Are cavalier attitudes damaging PT in the GCC?
While the post-tensioning sector has slowed in terms of technological advancement, the market in the region is maturing. But are “cavalier attitudes” from certain developers costing the sector? Jamie Knights takes a look…
The post-tensioning sector in the Middle East has come a long way and as the market matures, new challenges join the established ones.
One company that has witnessed the growth of the market is CCL, which includes the Pearl in Qatar among its more recent projects.
CCL’s general manager in Qatar, John Habib, says that while the pace of change in the marketplace has slowed in terms of new technologies and techniques, “the sector has matured across the region, which has developed the nature of post-tensioning services and expertise required by clients”.
“Many of the buildings that have been completed using post-tensioning techniques over the past few years are now entering the management phase, where the property’s owners may wish to modify the original design or change its use,” he continues.
“In the most straightforward scenario, where the use is changed but the layout remains comparable – such as the conversion of an office building to a residential apartment block – this may mean re-calculating the loading capabilities of the post-tensioned slab.”
Other modifications may be more complex – such as changes to the layout of shopping malls, for example – and may require new openings or lift shafts, and a more complex retrofit.
“If modifications are required after the contractor’s liability period has ended, the client still wants to return to their original post-tensioning team for a compatible system from a proven company with established expertise,” Habib says.
“Not only is this broadening the scope of work in the region from new build to retrofit, but it is also making it more difficult for new entrants to gain a foothold in the post-tensioning sector in the region.”
VSL has been post tensioning the access bridges to Dubai Parks as well as the new Bluewaters interchange, which will provide access to the iconic Ain Dubai.
Deputy general manager of VSL, Stephen Burke, concurs with the premise that the sector as a whole “is now a mature market”. He elaborates: “However, issues such as safety and quality are always at the forefront,” he says. “To this end VSL owns and operates a purpose-built Training Academy in Thailand for our staff, to ensure that they are fully conversant with the most recent requirements.”
Chris Hill, PE, branch director for Structural, says that, within the repair field, the company is “seeing a number of challenging projects coming through with some level of post tensioning included in the scope”.
“Since [almost] all of the slabs in the Middle East are originally constructed with post tensioning, their subsequent repair and strengthening needs to work in hand with the existing system,” he explains.
“This means that the design-build team needs to consider both the way the post-tensioned slabs will react under new loads or site conditions, as well as the way that the repair will interact with the existing system in place.”
There are other challenges, however, and Burke highlights the financial pressures on the sector, stating: “It is no secret that since the price of oil fell to below $50 dollars a barrel, clients in our region have had to revisit their capital expenditure budgets and put some of their major projects on hold, or delay the launch of new tenders”.
And while the retrofit schemes, in addition to new builds, contribute to sector growth, competition for skills and expertise remains fierce.
Habib asserts that the market demands experience and “project-critical roles are not easy to recruit for”.
The demand for post-tensioning expertise can also be exacerbated by the number of changes introduced into a project during the design and construction phases.
“For some post-tensioning specialists, the need to re-engineer a design three or four times can put a serious strain on resources, as well as making it difficult to remain within the agreed budget,” Habib continues.
Structural has a unique challenge due to its specialisation. Hill says that since many projects are already developed with post tensioning in the slabs, “we are approached a lot less frequently for projects with beam support elements throughout the structure”.
“And, since Structural is normally approached during the final stages of work for the strengthening, the architectural requirements of the project tend to already be fixed,” he says.
“Consequently, we are challenged many times with trying to develop a strengthening and repair solution that does not impact the aesthetic appeal of an area, while still meeting the code requirements necessary to ensure the structure is safe.”
Carbon Fibre (CFRP) strengthening is always a great way to accomplish this, but the system has its limitations, according to Hill.
“Luckily, we keep our design team busy trying to come up with creative and innovative ways to ‘hide’ the strengthening within the current cross-section.”
But while there are challenges, there are also, of course, opportunities, and Burke says that the UAE and Kuwait currently offer the best prospects.
“With Dubai hosting the Expo 2020, there will be new buildings and infrastructure projects, which will require our post-tensioning technologies,” he adds.
Habib agrees, adding that, as the Gulf remains a very attractive business location for international firms, “we continue to see multi-nationals move their headquarters to the region”.
“This means that there is constant development of commercial office buildings and the roads, bridges and public transport infrastructure needed to create business districts.
“Of course, behind those companies are people, which means the construction of apartments, retail complexes, schools, hospitals and leisure facilities.”
With maturity has come improved regulation, according to Burke.
“Regionally the standards are more or less now on par, mostly due to the fact that the same post-tensioning entities and consultants are active and operating throughout the region.”
Habib says the regulatory landscape in the region is being driven by both clients and the sector.
“Project specifications usually call for international standards to be followed to the letter, and clients want to see that all materials used are CE-marked, and utilise the construction expertise developed in other areas of the world before the construction boom in the Gulf began,” he asserts.
“There are some region-specific requirements and the UAE is leading the way on this, but these are in addition to international standards rather than as a replacement. I see no need to alter this because, as a sector, we have cherry-picked the highest standards from across the world and, by keeping pace with these, we can ensure that we maintain world-class quality in post-tensioning construction.”
Nevertheless, Hill points out that, in his experience, “many parties in the region treat the use of post tensioning in quite a cavalier way”.
“Educating the market on how serious it is that reinforcement, mild steel, post tensioning or carbon fibre, remain intact is very important,” he adds.
The year ahead
So there are opportunities and the market is maturing, but is there any optimism around?
Burke says that, regionally, VSL anticipates that the next 12 months will be somewhat subdued, with fewer opportunities available than in the recent the past.
“However, we will be targeting any key new prospects and we are in the fortunate position that our current order book is quite healthy,” he adds.
Habib says that as clients in the region become more knowledgeable about what post tensioning can achieve in their buildings, “they are becoming more demanding and expect increased investment in resources from their post-tensioning suppliers”.
“Not only do they expect enhanced quality and service delivery at the same cost, but they also insist on international certification of all materials and systems, and professional indemnity insurance from the supply chain,” he explains.
“As a result, whether we’re working on a modest 1000m2 building, or on a major 1,000,000m2 scheme, post-tensioning specialists must be able to offer the most advanced technology, as well as fully ETA-certified systems using CE-
“Standards in the region are being driven both by the well-informed and exacting client base, and [by] knowledge-sharing that is helping to drive best practice.”
Hill adds that some of the municipality engineers are opening up the options of using external post tensioning in order to help rectify deflections in structures.
“These are for very particular projects where the strength of the existing building will suffice, but the serviceability criteria do not meet the requirements,” he explains.
In these cases, external post tensioning can be used to apply an upward force to hold or push-up on the deflected element.
“This technique has been used extensively throughout the US but, until now, most of the authorities in the region avoided the use of such systems because of their possible exposure to fire events,” he continues.
“This method would not be viable for strength-related issues and repairs, as the fire event would still pose too high of a risk, but for serviceability we are starting to get the ear of some key figures.”
Perhaps the tension is easing after all?