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Market focus: Piling and foundations in the GCC

Experts from the piling and foundations industry talk to Jochebed Menon about techniques used, technological advancement, sustainability, completion deadlines, and more

Ecocoast carried out marine piling on Jumana Island.
Ecocoast carried out marine piling on Jumana Island.

The falling oil prices may have caused delays and snags across the construction industry in the GCC, but nothing is going to detract from project development in the region, and stricter deadlines for project completion are supporting the sector’s recovery.

Experts from within the piling and foundation industry are of the opinion that business is back on track in the Gulf, with UAE construction firms already upping their game to ensure timely project delivery. As their focus has shifted to the tourism and leisure industries, the UAE’s versatile economy and forward planning is enabling it to lead the way in terms of opportunities.

Dr Eduard Vorster, geotechnical specialist at Aurecon, says: “There is a rush to complete the high volume of world-class developments for major events such as Expo 2020 Dubai and the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar. The driver for tall buildings, of which there are many in the GCC, is speed of construction. The faster you are able to complete a building, the sooner the developer will see a return on investment (ROI). What this means for geotechnics and foundation engineering is that there needs to be an improvement in the way we view data, not just for a particular site, but for the surrounding region.”

He adds: “Not only must data be up-to-date, but it must be made available upfront. In addition, the need to understand what foundations technologies are available and quickly accessible in a region is very important. Many developments in the GCC are developed on reclaimed and environmentally sensitive areas. Hence, any technology used must ensure not only structural viability, but also environmental acceptability from a contamination, noise, or vibration point of view.”

For Ecocoast Contracting’s division manager, Darko Matijas, the piling foundation technologies used in the region have to be beyond regular standards due to the region’s climate being an aggressive one, with high temperatures, and rising salinity and acidity levels caused by global warming. “Key focus areas of the UAE government are environmental preservation and sustainability, rightfully recognising the need for a culture that promotes ecological and social responsibility.

“Sustainable innovations are slowly penetrating the GCC market in spite of consultants’ scepticism. The Estidama initiative, a sustainability programme developed by Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council, is an example of this.”

Newer technologies, techniques, and trends are being developed to accommodate various government regulations, ecological concerns, and the complex architectural demands of developments.

Basem Shouman, country manager at Swissboring’s ground improvement division in the UAE, believes that ground improvement could be one of the major trends in the future. “Due to its huge benefits in terms of cost and time, especially when applied to medium- to large-scale projects, ground improvement techniques will be popular, and in demand, across the region.”

For Matijas, traditional piling techniques are still ubiquitous, and will be so in the foreseeable future, although each country has its own priorities. “In the UAE, road- and bridge-related operations, including marine piling, will see a contraction in 2017 compared to previous years, looking at all recently announced projects.

“When it comes to the other GCC countries, Qatar is focussing on infrastructure, Saudi Arabia on diversification, and Kuwait is investing in power and communication. The low-tech piling companies will face fierce competition; the ones that will prosper are the ones offering added value to clients,” he explains.

Vorster shares the same opinion and believes that traditional techniques such as bored piling are the most prevalent piling practices in the region. He elaborates: “Whether for large-diameter circular or rectangular sections, bored piling will remain popular due to availability and depth of reach.”

He also points out that taller and heavier structures, where the foundation could have a significant impact on the cost of the development, “may need more thought given to piled raft concepts, rather than piled foundation options, to allow more benefit to be gained from the foundation system”.

“Such foundation systems are not yet routinely accepted in the GCC. But as intelligent building systems become more dominant and easy to use, monitoring of foundations will become an integral part of the intelligent buildings development.”

Vorster is currently leading a deep foundation design package for a super-tall tower in the GCC. In Dubai, he has been involved with Jumeirah Al Naseem Resort development near the Burj Al Arab, as well as the One Za’abeel development. “In Qatar, I am working on a port project for Qatar Primary Materials Company (QPMC), and we’re conducting project management services for a gabbro terminal expansion.

“Another recent, high-profile project that we are busy with is the Doha Metro Red South Line Underground, where Aurecon is acting as design verification engineer,” he adds.

Some of Aurecon’s other project awards in the GCC include Motiongate Dubai within Dubai Parks and Resorts (DPR), and Doha Expressway in Qatar.

Although the construction industry has picked up pace and stalled projects are moving forward, Lachlan Jackson, managing director of Ecocoast Contracting, admits that the past 12 months have been somewhat tough. “Business in the first half of 2016 was incredibly strong, however, we did experience a general slowdown in awards in the second half of the year. Like many businesses in the region, we also felt the impact of tightening liquidity, which led us to take a more conservative approach to our selection of projects.

“Increased competition from general contractors with little experience in marine works is leading to a reduction in margins. This, combined with a lack of liquidity and more restrictive project and equipment financing, will make for a challenging year ahead. We do expect increased competition and further consolidation of the market over the next 12 months, and have already seen some high-profile exits from the region to support this. Nevertheless, we expect continued strength in workflow over the next three years, with the recent announcements of Deira Islands, Marasi Business Bay, and Dubai Harbour, among others,” he continues, adding: “We will continue to focus and invest in our core business lines, and be selective about the projects and opportunities we take on. Achieving profitable growth in this market needs to be carefully managed.”

Ecocoast has been involved in a number of UAE projects, such as marine piling for the Louvre Abu Dhabi; Bulgari Resort & Residences Dubai; and a residential project on Jumana Island. The contractor has also completed marine piling and berthing installations for more than 20 new marinas and marine service stations throughout the UAE for Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC).

Concluding, Jackson says: “Despite rough economic conditions, the piling and foundation industry is moving forward from 2015, albeit at a more sustainable pace. This year started off strong, and there is hope, as announcements of new developments in the region are bringing back much-needed stability to the market.”

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