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Spearheading a group effort for sustainable construction

Following the Joint International Conference on Construction Culture, Innovation and Management in Dubai, Rupert Cornford catches up with Dr Mohammed Dulaimi from the British University in Dubai to discuss what he believes is the way forward for the UAE construction sector.

Dr Dulaimi is keen to get all parties in the procurement process working together to establish a common agenda for the construction industry.
Dr Dulaimi is keen to get all parties in the procurement process working together to establish a common agenda for the construction industry.

Was the conference well received?

By all accounts, it was a great success. It was a joint conference: one that looked at business culture in construction, and one that concentrated on architecture, engineering and construction innovation.

It is the first time that I have seen a conference of this type coming to the Gulf, let alone the UAE.

What did it achieve and what will you take away from it?

I can see a number of issues that have emerged that I and the university will be following up. The experience of construction development that we have seen over the last 20 years in the US, UK and even Asia; we still have to see this happening in this part of the world. I am talking about a coordinated effort to develop a common agenda of development, and define the strategic directions that the industry needs to follow in order to meet the needs of society and the country as a whole.

At the moment, it seems that companies here have their own individual agenda. They are very clear on what they want to do, but you can’t work in isolation. I am talking about innovation in terms of sustainability and procurement – there is evidence that you cannot succeed without bringing everyone with you. The contractor cannot ‘go it alone’; the client cannot ‘go it alone’.

We need leadership from clients, where everyone, after a period of discussion and debate can agree on ‘where we want to be’. It’s a long way off and it requires a lot of effort.

What does sustainability mean in terms of the construction industry?

I see it as the sustainability of business organisations within the construction industry, where the environment is an important part.

A lot of people are still using a 20-year-old definition for sustainability that says something like: providing solutions today without compromising tomorrow. Lets unpack this; what does it mean? In my view, yes, there is the environmental issue, along with social and economic targets, but, in terms of construction, that needs to be a sustainable solution for the client; a solution that enables the client to continue using the product effectively and successfully over a long period of time.

For example, I can build a factory that uses sustainable materials and satisfies all of these necessary factors only to find that after a year, it is no use to me anymore. Does that mean it was sustainable? Obviously not.

The sustainability agenda is an issue for society, which can then influence regulation. As academics, we need to understand the complexity of the issue and make sure that regulations do not become a hindrance but become a motivator for the industry to innovate.

Can academia motivate the government towards such regulations?

One of my tasks now is to pioneer such an effort. I want to say to the government: ‘if you want to do that, we need to engage the industry, hear what their concerns are, and what needs to be changed to unblock the potential of the industry to respond.’

I have seen an example in a different country, for example, that the government wanted to promote design and build, only to find out that after engaging academia, that there were some old regulations in place that would not allow contractors to go down this route.

So we need to get all parties together to develop an agenda for change. I am certain that there is a wealth of knowledge out there and we need to make sense of it and develop a clear road map of where we want to be now and in the future.

I spoke to a contractor recently who said that he wanted academia to do more to help the local construction industry. What do you say to that?

We need to know. One of the biggest tasks for any researcher is to identify people who would like to work with us. We need to raise a level of awareness. This conference is one example, but I wish that we had had more people from the local industry come to listen how collaboration has achieved positive results.

Why do you think that you didn’t get more attendance?

We need to look at the HR policy in construction firms. Are there resources available for people to attend such events? And we need to look at the whole issue of time. Everywhere you go, people in the construction industry will tell you that they don’t have time for these things. Unfortunately, it is a common scene during boom times that people will say ‘we don’t have time to stop and think and work with academia’. But when you hit recession, they will say that they don’t have money to spend on such things.

We also need to establish research centres to disseminate information to the industry. One example is the Construction Excellence Network in the UK, which looks at benchmarking, IT, and processes in the industry. And you see people from the construction sector sharing and learning from this information. When you share knowledge, your perception of the risk will be highly reduced because you will have seen someone who has done it, who has shared the problems, and has identified what worked and what didn’t work. Through that you are encouraged to explore and develop new ideas.

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