Face to face: Dimitri Papakonstantinou, Plafond
Plafond’s managing director, Dimitri Papakonstantinou, tells Rajiv Pillai why the region’s MEP sector is slow to adopt technology – and why this must change soon
Dimitri Papakonstantinou, managing director of Plafond, is displeased with the pace at which the mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) sector in the region adopts technology.
For the most part, according to him, the construction industry has not changed its building approach “in the last 150 years”.
Information technology (IT) and innovative engineering have the power to transform the MEP industry, and Papakonstantinou says contractors that embrace technology will reap the benefits. “[Three-dimensional] modelling has been around for a while,” he explains. “It is being implemented more often now.”
Papakonstantinou says “3D printing will have a good effect” on the MEP sector, which is positive news given “there is a directive from the [Dubai] government for its use”.
Commenting on the use of other tech tools, he continues: “Things are still slow in robotics. There are machines laying bricks 10-20 times faster than humans do. There are technologies around [to be used] and so, we have to change [our processes] because we are lagging behind compared to other industries.”
Papakonstantinou goes on to point out that although some new construction materials have been developed of late, the processes being followed today still tend to be inefficient. Adopting modular construction would help, he says.
“In traditional construction, we have tradesmen working in congested areas on sites. However, in modular construction, only a fraction of that number is required, due to its controlled environment. With modular construction, we combine site services together, ensure they’re on track, and send them to site.
“For one of our projects, we completed all corridors in four days, from the fabrication of the rack to the installation on site. Modular construction is definitely going to be big trend going forward.”
So, should modular construction be adopted on all jobs? Papakonstantinou thinks so: “If you had off-site prefabrication implemented at the design phase, I believe the benefits would be great for everyone, from the client – who would get their building sooner – to the contractor, who would save time and reduce material and labour wastage.”
Plafond’s modular facility houses three production lines across a total area of 2,000m2. The company offers MEP, fit-out, and facilities management (FM) services, which Papakonstantinou says sets the firm apart from its competitors: “I want to focus on increasing our capacity and expanding the facility.
“We deliver everything ourselves on the MEP side, except the most specialist [components]. This gives us a lot of control over the quality, delivery, and procurement, since we do not need to be reliant on third parties. The same can be done on the fit-out side, with our gypsum carpenters, masons, and so on.”
Plafond, formed as a fit-out and MEP firm in 2012, subsequently added FM to its activities. Today, it employs more than 1,600 staff workers across its fit-out and MEP operations. “We have been fortunate to have people here who have been in the business from the outset,” says Papakonstantinou.
“Around 70% of the staff has been here since the inception of Plafond. They know the core values of the firm.
“As a team, we are focused on looking at modular and more innovative ways of building. We are interested in better ways of construction.”
According to Papakonstantinou, the firm will target only specific segments of the construction market with its resources.
“We target projects usually in the range of $60m to $100m (AED220.4m to AED367.4m). Mostly, we focus on mid-sized MEP projects,” he explains, adding that this is a smart option for Plafond, which faces little competition with this approach.
Low competition is an important business element as the regional MEP sector struggles with liquidity, Papakonstantinou says: “It is a known challenge, and it has been difficult for the past few years. All contractors are facing an imbalance in the contract terms – [...] between the terms for the client versus the terms for the contractors.
“There is not enough work in the market. It is still a buyer’s market and there are a lot of contractors taking on contracts with clauses that are not equitable. We are trying as much as possible to push back on certain key clauses in contracts, but it is certainly not something Plafond can do by itself – it is a market- wide phenomenon.”
An improvement in the liquidity situation is under way, but progress is slow, Plafond’s chief says: “At the end of the day, your salaries get paid at the same time every month and you know your material supplies are tied to a letter of credit or a post-dated cheque.
“Our outflows are quite predictable, but our inflows are, unfortunately, unpredictable at times. It is a common problem for all contractors, and entire sectors across the industry. Hopefully, with the industry picking up, things will improve.”
Processes and projects
Papakonstantinou says Plafond is currently implementing the complete fit-out and MEP programme for Dubai’s The Opus. The shell-and-core project was handed over by Multiplex to client Omniyat, which directly contracted Plafond for the job.
“For us, Omniyat is a big client,” he adds. “We have several projects with them, and share a very good relationship.
“We are also completing the MEP works for the new HSBC headquarters, a 20-storey building situated on Emaar Square. Again, Multiplex is main contractor for that development.”
Plafond is also working on the full MEP and ceiling package for the residential building, One Palm by Omniyat.
“Generally, we are fortunate to have good clients,” he continues. “We maintain good relationships with them [...]. Probably 80% of our work is from repeat clients.”
One of Plafond’s more luxurious and challenging hospitality projects was the five-star Palazzo Versace Dubai, which involved a complete fit-out of its 218 hotel rooms. Papakonstantinou says that the Opus will be a similarly challenging project.
“The Opus, designed by Zaha Hadid, will be a challenging project as there is not a single straight line [in that building],” he explains.
“We are looking forward to working on the project. It is due for completion early next year.”
The road ahead
As Plafond’s portfolio expands, so too will the need for it to collaborate with key project stakeholders. Papakonstantinou says this is the key to a project functioning as expected, but is quick to admit that in some cases, a lack of trust within the project team can lead to all members becoming “polarised”.
He explains: “[In such a situation], everybody pre-emptively assumes that the other party is out to hurt them. This just sets the wrong tone for the project.”
To exemplify this view, he points to the Etihad Airways contract that Plafond – owned by The Emirates Group – features in its portfolio: “We have worked with Etihad for the past 10 years, delivering a lot of lounges, trading facilities, travel monitoring, and [other services] for its team. They told us what they wanted, and we delivered it. They did not micromanage us.”
“We waste so much time and energy on the wrong things, rather than focusing on what we all enjoy doing, which is to build and construct. Relationships and trust are important.”