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Sun 20 Sep 2009 04:00 AM

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FM and MEP, happy bed fellows

The Al Fara'a Group has established its own FM division. MEP Middle East editor Gerhard Hope speaks to director Natasha Gangaramani about the venture, and the integral role of FM in MEP.

FM and MEP, happy bed fellows
NATASHA GANGARAMANI: ‘Proud to be giving something back to the FM community in this way’
FM and MEP, happy bed fellows
Facilities management: part of the contractor’s remit to provide a year’s MEP maintenance such as electro-mechanical equipment and elevators.
FM and MEP, happy bed fellows
The Manhattan, Jumeirah Village, is on track to honour all of its development commitments.

The Al Fara'a Group has established its own FM division. MEP Middle East editor Gerhard Hope speaks to director Natasha Gangaramani about the venture, and the integral role of FM in MEP.

Explaining the reasoning behind the new division, Gangaramani says it represents a natural progression for the group. "We are a construction group. All our concerns are independent, but flow into the broader group. Hence we have a ready-mix company, and companies that supply MEP, steel and aluminium structures, joinery and glazing, among others."

Taken together, this allows the Al Fara'a Group to offer an integrated approach. "So it is very natural for us to go into property development as a one-stop-shop solutions provider, as we are the only developer that has all these diverse disciplines under a single roof. I can confidently state that you will not find any other group of companies capable of matching our strength."

Gangaramani says part of the reasoning behind establishing the new FM division was to allow a greater input into the design stage of a project. Traditionally FM is only taken into account at the handover stage, but significant cost-savings and efficiencies can be effected if its synergies are harnessed early enough.

"We realised that a bit of forward thinking at the design stage would alleviate a lot of the problems encountered at a later stage in terms of MEP maintenance. For example, what impact would it have on the elevators breaking down if we spent a little bit extra at the beginning?

"We gradually aggregated a team around this sort of thinking, which has now become formalised with the establishment of the new FM division. The group has 18,000 employees, which implies a lot of knowledge transfer. A lot of times we may not know the answer, but we have the depth within the group as a whole in order to find those answers."

This means that the new FM division has a core of highly experienced and competent professionals driving its future development. "They know exactly from the design stage what to make provision for in a handed-over tower so that future maintenance is not too prohibitive. FM is key in reducing these costs. However, it also extends to environmental and health and safety concerns. For example, we changed our paint specification - not only because we found that the paint was wearing off easily, but its chemical composition meant it could be detrimental to human health," says Gangaramani.

She says that FM often revolves around the minutiae of such details, which many people do not even taken into account. "As long as you have a knowledgeable FM team to guide you, then it adds considerable value to your overall project. Many of our team members are acknowledged experts, who even have representation on the Emirates Green Building Council, which means we can obtain invaluable feedback from such highly professional sources."

 Gangaramani comments that the construction side of the group is linked intimately with the FM side, as it is part of the contractor's remit to provide a year's maintenance on project completion. "This does not mean soft services, but actual MEP maintenance, such as all the electro-mechanical equipment and elevators.

"We have become so good at this from a contractor's perspective that our experts are able to sniff out potential problems in advance. They can look at a specification and intuitively know what sort of issues to anticipate. They will then explain the situation to the client and enquire if they are willing to undertake the associated risks, or try and prevent them with upfront planning."Commenting on the decision to launch the new FM division at such a difficult time, when the global economic crisis has had a significant impact on the construction industry in Dubai, Gangaramani says: "I think any time is good, as long as there is a gap in the market. The gap we see is FM engaging with a project right from the design stage, together with the ongoing servicing and maintenance post-handover.

"If you have planned it correctly right from the design stage, then maintaining it when it is ready will not be a problem, as this has effectively been programmed into the design.

So I believe that this is where our strength lies. Regardless of the market conditions, we are going to be delivering projects, as well as having developers approaching us and wanting to work with us due to our particular skills set."

