn has been “fewer projects with more bidders. On the positive side, we are able to deliver cost-effective, value-engineered solutions in the wastewater and soil-improvement sectors.

Opportunities are present in the current infrastructure developments planned in the GCC. Current challenges are introducing such new technologies to the market.”

Al Nuaimi Foundations & Concrete divisional manager Kolhummini Mukundun acknowledges that the slowdown in the construction industry has had a marked effect on piling contractors.

However, he adds that many opportunities exist in such markets as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are only now starting to embark on the sort of developmental boom that the UAE is at the tail end of at the moment.

“The challenge is for a local player such as ourselves, based in Ras al Khaimah, to access such opportunities,” says Mukundun.

Ammache says Australian Piling Technology has recently opened a branch in Qatar in order to capitalise on the anticipated 2022 FIFA Soccer World Cup infrastructure spend.

“We are very optimistic with our expansion in Qatar, given the piling/foundation requirements of the development that is required.” He adds that the Middle East sector is definitely up to date with the latest technology and trends.

“Yes, we could say that the Middle East is very much up to date with advances in piling technology.

Basically the trend now is to bring in a machine that has more production capacity. With regard to the testing of piles, more testing equipment is available now, giving better and more accurate results.”

In terms of current projects, the company is involved with the Watani residential development (Phase II) at Khalifa City A, Sorouh Real Estate’s first master-developed community dedicated to Emirati citizens.

This Abu Dhabi project comprises 1,370 luxury villas and 1,176 apartments. A total of 5,900 piles will be deployed by using the temporary casing vibration method.

A particular problem in the region is the soil conditions. “The soils in the region differ greatly from one area to another,” notes Fayad, which is an important consideration on any piling or foundation work.

“Each project has its own particular challenges and solutions. In Jeddah, for example, the biggest challenge is to allow for excavation of several basements for the towers being built on the Corniche. The soil is extremely permeable, comprising mainly corals and sands,” says Fayad.

“Due to the type of soils here, the common problem we encounter is the stability of the soil underground. It might look stable, but underneath it is full of cavities that require more concrete than planned. This is very common when the continuous flight auger piling method is used,” says Ammache.

One of the biggest challenges for the industry at the moment, however, is completely out of its control – and that is the unrest that has plagued Egypt and has had such an impact on the region.

“Probably the main challenge we would be facing in the short- to medium-term is political in nature due to the turmoil that is currently hitting the MENA region,” says Fayad.

Despite this concern, Edrafor’s current project list includes such large-scale developments as the Landmark project in Lebanon, the Kiwan project in Syria and the Danet Tower in Abu Dhabi.

One of the latest players in this competitive niche sector is RIC Middle East, established in Dubai in 2007.

“Having experience in earthworks and soil improvement in the UAE, RIC Middle East identified a need to provide a scalable and cost-effective means of soil improvement,” says director Domenico Venuti.

The inherent flexibility of this method allows related trades to follow closely, thereby speeding up the entire construction process. This has a significant impact on the total overall cost.

Rapid impact compaction (RIC) functions by ‘pushing’ a patented-design footing into the ground in order to achieve effective compaction.
“Currently 9t and 12t drop weights are available, with manufacturers researching larger 16t drop weights,” says Venuti.

“This method also uses shorter drop heights, but higher repetitions, of a falling weight to achieve compaction.

The main benefits compared to traditional methods are faster mobilisation, effective soil improvement inclusive of high silt content and compaction on slopes,” says Venuti.

While this is a relatively new technology in the Middle East, it has been applied with resounding success in North America and Europe.

“The RIC method improves soil stiffness in gravels, sands and silty conditions. We have also had a good degree of success in improving localised clay/silt materials within sands.

Despite the problems perceived by local contractors, the sector remains attractive to international players looking to establish a foothold in the Middle East. One such company is Uretek UK, which sees “great potential for our products in the Middle East and is actively targeting the region,” says marketing manager Cora Bengolea.

“Uretek UK is continuing to do well during the economic downturn, and has actually achieved its highest monthly turnover during this period. The downturn has affected new construction more than the remedial sector.

It may have actually benefitted Uretek in that there is an increased tendency to try to conserve buildings rather than rebuild something new,” says Bengolea. Uretek is not involved in new construction, which is the sector hit worst by the downturn.

“Our PowerPiles are designed for ground improvement and remedial repairs. We are continuing to grow, albeit at a slightly slower rate than before.

We were already looking to expand into the Middle East market before the recent recession,” notes Bengolea. Now is obviously the ideal opportunity to do so.

“The particular challenges presented by the sandy soil conditions in the Middle East fit in neatly with the benefits provided by our system, which is ideal for granular soils.

This is why we are targeting the area, as we believe we have a lot of advantages to offer those countries in helping them solve the particular problems they are encountering in their remedial building, road and airport sectors,” says Bengolea.

“Uretek systems are fast, clean and reliable. There are no excavations and therefore less risk attached. It is possible to put forward very cost-effective proposals due to the saving in time and labour costs.

One of the major benefits of appeal to clients is that their business operations can usually continue during a Uretek repair, and this represents a huge cost-saving for them.”

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