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Wed 30 Mar 2011 12:00 PM

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Yasmeen Rotana

CW visits one of Syria’s top projects, and the second five-star hotel in the capital, Damascus

Yasmeen Rotana
The Yasmeen Rotana is a five-star hotel in Syria

Fast emerging as one of the region’s most attractive new markets
for construction firms, Syria
is becoming recognised for its high-profile developments. One such development,
the Yasmeen Rotana hotel, has attracted a significant amount of interest from construction
professionals. Upon completion, not only will it be the second international five-star
hotel in Damascus,
but also the newest five-star hotel in the capital, and the flagship development
for new Syrian developer Bena Properties, part of Cham Holding.

“The Yasmeen Rotana is the first-ever project for Bena since
we started real-estate activities in 2009,” says CEO Hawazen Esber. “We are using
the best-available contractors and consultants to develop a first-class hotel. There
is a lack of those in Syria at
the moment, especially in Damascus,
so we believe this will be a good addition to the hospitality sector.”

Located on the Damascus-Beirut highway, the project is 15 minutes
from the heart of the city and 35 minutes from Damascus International
Airport. When finished, it
will have 338 rooms and cater to the business community, and to tourists visiting
the historic capital.

“It is a project in a city that is really lacking hotels, so
it is not a speculative project. It is also in a country which has made a political
decision to encourage tourism by providing tax exemptions for tourism projects,”
Esber explains.

Construction of the Yasmeen Rotana has been divided into three
packages, one for the enabling works (piling, shoring and excavation), a second
for the raft foundation and a third for the main construction work.

“It was divided this way so we could get on with construction
work while the design was being finalised, so we did not have to wait for the design
to be completely finished before we could start,” says Osama Soudan, Bena's projects
manager.

According to Bena, five contractors put forward bids for the
project, including Man (Lebanon), ACC (Lebanon), Arabtec (UAE), Bouygues (France,
with a local partner Yaquobian) and Marasem/Bin Ladin (Saudi Arabia). Arabtec won
the contract largely on price, but also because Bena considered them to be one of
the biggest contracting firms in the region, with an impressive portfolio, which
was important for a project counting on quick construction and a quality build.

“Our plan and our contract with Arabtec says we will finish in
March 2012,” says Soudan.

“Right now we are a couple of months behind schedule, but we
are working with Arabtec to do whatever is required to mitigate these delays. There
are some good signs and some bad signs, but I am still very hopeful that we will
meet that date.”

Soudan says the main reasons for project delays lie in obtaining
labour and materials.

“It can take time to get labourers, or more importantly, qualified
labourers. It is not like in Dubai
where you can get 500 labourers at once. You have to make sure they are the right
calibre, or you have to train them.”

He adds that the issue has come about largely due to qualified
Syrian workers moving to places like the GCC, and that the slowdown in Dubai had been good for Syria.

“Syria
actually has a lot of efficient workers. But a few years ago when the GCC was booming,
there was no way you could keep our good labourers here. Now things are slowing
down, we are getting people back.”

As for materials, Soudan says the root of the problem is poor
planning. “You can bring in any materials you want here because of the exemptions.
It is more about planning and having the right material on-site and on time, which
sometimes affects progress.”

Tied in with these challenges is the more general issue of the
Yasmeen Rotana being the first big Syrian project for Arabtec, Woods Bagot and the
developers themselves. Arabtec project manager Riyadh Al Ani admits that not knowing
the market or its construction standards can make life more difficult.

“This is the first time we have been assigned as main contractor
for a project in Syria,
and the first time we have worked on such a prestigious development here,” he says.
“Our main objective is to deliver quality construction services on time. Our biggest
challenge stems from relying on local labour and experience, because the law in
Syria
prohibits us from using foreign labour.

“Also, the market is different from the UAE regarding  procurement procedures, and
the local market is not familiar with
international standards, so we have to give them some assistance.”

Another, perhaps less significant, issue is that of storing materials
on-site. While the transport of materials poses few problems due to the two highways,
the site itself is very tight, leaving very little space for storage.

Of course, the project is also recognised for its construction
achievements. According to Soudan, the biggest so far has been the fast-paced construction,
while simultaneously maintaining quality.

“The speed that we are delivering the work and the quality is
far beyond what you can see anywhere else in Syria, because we are bringing international
standards here. Even if we are a few months behind schedule, this will still be
the fastest project to be built in Syria. Also, the health and safety on
this project is far superior to any other project in the country.”

At the time of the site visit, the contractor had made a start
on the seventh level of the V-shaped structure on one side of the project, and the
fifth level on the other side. According to the project managers, there was an 11-day
cycle for building each storey – the floors being preceded by four core walls. In
addition, due to the site constraints, the concrete was being poured and cast in
three phases.

“MEP has also started, and is already reaching third floor,”
says Soudan. “It is the same as it is done in Dubai or the GCC. You remove your formwork immediately,
and the MEP subcontractor starts putting in the pipework – this is the only way
you can do it in three years; if you wait, there is no way you can finish in time.”

He says the lifts will not be installed for at least four months.
“That is fairly typical, because you do not want to have them in too early and be
subjected to wear-and-tear.”

At the time of the site visit, the stone façade was being prepared
and due to be installed.

The Yasmeen Rotana project also called for several construction
techniques and materials that, while in use in other parts of the region, were used
for the first time in Syria.
Use of C60 (high-strength) concrete for all the vertical elements (columns and beams),
post-tensioning for all the slabs and specific formwork systems from Peri and Meva
designed to speed up construction, for example, are all new in the country.

“These techniques and materials are fairly typical in Dubai, but not in Syria. This is the first project where
high-strength concrete is being used,” Soudan explained. “For the core walls we
are using jumpform, so they are at least three floors ahead of the slabs.”

Perhaps more impressive, however, is the way the boardroom in
basement one is being built.

“We have a very big boardroom in the
basement, which spans 20m. To accommodate this, the designer used 20m-long beams,
(2.5m deep and 4m wide), all post-tensioned, which will be used for the top of the
substructure/bottom of the superstructure. It is almost like big bridge
structures supporting the entire building. We did this so we could change the location
of the columns, as you cannot ideally have columns in the middle of a boardroom.”

Asked about the terrain, and whether this required any special
considerations, Soudan
said it didn’t, though he alluded to the
importance of finishing the substructure quickly before the anchors used for the
shoring exceeded their expiration date.

“The solid material is very strong; it is almost like rock, so
we had no concerns with the foundations. The only issue was having a 28m hole in
the ground. We had to make sure we had built all the basements before the anchors
used for the shoring expired. They only had a lifespan of one to one-and-a-half
years, so we had to finished everything in that time, otherwise there was a chance
the anchors could have pulled out.”

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