Martin McFadden has watched the landscape of the GCC shift considerably since arriving in the region some 10 years ago.
Now, after three years with KEO International Consultants, the firm’s director of MEP engineering is predicting another shake-up to the region – this time in the form of modularisation.
“I think it’s inevitable,” he told MEP Middle East.
“If you look back to the UK, where I am from, we now have a market that is very much maturing in the production of modular building services, modules, as well as buildings themselves. That was organic and it grew.
“Regardless of the procurement practices of this particular region I still believe strongly that this will evolve and become more the norm.”
Of course, not all markets are the same, and McFadden admits the Middle East may need some coaxing when it comes to ditching traditional building methods.
That coaxing could come in the form of mandates, something McFadden believes could already be coming into view over the horizon.
“I think it’s starting to come. When you look at Abu Dhabi, there are a range of initiatives coming that are more about holistic sustainability.
“It’s about the preservation of the built environment and the economy of the governing countries themselves.
“In the past we’ve had a range of practices which have caused or been setup in a fractured manner. I do think as we go ahead in time there will be a stitching together of various initiatives.
“The government themselves are becoming more educated and mature in their outlook, and I think it is inevitable that this will come to the market.
“And that’s an advantage to us. If we are appointed to do a particular piece of design, and then requested to stop, someone else takes that on and completes that design, then the installation contractor comes in, we don’t have a participation in the validation of our design... the handover of the asset to the owner is all a fractured exercise right now.
“But as we move forward in time; the technological advances we have in our hands are only going to play to this agenda.
“The offerings that can be served to the market are the entire journey: the design, validation of design, supporting functions of construction supervision through the installation, validation of design at testing and commission, and moving on into the digital twin environment that we are creating for asset management for owners and stakeholders of businesses.”
If government entities are on the front foot, on the client side of the equation there remains plenty of work to do. McFadden reports running into some obstacles when trying to extoll the virtues of new technologies and more efficient ways of working.
“To some degree there is an education process, an enlightening process, that is needing to happen – but it is happening,” he explained.
“As we are sitting here in early 2020, even by the time we turn the calendar into 2021, I believe we will already have created a significant journey in terms of our government entities.
“Taking the UAE as a working example we have these newly formed committees put in place to look towards the next 50 years, for example.
“That will all be part and parcel of this journey I am sure of it.”
McFadden agrees that, in many ways, addressing one challenge of the con-struction industry will have a domino effect on other issues that punctuate the market at present.
“It’s multifaceted there is no question about that,” he said when mapping out the web that is the construction industry in the Middle East.
“But if you consider what is the key driver in predominantly oil economies of the GCC, they are looking to diversify as much as possible, and the UAE in particular has had a great success story to date.
“But it is only part of the journey, and I think that this journey will accelerate from this point, bringing into play what is important.
“Holistic sustainability is important, so if the government is taking money out of one pocket, they want that money to be circulating – in a holistic economic sense – through their economy and coming back into another pocket.
“That agenda, plus energy efficiency of the built environment we are surrounded by, are important factors and I do believe the agenda has already been formed to what we are talking about.”
Top of the agenda at KEO and a prominent discussion in the board room is the ongoing coronavirus health crisis.
The firm has been able to lean on processes implemented last year to help minimise disruption to daily business practices.
“At the boardroom right now we have restrictions on travel – unless on an emergency basis.
“We at KEO have invested a lot of time and money at the end of 2019 in or technological advancements. The fruit of that labour we are now able to see.
“We are able to continue business without major disruption despite these restrictions.
“KEO, whether we are talking about our offices in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Kuwait or Muscat, we are able to use these platforms to have a continuation of business as usual.”
But technology is only as good as the people who are operating it and putting it into practice.
For McFadden and KEO, that investment in people is one that is close to home, with the firm’s commitment to the UAE evident in the director’s response to a question about putting value in people.
He said: “Starting from the very beginning, KEO are a homebaked GCC company, with international design and consultancy expertise.
“We would consider ourselves to be a match of anybody else operating here, but we are a GCC company – so we are not going anywhere.
“So, of course, it is entirely appropriate for us to invest in ourselves.
“The technological platforms for delivery we are creating are upper quarter of anything any of our competitors are doing in this region – and more.
“No doubt as part of that exercise something like 2% of all staff time in 2019 – and continuing in 2020 – has been dedicated to the training and development of those individuals for the technological advancement of platforms and reform of working practices.
“We are wedded to the region, this is our home market. Whichever way the GCC region is evolving, we are convinced and have every confidence in our ability to retain and even grow our market share.”
McFadden is certain that KEO’s reputation has seen the firm continue to prosper when others have stumbled.
“If I look at my particular experience of KEO, it’s more of a personalised relationship in a business,” he explained.
“That works for me and has done for three years, and if I take my own staff they share that.
“There is a family feel to KEO, that’s not to say we don’t have all the corporate issues such as corporate governance, due diligence, and all these approaches that are necessary for the business environment we work in.
“But there is a different approach, a personalised approach. We are 100% GCC owned, and from the GCC region we are 100% managed.”
And he believes KEO will have a central role to play as the GCC continues its march towards digitalisation – with MEP at the heart of changes that will lead to substantial energy savings and a more sustainable built environment.
“I think it plays to MEP consulting design and engineering. This is a new world order,” he said.
“We are going to be constructing less new build and retrofitting a lot of existing stock.
“What is important in that is that we have, and bring to these existing buildings, energy efficiency. We live in an arid region so reducing water use is absolutely critical.
“There is a lot of work that has already been banked in terms of that.
“If I speak about our experience of DEWA’s headquarters building – where we did MEP design for that – that is a LEED Platinum, WELL Silver, Al Sa’fat Platinum, net-zero building that is using power monitoring and energy management to a high degree.
“It is all demand-led lighting and ventilation, and it’s working with a cognitive learning platform – smart building.
“This is the reality of smart building and we are very proud of that.”