Site visit: Yasmeen Rotana, Syria
CW visits the site of Damascus's second only five-star hotel project
High-profile developments in Syria are an attractive proposition for construction firms looking to expand in to new markets.
One such development, the Yasmeen Rotana hotel, has attracted a significant amount of interest from construction professionals. Upon completion, not only will it be the second international five-star hotel in Damascus, but also the newest five-star hotel in the capital, and the flagship development for new Syrian developer Bena Properties, part of Cham Holding.
“The Yasmeen Rotana is the first-ever project for Bena since we started real-estate activities in 2009,” says CEO Hawazen Esber. “We are using the best-available contractors and consultants to develop a first-class hotel. There is a lack of those in Syria at the moment, especially in Damascus, so we believe this will be a good addition to the hospitality sector.”
Located on the Damascus-Beirut highway, the project is 15 minutes from the heart of the city and 35 minutes from Damascus International Airport. When finished, it will have 338 rooms and cater to the business community, and to tourists visiting the historic capital.
“It is a project in a city that is really lacking hotels, so it is not a speculative project. It is also in a country which has made a political decision to encourage tourism by providing tax exemptions for tourism projects,” Esber explains.
Construction of the Yasmeen Rotana has been divided into three packages, one for the enabling works (piling, shoring and excavation), a second for the raft foundation and a third for the main construction work.
“It was divided this way so we could get on with construction work while the design was being finalised, so we did not have to wait for the design to be completely finished before we could start,” says Osama Soudan, Bena's projects manager.
According to Bena, five contractors put forward bids for the project, including Man (Lebanon), ACC (Lebanon), Arabtec (UAE), Bouygues (France, with a local partner Yaquobian) and Marasem/Bin Ladin (Saudi Arabia).
Arabtec won the contract largely on price, but also because Bena considered them to be one of the biggest contracting firms in the region, with an impressive portfolio, which was important for a project counting on quick construction and a quality build.
“Our plan and our contract with Arabtec says we will finish in March 2012,” says Soudan.
“Right now we are a couple of months behind schedule, but we are working with Arabtec to do whatever is required to mitigate these delays. There are some good signs and some bad signs, but I am still very hopeful that we will meet that date.”
Soudan says the main reasons for project delays lie in obtaining labour and materials.
“It can take time to get labourers, or more importantly, qualified labourers. It is not like in Dubai where you can get 500 labourers at once. You have to make sure they are the right calibre, or you have to train them.”
He adds that the issue has come about largely due to qualified Syrian workers moving to places like the GCC, and that the slowdown in Dubai had been good for Syria.
“Syria actually has a lot of efficient workers. But a few years ago when the GCC was booming, there was no way you could keep our good labourers here. Now things are slowing down, we are getting people back.”
As for materials, Soudan says the root of the problem is poor planning. “You can bring in any materials you want here because of the exemptions. It is more about planning and having the right material on-site and on time, which sometimes affects progress.”
Tied in with these challenges is the more general issue of the Yasmeen Rotana being the first big Syrian project for Arabtec, Woods Bagot and the developers themselves. Arabtec project manager Riyadh Al Ani admits that not knowing the market or its construction standards can make life more difficult.
“This is the first time we have been assigned as main contractor for a project in Syria, and the first time we have worked on such a prestigious development here,” he says. “Our main objective is to deliver quality construction services on time. Our biggest challenge stems from relying on local labour and experience, because the law in Syria prohibits us from using foreign labour.
“Also, the market is different from the UAE regarding procurement procedures, and the local market is not familiar with international standards, so we have to give them some assistance.”
Another, perhaps less significant, issue is that of storing materials on-site. While the transport of materials poses few problems due to the two highways, the site itself is very tight, leaving very little space for storage.
Of course, the project is also recognised for its construction achievements. According to Soudan, the biggest so far has been the fast-paced construction, while simultaneously maintaining quality.
“The speed that we are delivering the work and the quality is far beyond what you can see anywhere else in Syria, because we are bringing international standards here. Even if we are a few months behind schedule, this will still be the fastest project to be built in Syria.
Also, the health and safety on this project is far superior to any other project in the country.”
At the time of the site visit, the contractor had made a start on the seventh level of the V-shaped structure on one side of the project, and the fifth level on the other side.
According to the project managers, there was an 11-day cycle for building each storey – the floors being preceded by four core walls. In addition, due to the site constraints, the concrete was being poured and cast in three phases.
