MEP sector needs to be quicker in adopting technology

The construction industry hasn’t changed its building approach much in the last 150 years, says Dimitri Papakonstantinou, managing director at Plafond.

Dimitri Papakonstantinou, managing director at Plafond.
Dimitri Papakonstantinou, managing director at Plafond.

Dimitri Papakonstantinou is not too happy with the pace of the MEP sector when it comes to adopting technology. He says that for the most part, the construction industry hasn’t changed its building approach much in the last 150 years. Information technology and innovative engineering have the power to transform the MEP industry. Papakonstantinou, who is the managing director at Plafond, believes that contractors who embrace technology will reap the benefits. He says: “There are things out there [that are being developed]. For example, Google is developing design packages which will make certain activities easier. Things like that will happen a lot sooner. 3D modelling has been around for a while. It is being implemented more but it definitely wasn’t something in the industry that changed things. 3D printing will have a good effect. There is a directive from the government for its use. Things are still slow on robotics. There are machines laying bricks  that’s 10-20 times faster than humans laying  bricks. There are technologies around [to be used] and we have to change because we are so behind compared to other industries.”

He adds that although there are some new [construction]materials, the process is both traditional and inefficient.
However, he says, that adopting modular construction would help. He says: “In traditional construction, we have got tradesmen working in a congested area onsite with people passing all the time trying to fit things, whether it is a 2D drawing or a 3D drawing onsite. Several reworks have to be done. However, in modular construction, only a fraction of those people are required to work in a controlled environment. With modular construction, we get those services together, put them on track, and send them to site. In one of our projects, we completed corridors in four days with the installation; right from the fabrication of the rack to the installation on site. There are certainly better ways for us to do things than how we do traditionally.”
  Papakonstantinou says that one needs to manage things in a better and faster way. He implies that through modular construction this can be achieved. He says: “Modular construction is definitely going to be big going forward.”
So should everyone adopt modular construction? Papakonstantinou says “yes” and adds: “The easiest thing would be if modular construction gets designed at the beginning because the truth is at the moment even with Revit and 3D modelling, it’s not used to the maximum efficiency. We have got capability on projects where we are implementing the model at the construction phase. It’s something that definitely reduces inefficiencies.
“If you had offsite prefabrication implemented at the design phase I believe the benefits would be much more and for everyone; from the client getting his building sooner, to the contractor spending as little time as possible, to reducing wastage of the materials and labour hours, and so on.”
Plafond’s modular facility, which is over a year old, has got three production lines at the moment with a total area of 2,000m2. He says: “If we started double shifts, we would be effectively having six production lines. I want to focus on increasing the capacity and expanding the facility.”


Plafond is involved in the MEP and fit-out works at the Opus, Dubai.

Being different
Talking about what gives Plafond the edge over the others, Papakonstantinou says that the firm offers MEP, fit-out and FM services that are all in-house, something that not many of its competitors do.
   “We self deliver everything,” he says, “on the MEP side, except the most specialist assistance such as (extra low voltage) ELV, which generally is done by subcontractors. The rest we deliver ourselves, which gives us a lot of control over the quality, delivery, and procurement. We don’t need to be reliant on third parties. Similarly the same can be done on the fit-out side, with our gypsum carpenters, masons, etc.”
   Plafond is a merger of two businesses namely Macair, which was an MEP business established in Dubai in 1998, and Plafond, which was set up as a fit-out company in 2007. The two companies merged in 2012 forming a fit-out and MEP business. Subsequently, Plafond added facilities management (FM) to its activities. Previously, the firm was a part of Transgaurd and now it is a part of Emirates and Dnata. Papakonstantinou says: “So we are an Emirates airline group of companies and fully owned by Dnata and Emirates; they sit in our board of directors as well.” 
   He says: “We have been fortunate to have people here who have been in the business from the outset. Around 70% of the staff has been here since the inception of Plafond. They know the core values of the firm. As a team, we are focussed on looking at modular and more innovative ways of building. We are interested in better ways of construction than just following the traditional method.
   “Our focus is on a very particular part of the market. We target projects usually in the range of $60m to $100m. We focus on mid-size MEP projects. I believe the advantage on focusing on mid-size project is less competitors. We can take on projects with a shorter duration.” Plafond has got just over 1,600
blue-collar workers from fit-out to MEP.

Abu Dhabi Airport - Terminal 3 arrival lounge; scope: full fit-out and MEP works.

MEP sector
One of the challenges across the industry, he says, is liquidity. He says: “Liquidity is a known challenge and it has been in a difficult position for the past few years. All contractors are facing an imbalance in the contract terms; the imbalance is between the terms that represent the client versus the terms that represent the contractors. I don’t see much of a shift in that changing despite contractors wanting to push back. The truth is that there isn’t enough work in the market. It’s still a buyer’s market. There are a lot of contractors taking on contracts with clauses that aren’t equitable. We are very conscious of it and we are trying as much as possible to push back on certain key clauses in contracts but it is certainly not what Plafond can do by itself. It’s a market wide  phenomenon.”
   However, Papakonstantinou says that although there is an improvement when it comes to liquidity, it’s is still a slow progress. He says: “At the end of the day your salaries get paid at the same time every month and you know your material suppliers are tied to an LC (letter of credit) or a PDC (post-dated cheque). Our outflows are pretty predictable, but our inflows are unfortunately unpredictable at times. Hopefully, with the industry picking up, things need to improve. I mean it’s a common problem for all contractors and entire sector across the industry. Therefore, the situation needs to improve.”

On processes, projects and trust
Talking about some of the projects that Planfond is involved in, Papakonstantinou says: “We’re currently doing the complete fit-out and MEP works of the Opus. It was a shell and core project, which Multiplex handed over to Omniyat. We are contracted directly to the developer Omniyat. We will be carrying out the final MEP works as well as the complete fit-out, specifically the hotel apartments. For us, Omniyat is a big client. We have got several projects with them and a very good relationship.
   “We are completing the MEP works for HSBC headquarters; the 20-storey building will be situated on Emaar Square, next to the headquarters of Standard Chartered. Again, a great project with Multiplex as a main contractor, and GRDI as a developer. We are doing the full MEP and ceiling package of The One The Palm, which is a key project again for Omniyat as  a residential building. Generally we are fortunate to have good clients. We maintain good relationship with them at any time of the year. Probably, 80% of our work is from repeat clients.”
   One of Plafond’s more luxurious and challenging hospitality project was the five-star Palazzo Versace Dubai, which involved a complete fit-out of the 218 rooms. Papakonstantinou says that the Opus too will be a challenging project. “The Opus designed by Zaha Hadid will be a challenging project. There is not a single straight line [in that building]. We are looking forward to work on that, which is due for completion early next year.”
   For a project to function properly, everybody should be working together. Papakonstantinou says that sometimes there is a lack of trust where everybody is polarised. “Everybody is pre-emptively thinking that the other party is out to hurt them. This just sets the wrong tone for the project. I think we waste so much time and energy in this industry on the wrong things rather than focusing on what we all enjoy doing, which is building.”
   Giving an example, Papakonstantinou says: “Relationships and trust are important. Despite being part of Emirates, one of our big clients is Etihad Airways. We have worked with Etihad Airways for the past 10 years doing a lot of lounges, trading facilities, travel monitoring etc. They told us what they wanted, and we delivered it. They did not micromanage us.” 
  He concludes by reiterating that relationship and trust between two parties are important

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