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The $18bn city rising from Abu Dhabi’s coast

Modular construction is proving a key method for the team charged with building a development for 120,000 residents

In a region where labour is still cheap and plentiful, you might think offsite construction would not be a priority. But the Al Raha Beach project – $18 billion worth of hotel, residential and commercial development stretching across 12 m sq m of Abu Dhabi coastline – is setting a new standard in the scale of modular construction in the Middle East.

Not surprisingly it is Laing O’Rourke which is forging the new market in its joint venture with developer Aldar. Project director David Henderson, who moved out two years ago after being heavily involved in the company’s 2012 bid, says: “I don’t believe any project in UAE has this level of offsite and modularisation across the board.”

The JV was signed two years ago and the registered business was created last April. The fourman board consists of two Aldar managers and two from Laing O’Rourke, including Ray O’Rourke.

Put simply Al Raha makes the Olympic site look like a child’s sandpit. It measures roughly 9 km long by 1 km wide of reclaimed waterfront property.

Let’s have some more numbers: the $18 billion project will be home to 120,000 residents (plus another 80,000 daily visitors), made up of 12 districts mixing high end residential (where 5,000 sq ft apartments are the smallest on offer), signature hotels, canals, bridges – and some truly huge underground car parks.

Construction is well under way on the eastern side (the 20 km marine wall was constructed by a JV between Soletanche Bachy and NSCC) while dredging continues on the western side.

Infrastructure work will finish in 2010 in the east and 2012 in the west. Four, six-lane boulevards link a collection of islands interlaced with canals (and 75 bridges) that maximise the waterfront views. Among the variety of residential buildings are signature buildings such as the Abu Dhabi world trade centre (designed by Foster and Partners) and the Gateway mixed use development.

Partnering approach

The first building to take shape is Aldar’s own circular HQ, itself heavily reliant on unitisied glazing panels, which should be finished at the start of 2010.

Piling began last April and Mr Henderson estimates that a partnering approach and strict control of design sign-off deadlines will cut total build time by 15 months.

It heavily uses offsite M&E and modular bathroom pods. Most of the buildings will have precast staircases, for instance, installed early in the construction process.

“The traditional procurement view in this part of the world is fairly protracted but we were able to start work within three months of concept design. This is fixed cost so the sooner the job is finished the better,” says Mr Henderson.

The project is one of the first major projects in the Middle East to use a NEC form of partnering contract in contrast to the traditional Finic form.

Mr Henderson says: “We are using the same contract throughout, for design, first tier, second tier, professional services and so on.” On Laing O’Rourke’s recommendation, Aldar also uses an independent cost advisor in the form of EC Harris.

Although the offsite work has brought down the total workforce for the project from 100,000 to 60,000, the manpower involved is still daunting.

In a region where living conditions for workers can be very poor, Laing O’Rourke has gained itself an A rating from the labour minister for its facilities, “raising the bar for the whole region”, says Mr Henderson.

The project is being delivered on the back of a major expansion of Laing O’Rourke’s manufacturing presence in the UAE.

For instance it is currently producing about 13,000 cu m of concrete a week (“a major UK project every seven days, “as Mr Henderson says). Its rebar facility, also built as a JV with Aldar, will soon be producing up to 20,000 tonnes a month.

The first precinct which Laing O’Rourke is delivering as first tier contractor has already been sold and will begin construction at the beginning of next year.

About half of Al Raha land plots will be sold to private developers who, while working to the overall masterplan and expected to adhere to basic usage and elevation, will build what they want and use who they want.

Move labour offsite Mr Henderson says: “Aldar have authority to review concept design and comment to make sure it in line with the overall vision. But once we hand over the plot it is really up to them.

“We have no jurisdiction over what goes on behind the hoarding although we handle overall logistics. If there something totally unsatisfactory obviously we would make that known but we don’t have a day to day role.”

“We are trying to move as much labour as we can offsite to improve quality and safety but it is a challenge to set up manufacturing facilities, it’s not just about buying land.”

The company set up one of the first modular bathroom factories in the Middle East and pioneered their large scale use in the Atlantis hotel on Jumeriah Palm Island. The al Zeina precinct by itself will use 3,500 bathroom pods.

The pod market in the Middle East is developing as new manufacturers enter the fray. Mr Henderson says: “Although the site isn’t as automated as you might find in Europe I could argue that the quality of pods that come out are better than those coming out of the European market. That’s a lot to do with the labour we have and the cost of that labour.”