Green Precast, a global precast-concrete manufacturer and contractor, offers a unique on-site automated construction procedure that builds by pouring concrete into pre-designed housing molds to make customized, one-piece frames that can be stacked. This process reduces human error and cuts construction time by over 50 percent and cost by between 5 and 30 per cent when compared to conventional methods. The firm was founded in Australia 65 years ago and operates globally, with Lebanon being its most recent market entry. Executive spoke to Salvatore Saker, the company’s chief executive officer, about concrete and the Middle East’s construction industry.
E Why is Green Precast investing in Lebanon now, and how much is the initial investment?
Lebanon became a strategic market for us after venturing into the Middle East [United Arab Emirates] about a year ago. We found [the Lebanese] extremely receptive to new construction methods. It helps because we spend less time explaining and more time on implementation. We have found a niche market that hardly anyone else is catering for. When we first came to Lebanon, we didn’t realize the market size; we were working on investing between $5 million to $10 million and watching it grow organically. However, now our level of entry is going to be around a $20 million investment. We will be [building] thousands of residential units. Almost 80 percent of our [construction] products will be sold here.
E What is the size of your upcoming project portfolio in Lebanon?
In the last two months, we have accumulated over 10 projects totaling over 2 million square meters of construction. More than 70 percent [of our portfolio] will be on the outskirts of Beirut; this is where the real demand is. At the moment, we expect 70 percent of construction to be catering to the residential market, 25 percent commercial — hotels, hospitals, universities, schools — and 5 percent industrial. In the last few years, we have been looking toward development so now we are looking to acquire our own land and develop upon it. We are looking at 31 sites in Lebanon. We have secured the land, are in the process of design, and will be delivering in six to eight months.
E What makes your system different?
We benefit from value engineering. It creates a building that is almost four times more sustainable and superior in speed and quality than conventional precast methods. For example, we delivered a mock up 500square meter built up area dwelling within 24 hours, whereby it took other [conventional precast systems] two weeks to deliver.
We achieve this speed by minimizing the labor traditionally used for construction and combining our technology with heavy equipment. The module that comes out of the mold is manufactured using a pre-prepared steel cage of reinforcement and has all [electrical and plumbing] conduits positioned and cast in. The procedure allows for four walls and a roof to be made in one pour with no joints between the parts.
E So you rely on advanced technology rather than labor?
We use a lot less labor in our system, so o one Green Precast labor unit is equal to 10 workers in other firms because we don’t require a lot of labor to actually manufacture the product through our molding technology system.
E Are there certain projects that this kind of system favors?
Our system is designed to cater for large-scale projects. The smallest project is 50,000 square meters of built up area, up to 10 million square meters per annum per market. That requires a lot of mobilization, manpower and preparation. We eliminate the margin of human error by providing [specialized molding] equipment.
E What kind of cost savings are we talking about?
On average, on anything from 5,000 square meters upwards, if design and value engineering is done properly, you should come up with 5 to 10percent cost savings on the building. You can have access to the building within six months instead of it taking two to three years to complete. So for a commercial building, it means you have started earning money two years ahead of a conventional program, plus you have saved at least 15 percent on your holding cost.
Your construction method provides thermal insulation – is that relevant in the Middle East?
Thermal insulation is becoming a must. It applies for cold and hot weather. The cost to apply the thermal insulation, in our system, is absorbed into the construction cost, while you still save 5 to 10 percent on construction cost. On a 100,000 square meter [project], your savings can vary10 to 30 percent on the whole building, compared to conventional methods. We have proven studies that say, if you have external thermal insulation and combine it with an outer coating of [ultraviolet and infrared] reflector paint, you can save on 50 to 70 percent of air conditioner usage in Gulf countries. In Lebanon, you would hardly ever have to use AC if this was applied.
E Is green construction a growing trend in the Middle East?
Dubai and Abu Dhabi have LEED and Estidama certification [incentives]. [In Lebanon] it should be mandatory in order to obtain a construction permit. Why do we have Lebanese groups and consultants implementing green technology outside Lebanon but not in their home country? However, today they are starting to zone different areas of Lebanon. We are already saying you can’t cut trees or pollute in certain areas. This is much tougher than requesting certification of LEED.
E Do you predict labor and material costs will rise in the near future?
When demand eases, prices should drop, but labor costs haven’t dropped at all and in some areas [in the region] have increased. We do try to outsource most of our labor to third parties. We expect construction materials to always increase in price, but I don’t predict a rise in 2011.Hotspots like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and India may drive up the cost of steel for neighboring countries. It was $1,700 per ton earlier this year and now it’s back to $2,700 per ton.
E What is the main concern for those working in Lebanon’s construction industry?
When it comes to the quality of construction and materials, it’s up to every developer but there aren’t high standards on all levels. Also, the [poor] infrastructure in Lebanon is far more challenging than in other countries in the region. No other country in the Middle East has the mountains, snow, sea and the natural resources. It’s important that the right construction methods are used to preserve this natural wealth.