DUBAI'S MIRROR cladding and marble veneers hide some ugly problems. Few visiting the city are likely to give much thought to the relationship between working conditions and construction quality; ask most consultants, contractors and suppliers in the Emirate about the state of the industry and they will tell you there is nothing to worry about.
But keep asking and you will eventually hear a different story: 'The place is essentially built on slave labour, ' says the regional director of an international project management company. 'My view is that if you're not looked after, that comes out in the quality of your work. You can see the effects all over Dubai.' Human rights groups have been lobbying hard to improve conditions for low paid workers from the Indian sub-continent who work long hours in high temperatures; many of whom have had their passports conscated.
There is also evidence that some builders withhold pay until project completion and some workers never get paid at all. It seems that the Emirate government has listened and will be cracking down on labour agencies, but until this happens the problem persists.
And poor quality in construction impacts on maintenance.
'A lot of structures will be money pits in 10 years' time, ' predicts the regional manager of a European construction materials supplier working in the region.
'If you look at the quality of construction, even on some of the landmark projects, it's an absolute disgrace. Defects are very soon going to turn into maintenance problems. There are structures only ve or 10 years old that are already having millions of pounds invested in repair work.' In a market where reinforced concrete is king quality problems typically take the form of bad rebar placement, poor formwork construction, too little concrete cover, bad concrete placement leading to honeycombing, variable concrete mixes, and deflection resulting from inadequate shoring while concrete gains strength. Cracking and spalling are commonplace.
'Dubai has very aggressive environmental conditions - high chloride levels, high heat and humidity. If rebar's exposed things can quickly unzip, ' says the supplier.
Defects arise for a variety of reasons. 'The workforce is largely unskilled and illiterate.
They're good at work that doesn't require much thought, but struggle with technical work, ' says the project manager.
'In a gang of 20 workers there's likely to be only one person who can read a drawing.
'In Australia or the UK every person in the gang would be able to interpret a drawing, which means there are 20 people who can spot something that's been missed or interpreted incorrectly. But here, if that one person gets it wrong there's nobody to pick the error up and you've immediately got a quality assurance issue on your hands.' The same supplier says that ' fickle clients' and the blistering pace of construction in Dubai create other difculties. 'Clients here are very demanding, Developers sell off-plans and are looking for a return on investment as soon as possible.
They have a concept design that the consultants and contractors then have to turn into reality very rapidly. Design drawings are issues as construction advances and clients are prone to changing their minds.
One client recently announced out of the blue that he wanted four extra floors on his building. That threw up complications for the foundations, columns and beams, which were already being built. A week later the client's consultant said: 'Oh, by the way, it's six floors now, not four'. Immediately it was back to the drawing board to find out whether it'd work or if it required a complete redesign.
You also get clients announcing changes in use and imposing higher loadings.' A repair and strengthening contractor working in Dubai says that the retrospective strengthening as required on the Burj are not unusual (News page 6). He says that 95% of his rm's work is on buildings still under construction.
'We are called in to compensate for holes cut in cores, walls or slabs to allow services through, or because columns or beams have been removed because they got in the way.' He adds that not infrequently he is called in to beef-up slabs where post-tensioning tendons have been forgotten or insufcient rebar installed.
Dubai's super-heated construction economy throws up further quality challenges.
'There are perhaps 500 high-rise buildings of between 20 and 200 storeys being built right now, and there are an estimated 2,000 contractors. If I was a developer there are only five or six contractors I'd be willing to employ, ' says the project manager.
'That leaves an awful lot of tall buildings being done by rms who don't have the knowhow. When I first came to Dubai a decade ago mine was one of only five rms able to do buildings of 40 storeys or more. Now we won't touch anything that's less than 50.
'Tall buildings are being put up by rms that just aren't competent. Even contractors with good people are spreading them between too many projects and that's impacting on quality and safety.' Almost everywhere quality comes second to speed and cost.
'The problem with this part of the world is the soukh mentality - everybody wants a discount. A client doesn't feel like he's got a proper deal until he's beaten his consultant and contractor down to below the price where the job was economical.
'The contractor barters with his subcontractors, and on down the chain. Everything is priced to the lowest common denominator, ' says the supplier.
The project manager adds: 'Lot of contractors are cutting corners left, right and centre.
People price things on the back of a fag packet because they don't have the time to do a proper job. As soon as they look like they're losing money they'll cut costs.
'This isn't being picked up because consultants are willing to be paid under the table not to go and inspect things. That's an enormous problem.'