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The Project Director

Alexandria Library

For Jack Thomson, Arab Contractors-Balfour Beatty project director, working on the Alexandria Library is to become a part of history.

'Like the Sydney Opera House it will be criticised, ' he says. 'In one hundred years it will be considered a masterpiece. It is an honour to be associated with it.'

'Without a shadow of doubt this is the most complex construction project I have worked on. It has complex geometry and logistics, the tolerances are extremely tight and the quality must be first class in all respects.'

He says production has been his biggest headache. 'In the early days we had a high turnover of staff, ' he explains.

'The labour force did not like being pushed for the quality. It's a way of life and we have to try and break that. But together with Arab Contractors we have done it.'

'We initially priced productivity levels at 2.5:1 compared to UK levels, ' he says. 'That was pretty good, but as demand for quality got higher for things like fair-faced concrete formwork or rebar placement, that dropped to about 5:1.'

Thomson also cites logistics as a problem, particularly with the special cladding used on the roof and the external walls.

Finding a quarry that could provide 10,000m 3of fault-free granite panels took almost a year.

The next problem was getting 25 panels a day, six days a week to site with the required level of quality. 'For a long time we were only getting six stones a day when we needed 25, ' says Thomson.

'We increased the pressure on the supplier but that has a knock-on effect on quality.

Thus we, along with Dr Hamza and Christoph Kappeller, have had to work very closely with the subcontractor and bolster his management to secure the required rate of production and the appropriate quality.

Installation was never a problem.'

Similarly, delivery of special roof cladding, which was developed from aircraft wing technology in Austria, was delayed by customs.

From the outset Thomson also faced the need to weld a team together from different cultures and strike a balance.

In this he received operational support from Ibrahim Mahlab, vice president of Arab Contractors, and Ranald Crook, operations director of Balfour Beatty.

'From the early days the three of us worked very closely as a team, bouncing around ideas and solving some large problems in the process, ' Thomson says. 'I could usually rely on them to put a different perspective on solving a problem.

'We placed a lot of importance on selecting the right staff to do the job at the outset and that explains why the turnover of personnel has been very low.'

Mahlab, who sits on the boards of many joint ventures, has been particularly pleased with this one.

'We have worked together as a JV and with the engineer and architect to solve the problems, ' he says. ' It has been transparent and there has been a full commitment from all sides.' These sentiments are echoed by Crook.

With the passage of time the working relationship developed to include Snohetta and Hamza Associates. Everyone had to work at understanding one another's culture on a site that had an Egyptian engineer, a Norwegian architect with Austrian project architect, an Egyptian/British construction JV and subcontractors from Egypt, Turkey, Italy, France and Austria.

Nevertheless co-operation between the parties developed, very much to the advantage of the contract. 'Once Dr Hamza understood the nature of a particular problem we were usually halfway to solving it, ' says Thomson. 'It became more of a partnering approach to the project. The engineer assumed an unusual role and was also actively involved in solving problems with the specialist subcontractors.'

Despite the headaches Thomson is proud to be associated with the library. 'It feels like being a part of history, ' he says. 'Over time this building gets under your skin. It's unique.'

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