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Will precast concrete find long-term investors in GCC construction?

The use of precast concrete in projects can help the Middle East construction sector address issues concerning cost, safety, quality, and sustainability, experts tell Construction Week

Precast concrete can reduce waste produced at construction sites, according to the founder of Araco.
Precast concrete can reduce waste produced at construction sites, according to the founder of Araco.

The 2017 edition of The Big 5 Dubai saw the introduction of a two-day summit dedicated to the precast sector. The organisers of the Big 5 show, DMG Events, described the summit as a prelude to The Big 5 Heavy, which is scheduled to take place on 26-28 March, 2018.

In the lead-up to the summit, BNC Project Intelligence came out with a report stating that the $1.7tn-worth of ongoing construction projects in the GCC region is expected to boost demand for precast systems. The report went on to note that rail systems, highways, and roads in particular, require precast products like pre-stressed beams and road barriers.

This optimism about the precast sector is nothing new. In 2012, an event called Precast for All, held in the UAE, saw stakeholders from the different segments of the construction industry lauding the advantages of precast systems over cast-on-site products, with a board member of the Abu Dhabi Chamber of Commerce commenting that “the pioneers of the precast sector are driving a new trend in the construction industry”.

Fast-forward to January 2017, and Bashar Abou Mayaleh, managing director of Hard Precast Building Systems (HPBS), told Construction Week that the UAE precast industry is recording growth (see page 24 of this issue for more updates).

“2016 was one of the best years in HPBS’s history. We were successful in developing key partnerships with our clients which, in turn, resulted in securing contracts covering more than 75% of our total production capacity. We ended the year by growing our portfolio, and successfully handing over 27 projects,” he said at that time.

While this positive take on the sector’s performance in the market reflects increasing acceptance of products like precast concrete in the UAE, the Middle East reportedly continues to lag behind other regions when it comes to the adoption of precast technology.

According to Christopher Seymour, regional development director and head of markets for the Middle East and South Asia at Mott MacDonald, the regional market is still “not yet as mature as other parts of the world”.

“Where we see a successful prefabrication [sector], we see an acceptance of innovation,” he says. “And certainly, innovation is encouraged in this region in a big way.

“What we need to see is the materialisation of that on the ground. And when we say innovation, we mean the intention to try something new, to come away from the old tried-and-tested and take a little more risk.”

He emphasises, however, that while certain methods of prefabrication are still in the development phase, a number of precast products have already been “tried and tested”, and don’t involve any risks if used in construction. Indeed, precast concrete and other prefabricated products can help improve worker safety in project sites.

“We see government buying decisions [being made] around cost, quality, sustainability, and [worker] welfare,” he elaborates. “Offsite construction usually hits all four of those parameters.”

Quality is practically guaranteed since precast products are “pretty much factory controlled”, Seymour explains, adding that prefabrication “takes the guesswork out of construction”, as well as reducing the amount of work that needs to be carried out on site, creating a safer work environment.

Clarifying another safety-related issue, Halûk Sucuoğlu, director of the structural and earthquake engineering laboratory at Turkey’s Middle East Technical University, tells Construction Week that precast systems tend to be viewed as weaker compared to site-cast concrete, an assumption he says he disagrees with.

“In the Middle East, cast-in-place concrete still probably dominates the market, but precast systems have the advantage of quality because they are produced in factories,” he continues.

“Safety-wise, there is no problem. Precast emulates reinforced concrete, and adheres to the same codes and [standards], so it doesn’t have any handicaps.”

Meanwhile, Rahim Banizaman Lari, founder and managing director of UAE-based firm, Abdul Rahim Architectural Consultants (Araco), addresses the topic of cost and sustainability by noting that precast concrete reduces the amount of waste produced at construction sites.

“Precast concrete [...] is a solution to the problem of waste created during construction,” says Lari. “And yet, it’s barely used, with more than 70% of the buildings here in Dubai still built using conventional construction methods and materials.”

Asked why that is the case, he explains that consultants usually lack the necessary funds or budget to hire in-house engineers that specialise in precast concrete.

Revealing that this is fortunately not true for his company, he says: “Araco now has a separate designer who specialises in using precast concrete, but most consultants don’t have the capacity.”

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Construction Week - Issue 724
Jan 12, 2019