“MEP has also started, and is already reaching third floor,” says Soudan. “It is the same as it is done in Dubai or the GCC. You remove your formwork immediately, and the MEP subcontractor starts putting in the pipework – this is the only way you can do it in three years; if you wait, there is no way you can finish in time.”
He says the lifts will not be installed for at least four months. “That is fairly typical, because you do not want to have them in too early and be subjected to wear-and-tear.”
At the time of the site visit, the stone façade was being prepared and due to be installed.
The Yasmeen Rotana project also called for several construction techniques and materials that, while in use in other parts of the region, were used for the first time in Syria.
Use of C60 (high-strength) concrete for all the vertical elements (columns and beams), post-tensioning for all the slabs and specific formwork systems from Peri and Meva designed to speed up construction, for example, are all new in the country.
“These techniques and materials are fairly typical in Dubai, but not in Syria. This is the first project where high-strength concrete is being used,” Soudan explained. “For the core walls we are using jumpform, so they are at least three floors ahead of the slabs.”
Perhaps more impressive, however, is the way the boardroom in basement one is being built.
“We have a very big boardroom in the basement, which spans 20m. To accommodate this, the designer used 20m-long beams, (2.5m deep and 4m wide), all post-tensioned, which will be used for the top of the substructure/bottom of the superstructure. It is almost like big bridge structures supporting the entire building. We did this so we could change the location of the columns, as you cannot ideally have columns in the middle of a boardroom.”
Asked about the terrain, and whether this required any special considerations, Soudan said it didn’t, though he alluded to the importance of finishing the substructure quickly before the anchors used for the shoring exceeded their expiration date.
“The solid material is very strong; it is almost like rock, so we had no concerns with the foundations. The only issue was having a 28m hole in the ground.
We had to make sure we had built all the basements before the anchors used for the shoring expired. They only had a lifespan of one to one-and-a-half years, so we had to finished everything in that time, otherwise there was a chance the anchors could have pulled out.”
Insight Architecture - A sense of heritage
Basing its project in one of the oldest cities in the world, Bena Properties was adamant that the design of the hotel have a strong sense of Syrian culture and heritage.
Woods Bagot was the designer, with all design done in Dubai to international specifications. “We have tried to imitate older buildings in Damascus,” says Bena projects director Osama Soudan.
For example, the project uses Tadmouri stone for the façade, a local stone from Palmera, while the interior design will incorporate a hint of jasmine – the symbolic flower of Damascus, otherwise known as ‘the City of Jasmine’. The name ‘Yasmeen’ is also the Arabic word for jasmine.
At 47m high, the building has also been designed in accordance with local regulations. Currently there are no high-rises in Syria. “The regulations stipulate the maximum height as 47m,” says Soudan.
“I do not think they have anything more than 12 to 13 storeys high in the city. It is an old city, so people do not like going much higher.” That said, he adds, there are rumours of a new, 64-storey building project being developed in the city by Syria Holding.
Other key architectural features have been incorporated into the Yasmeen Rotana so as to optimise luxury. The V-shape of the building was designed to ensure the best views for hotel guests, while maximising the size of the rooms.
Client/owner: Cham Holding/Bena Properties (45 year BOT agreement with government)
Developer: Cham Holding/Bena Properties
Operator/FM: Rotana hotels
Piling, excavation, shoring: Edrafor
Main contractor: Arabtec
Architects, landscape and lead consultant: Woods Bagot
Façade concept designer: Khatib & Alami
Subconsultants - structural design: BG&E
MEP, subcontractor: ALCOMAC; subconsultant, MEP design: Red Engineering
Project manager: Mace
Supervising consultant: Halcrow
Lifts, supplier: Schindler
Glass and aluminum, systems: Reynaers
Stone: Admouri stone
Concrete supplier: RMC
Steel suppliers: Joud, Ayman Al Jaber and Hamsho
Lighting supplier: TBC
Consultant interior: DPA
Consultant exterior: NOURAN
Plaster supplier: Knauf; applicator: TBC
Interior design supplier: Depa
Paint: National Paint, Jotun
Fire safety supplier: NAFFCO
Consultant: Design Confidence
Acoustic consultant: WSP
Audio visual consultant: Red Engineering
Kitchen and laundry consultant: Fondue
Traffic consultant: Arecun
Signage consultant: BPG
Pre-contract local consultant: KAC
Swimming-pool consultant: Belhasa
Formwork: Middle East Company for Contracting (MECC), Peri, Meva