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Sat 6 Oct 2007 04:00 AM

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Bridging the gap

In-house procurement is the modus operandi of contractor ALEC's Between the Bridges project in Abu Dhabi.

Nestled between two strategic entry links to Abu Dhabi, the Between the Bridges project not only represents a desire to capitalise on the capital's steady expansion away from its traditional Corniche-centric orientation, but also demonstrates an approach that sees the main contractor, Al Jaber Engineering and Contracting (ALEC), ensure it has absolute control over the development.

Working from a limited brief, the 143,000m², 900m-long site between Al Maqtaa and Al Musafah bridges is now in the latter stages of construction, with the hotel already completed and open to the public.

Al Jaber is the client, TDIC has a 25% stake in the development and KEO is the main consultant. South Africa-based architect, urban planner, interior and graphic designer, Northpoint, put together the concept for the hotel.

Using a design and build format, ALEC used its own in-house project managers and appointed all consultants for the job. This led to an efficient construction method, which has seen the hotel go from conception to completion in just 24 months. The first pile went into the ground on the 17 August 2005 and the hotel opened to the public on 12 August this year.

The project encompasses multiple land use; the aforementioned five-star hotel with 220 rooms, seven villas, a spa, a retail component with 28 shops and 13 restaurants, and 161 apartments - from two to four bedroom.

According to Kent Southworth, contracts manager, ALEC, this development will act as a focal point for Abu Dhabi as there's currently no similar area that has this concentration of shops and restaurants. The project is similar in execution to the Jumeirah Madinat, but with a different principle.

"The whole city is moving in this direction. You have Al Raha beach nearby and Yas Island, which is where the Formula 1 track will be. There is also Saadiyat Island, which is also well positioned for the airport."

To develop a project which incorporates such varying elements has, unsurprisingly, prompted some changes as work has been ongoing.

But Southworth points out that a pragmatic approach has to be adopted in these circumstances.

"There have been changes, but projects develop as you move along. There used to be separate facilities for conferences, but now that has been incorporated into the hotel," he says.

"The last building on the site has had a chequered history. It started off as an apartment building for Etihad staff, which was to be three-storeys. Then we were asked by the client to bump it up to 10 storeys and two months ago we were asked to convert it to a Shangri-La Traders Hotel."

Consequently, work on the building, which had been due for completion by the end of the year, has been delayed pending concept processes. But are such adjustments detrimental to the overall construction?

"Some major changes were required," explains Southworth.

"Instead of just having hotel beds, you have front-of-house facilities, back-of-house facilities and services for the hotel."

The 10-storey height was due to the ceiling imposed because of the proximity of a local military airbase, not Abu Dhabi International airport. Work on the building is now expected to finish in September 2008.

Southworth confirms that Alec has met its date for handover of the retail outlets but cannot accurately predict how long it will take for the various companies to fit-out the unit.
While ALEC will be proactive in assisting the companies, Southworth admits it isn't something they can force ahead. The plan is still to open the souk by 1 December 2007.

All these changes have impacted on the proposed budget of US $273 million (AED1.05 billion). When Construction Week visited the project in its early stages this stood at $240 million.

This budget rise is primarily due to the design developments that have occurred on the change in height of the hotel, relocating the conference facilities inside, and changes to the souk design.

Further challenges, Southworth adds, stemmed mainly from the physical task of dealing with the water level affecting construction, balanced with the demands resulting from the linear nature of the site. "We have a lot of de-watering to do, which isn't unusual in this country. We had 1.5m to 2m here. And especially at the Traders hotel, which has a very deep basement.

"But the main issue was that it is a long and narrow site. So instead of controlling access to one gate, you have five or six different gates, which creates problems for labour arriving and makes the site difficult to manage."

ALEC has done lots to alleviate any further complexities, though with an emphasis of using in-house groups for subcontracting work where at all possible. This not only makes it easier to function, it also means control remains with the contractor.

For example, Al Jaber has a joinery company that was used extensively for a lot of the joinery work. Reinforcing was carried out by Al Jaber reinforcing, while the concrete also came from an Al Jaber company.

"We manage a lot of the work in-house because basically our philosophy is, if you hand over rooms for fit-out, for example, you hand over control as well. So if something goes wrong, as it has done for certain items, you have less control over what is going on," adds Southworth.

"So we have changed our philosophy now. We are not going to employ fit-out subcontractors at all. What we are going to do is split up packages pretty much as it happens in South Africa, where you wouldn't look for a fit-out contractor very often. This is better for this market because it is so busy."

Bringing all the subcontractors in-house appears a convenient solution, but is there a disadvantage to this approach?

"Obviously you are controlling more, but at the same time you are taking on board more risk and more labour costs," says Southworth.

"In the UK, US and New Zealand all your risk as far as managing labour is passed onto the subcontractor. Here we don't do that, so you have a much higher risk of overrunning labour budgets if you don't manage your labour properly.

"However, this ethos cannot be currently considered in Abu Dhabi due to the dearth of quality subcontractors," adds Southworth. And your ability to take on new work is limited by the number of subcontractors there are available.

At the same time, ALEC has ensured that the sub-contractors brought onboard for the project came away with a positive impression of the company, an approach that Southworth is keen to continue.

"We have good subcontractors on board here. Our approach is to be proactive with our subcontractors because we want them to make money. We are not a hard-nosed subcontractor where they walk off and never want to work with us again. We expect most of our subcontractors who have done their jobs properly to work with us again."

With the message coming through that securing skilled labour remains as problematic as ever, contractors like ALEC are demonstrating a savvy approach to getting the job done.

It remains to be seen whether a greater use of in-house work will be recognised by other contractors across the board or if it will remain the preserve of the few.

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