Piling on the work.
Like seeing mobile tower cranes being erected, piles being driven or bored into the hard rock can provide somewhat of an anecdotal (if not scientific) indication of the general level of construction activity in a particular place.
They are an encouraging sign that new projects are underway or that a site that has been vacant for some time may soon begin to see activity moving above ground.
The general consensus from the contractors that spoke with CW was that the market was rebooting, especially when set against last year, although there were divergent views on the speed of the recovery.
Tony Rocca, general manager of Gulf Piling, for instance, sounded a word of caution. Acknowledging that work was accelerating, he said prices have remained soberingly low.
"Right now there are a lot of rigs in town. You see, in 2005 there were so many rigs [brought in]. So now everyone's started to get busy again, the prices will not go up until clients start calling and we're all too busy to do the jobs," said Rocca. "Until then, prices are static. In all honesty, it has picked up since last year but it it's still not good. It's just covering expenses."
Cheriyan Alex, general manager of National Piling, said 90% of its work is in Dubai, pointing to tender opportunities being presented by developers like Meydan, Damac and wasl Properties.
"I think in Dubai the tenders have increased for piling and foundations companies and I think there will be more activity in 2015," he said.
Currently, National Piling has eight projects in the Emirate including six for Damac (Prive by Damac in Business Bay; The Constella in Jumeirah Village; Celestia Tower at Dubai World Trade Centre; The Vantage in Jumeirah Village; Capital Bay in Business Bay; and a tower on Al Sufouh Road), a hotel for Dubai Properties at Jumeirah Beach Residence and a high-rise, mixed-used tower for Tri-Planet in the Downtown district.
Despite the healthy project pipeline, Alex said that recruiting skilled staff was likely to become one of the biggest challenges the firm will face as the market continues to grow.
"Shortages of qualified staff is a difficulty we may face in the coming year. We may have to look into other markets to recruit," he said.
"Before, we used to get people from other GCC countries but they are now proving more difficult to get. Qatar is very difficult. Oman also. Before, they preferred to come to Dubai but now they are happy where they are." He also pointed to the time between projects being awarded and mobilisation as being another issue of concern.
"Sometimes the work is awarded but we have to wait two or three months due to various approvals and delays, so we cannot plan our duties," he said.
Meanwhile, Suryakant Patel, projects manager at Swissboring Overseas Corporation, said the market is slowly picking up.
"We had a situation one-and-a-half years ago when things were going slow. But compared to that, jobs are picking up now," said Patel.
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"We are in Muscat, we are in Qatar, we are in Saudi Arabia. We have a presence everywhere. You can see every month clients are announcing new projects. That's going to be good for the market. It's difficult to say how much will come our way. But definitely it's an encouraging situation."
Swissboring last month completed a subcontract on a six-storey office building being developed by TECOM Investments in Dubai Media City. The firm was appointed by main contractor Al Sahel Contracting Company for the piling package, with a total of 60 people deployed and 406 piles positioned.
"We deployed four piling rigs. We were doing about 10-12 piles per day," said Patel. "The space limitation of the plot was a real challenge. Being a corner plot, we had absolutely no space available. Normally, you have this challenge in this part of the world because sometimes the plot is 100ft by 100ft on many, many jobs."
The building is scheduled to be completed in October 2015 to shell-and-core only, said Muhammed Asgar, senior project manager at Al Sahel.
Swissboring also recently completed piling work at Dubai Trade Centre District, a mixed-use project at the heart of Dubai's central business district, located between the Dubai International Convention and Exhibition Centre and Emirates Towers.
"This project was very old, it started six years back and due to the recession it was on hold and then they (Dubai World Trade Centre) started it again," said Patel. "But this time we have done a small part of it - 240 piles."
He also acknowledged that staffing was a challenge but said Swissboring has the capacity to utilise human resources from sister companies as and when needed.
Meanwhile, Rosemary Shaji, an engineer at Geomar Gulf, said she found it encouraging to see the market reviving. The firm has two ongoing projects in the Al Jadaf area of Dubai for Sharaf Group: piling and shoring work on two apartment buildings - one 11 storeys, the other nine. Both will be finished by March next year.
"DEWA (Dubai Electricity and Water Authority) is laying some water pipelines very close to both plot limits, so it's like an obstruction to our work," said Shaji. "Actually, we undertook some temporary shoring protection to protect the pipeline and also our work."
Since 2012, Geomar Gulf has been engaged on a package of the Bidbid-Sur road project in Oman for joint venture contractor Astaldi Ozkar. According to Shaji, Geomar's scope of work will take another year to complete.
"Since we have been working in Oman, we have been getting enquiries there from different companies," she said.
Geomar Gulf also completed some piling work in Iraq, where it was alongside Turkey's Enka on a power plant in Basra.
However for Rocca, even though regional opportunities for piling contractors exist in places like Iraq, he argued that they are currently not stable enough to take the risk.
"If you want to look at the numbers and the volume of work and the need, then it's Iraq. But try to go to Iraq," he said: "The UAE remains our biggest market. It's the safest place. With the conditions, the stability that's here, it's better than anywhere else."
Meanwhile, WME Consultants said it will be focusing on pushing the boundaries on foundation design by introducing soil structure interaction to increase efficiency in the design of pile raft foundation on all its projects.
"Often, the piles are overdesigned as the data from the test piles are not utilised in redesigning the piles and only soil investigation is used as basis for the design," explained managing director/partner, Peyman Mohajer.
"Furthermore, the soil investigation report recommendation is based on conservative empirical formula which has been used historically in the industry. It is very challenging to convince the local authorities of using state-of-the-art techniques and/or soil structure interaction principle in the design of foundations."
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