In terms of the cost effectiveness of outsourcing versus having your own in-house FM division, Gangaramani says that "cleaning, security and pest control are the easy part. But you cannot outsource the sort of expertise we have accumulated over the last three decades. We have grown, and it now comes naturally to us. Such an integrated approach is different from simply outsourcing the FM for a tower that is ready to be handed over.

I agree that outsourcing is necessary wherever specialised skills or expertise may be required, but in general FM represents an intangible value that cannot be quantified through outsourcing. You can only reap the benefit of such value by being associated with a construction group that has built up such a knowledge base that it can leverage to add value to its projects," argues Gangaramani.

In this regard, Gangaramani also emphasises that FM and MEP often go hand in hand. "Once a tower is ready for handover, and the building is kept clean, security is provided and pest control is carried out, then really the only thing left is managing the owners association and the MEP aspects in terms of water and electricity supply, elevators and the BMS. If you bring all of this into play and there are no issues related to plumbing or building cracks, for example, then the tenants will be happy.

"In Al Fara'a Properties, all our team members are instructed to spend time in planning and design. We only launch a project at least six to eight months after acquiring a plot. We spend a lot of time with our consultants, architects, designers and the FM division to plan the building in its entirety, so there are no area changes or untoward surprises upon handover. That is our approach, and I honestly think every developer should adhere to this - it is important to benchmark oneself, or it will come back to bite you," warns Gangaramani.

It is also critical to have the FM team in place well before a development is handed over. "The team needs to be there so as to tell clients who is the point of contact, where this will be located, and what the contact details are. This inter-phase when actual tenants move in is very important.

"There are many small issues that need to be dealt with, ranging from how to get a couch up the stairs to what to do with the boxes after a tenant has moved in. If the FM team communicates at an early enough stage, it negates a lot of the frustration experienced by tenants," explains Gangaramani."This helps to create the harmony that you want in a development. It creates the requisite feeling of community. It's one of our key tasks as a developer: we do not simply hand over a tower, we ensure that we leave behind a viable, nascent community."

Commenting on the impact of the current slowdown on the Alfara'a Group, Gangaramani says it is not canceling or slowing down any of its Jumeirah Village projects, and is on track to honour all its development commitments. "This is simply because, to begin with, our risk portfolio was well assessed. We have not launched any project without thorough planning, and because this has been done so well in terms of design, construction and financials, we are pretty stable and will deliver all of them on time as a result."

In terms of the future growth of the new FM division, Gangaramani says more and more developers will become interested in engaging the services of Al Fara'a when they perceive the sort of results it is able to achieve.

"They will then know we are one of the best in the market to give them advice. Informally we have been advising a lot of our friends in the development community, and we will continue to do so through the FM division.

"We are proud that we are able to give something back to the FM community in this way, by leveraging our own extensive knowledge base. We can teach developers some of the lessons we've learnt ourselves, as well as engaging with other developers about the issues they have to deal with. It is important to keep this kind of dialogue going so the entire industry can benefit from it," says Gangaramani.

The trend towards green building, combined with energy efficiency and sustainability, is also making its mark on the FM sector.

"Facilities management has a key role to play in terms of these issues. It is not just something you ‘plug in' right at the end, which is a notion that a lot of people have in this part of the world. It is important to engage with FM at every step of the way, right from the concept design to the final handover. Only then can you begin to appreciate the full value that FM brings to a particular development."

While green building may represent a new niche market, Gangaramani points out that FM is as old as the construction industry in the region itself. "Facilities management has been there for a long time, but maybe a lot of it has not been well defined. I believe that now people are far more aware of improved customer service, which is making its mark. The FM sector is also engaging with the ‘green' building movement, which will bring active change to the FM sector.

"The main challenge at the moment is educating everyone - not only the developers, but the clients and consumers as well - on a single, unified platform about what the real issues are. This will allow the sector to meet global standards and to offer an internationally acceptable service," concludes Gangaramani.

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