At a time when many Kenyans are working from home, embracing virtual meetings, learning from their living rooms and shopping online, it is time to have the conversation on how the construction industry should evolve.
Kenya’s construction sector has been accused of being rigidly stubborn when it comes to adopting new technology. And true to that, while most other industries are working day and night to re-invent themselves, some players in the construction sector went into hibernation mode, waiting for the pandemic to come to an end.
There is no doubt about it, this industry has enough technological tools to not only make processes safer and easier, but also lower construction cost significantly and reduce project completion time.
Albert Waithaka, the chairman at Concrete Society of Kenya, observes that it is high time players in the construction industry evolved if they are to stay relevant in the market. All stakeholders, he says, from architects, to surveyors, to those in academia, need to research, explore and accept other ways of doing things.
“In the last 10 years, the construction industry has evolved immensely, but we can still do better. The demand for decent and affordable housing is still high and the deficit continues to grow,” he says.
Before we delve into how to make work easier, let us explore the general situation in a typical construction site. First, the developer or project owner goes through approvals and design stages. Once the construction commences, the site will host different professionals at various stages.
At times, there will be electrical and drainage experts, other times casual labourers and plumbing experts will take over. All through the process, suppliers delivering different construction materials will be moving in and out of the site. Of course, the number of people at a construction site will depend on the project’s size.
“A big construction project, such as a mixed use development can host up to 700 workers,” says Sahib Sethi, the Director at Landmark Holding, a construction company that also deals in ready mix concrete and precast panels.
Managing high numbers of construction workers at a time like this can be difficult, especially if you are working on a strict time line. How would they, for instance, maintain social distance, work with masks throughout that day and effectively coordinate tasks? What if one or a few of them contracted Covid-19, would the entire construction site be shut down? How would that affect delivery time or budget?
While Covid-19 is a critical concern for players in the construction industry, the time that has been lost is also a concern. Developers are running out of time to deliver projects and funds may also be compromised. Besides, after spending months working calmly online, it might be hard to re-adjust to the old way of doing things, which entails noisy concrete mixers, workers crisscrossing the site and cranes moving up and down. It is simply too chaotic.
Modern technology allows one to ditch noisy concrete mixers and tens or even hundreds of labourers carrying cement bags, buckets and spades.
“It’s hard to imagine modern cities without something as crucial as concrete. It is the basis of civilisation. Also, concrete can be what we want it to be,” says Mr Waithaka.
Instead of mixing concrete for slabs on site, for instance, one can easily order ready mix concrete from a batching plant. The ready mix concrete is prepared by experts and the right amount delivered to the construction site in a truck. A boom pump is then used to transfer the concrete from the truck to any floor, and just like that, the slabs will be ready.
While the ready mix concept may sound like news to many, it is an old concept that was developed in the ’90s. It has however evolved over time and those who have adopted it enjoy simpler construction processes.
Mr Sethi points out that using ready mix concrete eliminates unnecessary wastage and improper mixing. Remember, many people running projects may not be experts at mixing concrete. They rely on what they are told by their contractors or fundis, while hoping the labourers follow instructions.
Bearing in mind that at times construction materials are stolen, concrete mixed on site may end up being of lower quality and even hazardous if it cannot hold the building together in the long-term. Also, a concrete mixing spot at a construction site may not be advisable now due to many people that are likely to congregate at one spot, making social distancing impossible, you have to consider the safety of your workers.
Worth noting is that mixing concrete on site gets harder if one is running multiple projects.
“Imagine transporting materials to five different locations, supervising the five projects and ensuring the concrete is mixed properly in all five of them. The logistics, in such a scenario are complicated, thus costing more, besides, the administrative work becomes a headache. One may also have to hire extra accountants and site supervisors and ensure the processes are successful,” says Mr Sethi.
Such a headache can be cured by being receptive to advanced ways of doing things. You end up saving time and money in the process, and at times you may even save lives, given that labour-intensive construction sites are prone to accidents.
The Expanded Polystyrene (EPS) Technology is another tool that may come in handy in construction sites.
In 2014, the National Housing Corporation (NHC) announced that it intended to construct 2,000 houses with a billion-shilling budget. Each county was to house 50 of the 2,000 houses. The move was meant to ease the problematic housing deficit while boosting affordable housing in Kenya.
One may wonder though, whether a billion would be enough to execute such a project. The government-owned corporation was to use the EPS building panels which would lower the construction cost significantly.
EPS panels are made of steel wire mesh which is covered with polystyrene, a synthetic material. EPS building panels have a number of benefits, to begin with, they are so light, that they require only a few construction workers to carry them, a scenario that contrasts using building blocks which are so heavy that they require several carriers on site.
Teddy Aran, a Sales and Marketing officer at Boylen Magic Wall Panels, says that there are two main types of products one can get from EPS technology- prefab and precast. Homeowners or developers for instance can get entire buildings constructed at a factory and delivered to their construction sites. This product is known as Prefab. They will however need to prepare the foundation beforehand so that the prefab houses or buildings are installed immediately after delivery.
Precast panels are mainly used for constructing walls just as one would use building blocks. However, binding concrete is unnecessary when using EPS panels.
“The panels are bound together using a specially designed mesh wire which is part of the package,” says Aran.
EPS panels and prefab products result in high quality constructions with less input in terms of time, labour and cost. The technology is believed to reduce delivery time by 50 percent. A three-bedroom bungalow for instance can take roughly one month to design, construct, deliver and install at a designated site.
To understand how using the EPS technology reduces construction cost, think of the three elements of a project: time, scope and budget. If a project takes more time to complete, the budget will definitely expand. Besides, brick and mortar constructions have many hidden costs that may eat up a big chunk of the budget.
For instance, transporting materials is an overlooked process which takes up a significant percentage of the total cost. At times, developers and property owners do not take into account factors such as wastage, theft of materials and legal issues that may arise during construction.
Buying ready made products such as prefab houses or ready mix concrete reduces these hidden costs extensively. EPS panels also eliminate processes such as the curing processes applied when using bricks or blocks.
On matters quality, EPS panels do make strong houses. They are also water proof, resistant to heat and rodents. These qualities also lower the maintenance and renovation costs in the long run.
Besides, the panels create sound-proof walls which would be perfect for noisy locations. Aran recommends EPS technology for areas with extreme weather conditions given that polystyrene is a poor heat conductor, meaning that during extreme hot or cold weather conditions, those occupying EPS constructed buildings are barely affected.
Sethi says these panels are good for those investing in mass housing, where the logistics are complicated. The two gentlemen agree that small scale projects, including single residential homes can benefit from these technologies immensely. Home ownership doesn’t have to be a long, tedious and messy process.
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