Moulding new markets: Precast concrete in the GCC

Bashar Abou-Mayaleh, managing director of Hard Precast Building Systems, is evangelical in his description of precast concrete.

Abou-Mayaleh, who has been working for the firm for around 15 years, lists a huge range of advantages of using precast concrete units over steel structures, which are generally more expensive, and in-situ cast concrete, which is often messier and more labour-intensive. “The results of using precast are that you have sites that are clean and tidy with good housekeeping, fast erection, fewer workers and lower costs of site management,” he tells Construction Week at the company’s plant in Dubai Investment Park. “All of these are huge advantages. The big contractors recognise the value of precast and they have executed landmark projects in all applications.” Precast concrete has been used in the Gulf since the 1970s – initially in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, but then in the UAE, where Abou-Mayaleh insists it has undergone a “revolution” over the past 15 years. “The UAE now has a huge, advanced infrastructure in precast – sophisticated factories using the latest technologies in production lines.” The total value of the precast concrete market has been valued at around $1.6bn (AED6bn). Abou-Mayaleh reckons the country’s precast firms currently produce around $550-800mn (AED2-3bn) of precast in terms of the cost of units. “I think this figure can be increased because we feel the market is really promising,” he adds. Abou-Mayaleh said that despite his company experiencing its worst year in revenue terms in 2013, it invested time and money expanding its factory, which included the installation of heavy gantry cranes used to handle huge structural precast units. Since then, the firm, which is part of the Al Shafar General Contracting (ASGC) group, has provided heavy structural units for large maintenance sheds at Dubai Airport and is currently creating structural frames for phase two of Meraas Holding’s City Walks project. “The expansion has made us much more confident to take on a bigger scope of work over there (City Walks). My opinion is that the market will be much busier starting from mid-2015. “A lot of projects are in design and tender stage. Developers are doing very well and in general are executing all of their projects. Ahmed Nabil Mohammed El Keshti, managing director of Al Fara'a Precast – a division of the Abu Dhabi-based Al Fara’a Group – also says that it is witnessing healthy levels of demand, albeit at competitive prices. The company produces precast units for many government clients in the UAE – including tunnel linings for the likes of Abu Dhabi Water and Electricity Authority, as well as elements for the Public Works department, the military and for customers in the oil and gas sector. El Keshti says that most of the demand it has experienced for precast in recent years has been for units for infrastructure projects – which has as much been an indication of market demand as suitability for villa erection. The firm provides everything from manhole covers to road barriers, boundary walls, substations and villa complexes. “We've done villas 2-3 times in the last year but infrastructure is the biggest requirement. Also, there is a reasonable profit to be made in infrastructure sections,” he said. El Keshti has said that it isn’t currently tendering for projects as it has enough to do simply to serve its existing client base. “We deal with so many enquiries that we are segregating work according to customers. The clients we dealt with before, we are giving priority to. With an existing customer, if they come to us, you know that the job will start tomorrow. With a tender, it could be many months.”

Laith Haboubi, Middle East commercial director for Grace Construction Products, points out, though, that despite its growing popularity in the region, precast is “under-utilised” in the GCC – especially when compared to Europe and the US. His company makes admixtures for concrete and pigments used to colour precast structures, which he says offer the chance to build large elements of a project off-site – useful on projects where access is restricted. “It also means that you can construct very quickly,” he adds. “But I think a lot of the designs done here forget some of the advantages that can be achieved with precast. It allows you to be more creative. It's just the knowledge of that or education on the use of precast is quite limited in this market compared to others.”

This could soon change. The Precast Concrete Institute, the US-based technical institute which oversees standards and education for the sector, is opening a new base in the UAE to promote more widespread use of precast and provide certification for member firms’ facilities. PCI president James Toscas told CW that although the institute has had members in the region for many years, as well as an informal group led by specialist engineering firm e.construct, there hadn’t been a formal organisation in the region that can offer certification standards. In the US, all PCI members must adhere to these. “To support PCI certification on a larger scale, while maintaining PCI's strict quality standards, we decided that the best approach would be to have a regional organisation, closely affiliated with PCI, that would facilitate exchange of technical and operational knowledge and serve as a regional base for certification activities,” he said. “We felt that the UAE precast concrete group, which was already well organised, offered an ideal platform for this purpose.” A seminar programme organised by e.construct in April 2013 was followed by the first PCI UAE symposium which was attended by around 400 people from 30 firms in December last year. “The second PCI UAE Symposium is planned 19-22 January, 2015 at the Dubai World Trade Centre, and we are expecting even greater levels of participation,” Toscas added. The PCI UAE chapter is expected to be operational by the end of the year. Toscas believes there is huge scope for growth in precast use in the region, particularly in structural applications. “For example, well over 50% of bridges in the US are constructed with precast concrete, while comparatively few in the Gulf region use precast,” he states. Another obstacle that needs to be overcome is the widely-held perception that precast buildings are ‘ugly’. The history of precast use doesn’t help, where it is associated with grey banks of military camps, say, or poorly-designed apartment blocks in Western Europe that were inadequately insulated and subsequently proved susceptible to damp. “But if you are able to do the finishes you require using pigments, there are huge efficiencies you can achieve when compared to using paints or plastering,” Haboubi said. Toscas said that the lack of familiarity with precast that many architects have mean there is a reluctance to specify it. “In the UAE, this translates into the misplaced belief that precast concrete cannot provide the desired level of aesthetic appeal, or that a precast structural framing system cannot provide sufficient resistance to seismic forces. “These misconceptions, which have been refuted in many applications worldwide, result from lack of a reliable information resource in the region on precast concrete. “The greatest levels of economy and performance are achieved when design can be optimised for precast from the beginning. The region has excellent design and engineering resources, but architects, engineers, owners, and contractors don't always take advantage of them.” Matti Mikkola, CEO of Dubai Precast, believes this will change as more forward-thinking architects will specify precast elements that offer greater versatility in structural designs. “An architect will shun systems that limit his creativity,” he said. “Using coloured concrete, the architect can design buildings with high structural integrity without aesthetic compromises. UAE developers have hired leading international architects for their prestigious projects, who understand how to use it.” Ultimately, the one factor that could eventually tip the balance in precast’s favour on many projects will be price. On projects with thousands of repeated elements, such as villas or road sections, using precast moulds over in-situ concrete can lead to much quicker completions as well as cutting down on labour costs. Abou-Mayaleh, who argues that rates for precast have remained competitive since dropping following the financial crisis, believes the manpower argument could prove to be a major selling point. “We have around 4mn workers in the UAE – 50% of them are unskilled. And most of them are in construction. Precast can replace many of these.” Mikkola adds that contractors who downsized significantly after the 2008 crash are beginning to face difficulties in recruiting skilled labour. “Limiting the amount of foreign labour in the country is of national interest. Precast concrete is the most effective way of reducing the requirement of on-site labour.”