Face to face: Danilo Aquino, NORR

NORR Group Consultants’ Danilo Aquino says that it takes nerves of steel and an inquisitive nature to make it as a fast-track designer in the Middle East’s construction sector

INTERVIEWS, Projects, Construction, Construction sector, Designer, Face to face, Interview, Middle east, NORR, NORR Group Consultants

Danilo Aquino, director of NORR Group Consultants’ structural department, has seen more than his fair share of Middle East buildings through to completion. However, his sizeable back catalogue of projects hasn’t been accumulated by chance. His prolific nature is, in part, due to the types of contract with which he has become associated.

During his career, Aquino has forged a reputation as one of the foremost experts on fast-track design and construction. Time and again, NORR’s structural director has proven himself capable of architectural ad-libbing, enabling contractors to begin work before his designs have been finalised.

“The fast-track process involves the almost-simultaneous commencement of design and construction activities,” Aquino tells Construction Week. “For example, if you have the concept and schematic designs for a [horizontal project], detailed design and construction activities can take place [concurrently]. For [vertical projects], specific architectural features may be required by the client. Even so, if NORR is employed to conduct a fast-track design [for a tower], we may only be given a seven-day head start. After that week, construction activities, such as excavation and enabling works, can begin.

“But give me a grid and the number of floors, and I’ll make it so that construction can start right away,” he asserts.

Indeed, NORR’s structural director has built a career on his ability to rapidly put theory into practice. It is interesting to note, therefore, that Aquino – a man who prides himself on his practical aptitude – began his professional life in academia.

“I spent eight years working as a professor at Lyceum of the Philippines University (LPU) in Manila,” Aquino recounts. “I started as a lecturer, and by the end of my tenure, I was chair of the College of Engineering.

“I was excellent at deriving formulas, and that’s how university faculty members usually spend their time. When issues arise on site, companies often turn to professors to offer solutions. I spent a decade solving such problems, but then I took the decision to leave for the private sector. Somebody advised me that my talents were being wasted in academia. They told me to get out into the world where I was needed.”

Aquino heeded this advice and embarked on a career in the private sector that has taken him to multiple continents. In addition to numerous spells in the UAE, he has designed developments in Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, Japan, Kuwait, Libya, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, the United States, and Vietnam.

Since relocating to Dubai with NORR in 2007, Aquino has been able to stretch his fast-track muscles even further across a plethora of projects in the Middle East. He explains: “Every project that NORR has right now is fast track. That’s why the company hired me in the first place; somebody passed my name to the engineering director.”

One could be forgiven for assuming that, due to the nature of fast-track design and construction, clients would agree to keep their visions simple. However, Aquino points out that this is not always the case, as evidenced by his team’s work on a large-scale regional hotel and mall development.

“This project is the largest I’ve worked on since joining NORR,” says Aquino. “It’s a 1,000,000m2 mall comprising two podiums, six retail floors, and a hotel. The client came to NORR’s office and said that if we could convince them that construction could commence immediately, the contract was ours. The development was to be completed within three years.

“I prepared some slides overnight; I didn’t sleep until four o’clock. The following day, our team met with the client to deliver our presentation. We explained that if they signed the contract there and then, excavation could begin the very next day. They signed, so it did. And the project was completed within the specified timeframe.”

The mall, which cannot be named due to client confidentiality reasons, represents Aquino’s largest fast-track project to date. His team has also enabled fast-track design and construction at a selection of sites in the UAE, including Emaar’s The Address Boulevard Dubai, The Address Residence Sky View, and Vida Residence Downtown Dubai. NORR has also worked on The First Group’s The One at Jumeirah Village Circle.

The track record of NORR’s structural department demonstrates that – with the right people – it is possible to overlap design and construction activities for large-scale projects. But does this method serve to stifle creativity?

In Aquino’s opinion, it does not. In fact, he says that it can have the opposite effect. According to NORR’s structural director, the urgency involved in fast-track design and construction often acts as a catalyst for innovation.

“I regularly introduce new techniques as I work,” Aquino explains. “Different projects require different solutions, so I often implement systems and processes that are not common in the Middle East. In some cases, these are systems and processes that I’ve encountered in other global markets. It’s then a matter of convincing [clients and contractors] why they will work and how they can be used.”

Within this context, Aquino has pioneered several engineering techniques in the Middle East, including diaphragm wall shoring, the use of super-high-strength concrete (fcu>75MPa), and mechanical couplers for vertical reinforcement. He has also recommended the use of ETABS and SAFE software as a prerequisite for the issuance of Dubai Municipality permits.

Aquino’s vast experience and assured tone could lead one to underestimate the difficulty of simultaneous construction and design. But it doesn’t take an architectural expert to see that fast-track projects are not for the faint of heart.

“This is a specialised skill,” confirms Aquino. “You need guts to do it because, at the end of the day, nobody wants to be blamed if things go wrong [during the construction process]. Equally, as an architect, you don’t want to be blamed for problems that arise once a development has been completed.

“To succeed as a fast-track designer, you need a combination of natural aptitude and experience. Firstly, you must be able to quickly decide whether or not a particular project is possible within the specified timeframe,” he continues, adding that an individual must then use his or her natural talent to see their design through to completion.

Aquino concludes: “Guts, talent, and experience. These are the attributes that are necessary to become a successful fast-track designer.”

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