Addressing “the next step in modular construction for the region”

Ramboll, Losberger De Boer ME talk about modular construction methods and how restrictions impact off-site development

The Middle East is welcoming the "dawn of a new era in construction”.
The Middle East is welcoming the "dawn of a new era in construction”.

As society begins to re-open from COVID-19, the built environment is now preparing for a shift in construction methodologies to mitigate the economic impact of the pandemic.

One of these methods includes modular construction, which promises contractors with leaner costs and sufficient speeds of development, which are now likely to matter more than ever.

While it is not new to the Middle East’s market, modular construction has been touted as the future of developing large-scale buildings.

While the use of prefabricated building components is a feature of many projects in today’s market, global consultancy firm Ramboll believes there is a gap in the market for what they consider to be “the next step in modular construction for the region”.

That step is prefabricated pre-finished volumetric construction (PPVC), according to Ramboll’s head of project management for buildings, Brian Sweeney, who described its introduction to the Middle East market as “the dawn of a new era in construction”.

“The construction industry is notoriously slow to implement changes to tried and tested ways of working when compared to other industries, for example, the automotive industry. Currently, less than 1% of buildings are built using PPVC construction, but we view its introduction to the Middle East market as the dawn of a new era in construction in the region,” Sweeney told Construction Week.

“There are existing projects in the region where PPVC has been used, but its use is limited to buildings with a maximum of two to three floors.”

Ramboll is looking to change PPVC’s limitations in the region through a new partnership with Abu Dhabi-based developer, Roken Al Khalig Development LLC, to develop the first high-rise PPVC project in the region.

“Over the last six months, we have been appointed by Roken Al Khalig to engage with the Abu Dhabi Municipality to develop a road map for the approval of PPVC systems. This is the first step in clearing any obstacles which may lie in the way of a major shift in the way buildings are built in the Middle East,” Sweeney added.

Roken Al Khalig Development LLC’s plan is to construct a modular residential tower and a hotel tower of 130m and 138m respectively on Al Maryah Island in Abu Dhabi, which will accommodate car parking; retail and amenities.

Also speaking to Construction Week about the growing demands in modular construction is Losberger De Boer Middle East’s senior sales manager Paul Machin, who said plug-and-play temporary solutions have grown significantly over the last decade.

“Driving the growth for plug-and-play temporary solutions today is the demand for bigger projects to be delivered faster than ever before, in line with UAE Vision 2021, Saudi Vision 2030 and the region's mega and gigaprojects,” Machin told Construction Week.

“We have witnessed the requirement for turnkey solutions increase across a diverse range of sectors, including residential, commercial, entertainment and leisure, education, healthcare and hospitality.”

Discussing the current challenges of today, Machin adds that Losberger De Boer has a proven track record in anticipating and responding to ever-changing market conditions and sees modular construction as an opportunity for the industry to “bounce back quicker and stronger than before”.

“Developers will continue to clamp down on inefficiencies and will be actively seeking ways to improve productivity levels to mitigate any construction delays,” Machin adds. “Losberger De Boer embraces lean principles, eliminating waste of both time and materials. For example, off-site manufacturing enables manpower to be decreased as overlapping tasks are eliminated.”

“We can also offer these savings in remote areas, as modular structures can be transported directly to the site, minimising costs and risks. By reducing the resources required to complete a project, costs and budgets can be managed more effectively.”

In terms of impact for Ramboll, Sweeney said that the firm has been fortunate in the respect that COVID-19 has had a minimal effect on its modular projects, with just one start date being postponed until restrictions are relaxed.

“We believe that COVID-19 will have a profound impact on how businesses are run in the future. One of the main impacts will be a need to drastically reduce the need for large numbers of workers to be working in close proximity with one another,” Sweeney adds.

“Consequently, the opportunity for PPVC is clear as the ‘norm’ shifts from dependence on large numbers of low skilled workers in a relatively uncontrolled environment to a small number of skilled workers working in a controlled factory environment.”

But while COVID-19 has only been the first obstacle to overcome for the industry, governmental laws to flatten the curve of the pandemic include 24 hour curfews, as well as Saudi Arabia increasing the value-added tax rate (VAT) from 5% to 15%, which has added to the built environment’s worries.

Responding to the curfew and VAT hike, Machin said the firm would continue to work with its clients to deliver solutions that meet not only their requirements but also their budgets.

“The increase to 15% VAT is now in line with Europe. So, while this may have been a quick and significant increase, this is something we are used to across most of our global business units,” Machin explained.

“While the increase in VAT may lead to price inflation in the short term. In the longer term, it will help the market to stabilise and mature.”

He adds that Losberger De Boer can react to measures such as curfews and restrictions with quick and calculated efficiency.

“It is our flexibility that enables us to prevail and respond effectively to market changes. Once restrictions are lifted, we are well-positioned to deliver a solution that can be erected and operational within weeks or even days.

“Ultimately, progress will slow down, but this is a small price to pay to keep everyone safe.”

Looking ahead to modular construction's future potential, Sweeney believed the benefits that modular construction can offer are simply too great to ignore any longer.

“The UAE in particular, well renowned for being a forward-thinking nation, is ready for such a shift in construction methodologies,” said Sweeney.

“The aspects of modular construction, including; it’s long term economic advantages, it’s environmental benefits, it’s non-reliance on high volumes of low skilled labour and it’s suitability for affordable housing align with the visions for the future outlined by the UAE.”

While, Machin concluded that the adoption of new technologies is shaping how they approach turnkey projects in the Middle East.

“Innovation continues to impact the way Losberger De Boer designs and delivers structures, but we don't see the value in innovation for innovation's sake. Our advances are always borne out of necessity or our commitment to continuous improvement,” said Machin.

“Our experience tells us that what worked yesterday may not work tomorrow. Therefore, we work very closely with our clients to fully understand what their requirements are, so we can deliver a bespoke solution rather than simply installing a structure.”

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