Standards: Changing specs

23 December 2005
The broad mix of international contractors working in the Gulf has led to an equally wide variety of construction standards.

Construction quality in the Gulf has been placed under the microscope recently, after a number of high-profile developments were exposed for using low-quality finishing items. Even in a market this buoyant, specifications should ensure such situations do not arise. But confusion often develops as the standards themselves vary, leaving contractors and suppliers unsure of whether a product meets a specification or not.

The Gulf has traditionally relied on outsiders, from Europe and North America, to bring in standards and ensure its buildings are of good quality and, above all, safe. US standards are dominant in Saudi Arabia and are used on about 80 per cent of projects. In the rest of the Gulf, the influence of UK companies has meant most markets rely heavily on British standards, which have, to a large extent, been absorbed into the European Norms (EN).

The exception is Dubai, where the rapid pace of development and its international mix of consultants, contractors and suppliers mean that one set of standards does not predominate. US standards, European norms, British standards and German codes are all used on major projects.

Although the technical specifications that form a standard vary, it does not make a huge amount of difference whether one standard is used in favour of another. In most cases the decision is left with the individual consultant, who is responsible for specifying the products and materials used on a project. "It varies from project to project, and in most cases it comes down to where the consultant is from and what set of standards he or she is used to and feels most comfortable working with," says one UK-based supplier.

The effect of the decision is far reaching, as it dictates which products gain approval on a specific project. For example, if a US consultant opts for US standards, then European suppliers may not be approved for the project as they fail to satisfy American specifications.


Within a project, different products using different codes may also be specified. "It is not unusual for a product like a door to be specified using one set of standards, and then a related product, like the lock for the door, to be specified using another set of standards," says one hardware supplier.

The danger is confusion. Different sets of codes used for different developments, or even different product areas within individual projects, opens up the potential for confusion, which can lead to products failing to meet the necessary specifications. "Different specifications mean confusion does exist, especially on the smaller and medium-sized projects where the consultancy teams are traditionally weaker and the supplier can apply pressure and get a product approved that does not meet the specifications," says a local supplier.

With every project struggling to meet a fast-tracked schedule, the frequent problem is that a consultant simply does not spend sufficient time reviewing and updating old specifications. "Specifications are a living science and are always changing as technology changes. Dubai is so busy that people don’t have the time to update their specifications any more, and many are now out of date," says a European supplier.

The over-heated nature of the market means the same is true on site, where price and availability become much more important than whether a product meets a specification or not. Contractors with tight deadlines and the threat of large delay penalties do not have time to wait for products to be delivered on site, especially at the finishing stage, when earlier delays often mean schedules have to be accelerated. This puts pressure on the contractor to overlook specifications and source materials that are readily available, and, if the project is running over budget, implement savings by ordering less expensive and frequently inferior items.

As the demand for a quick solution grows, so does the supply of cheap products that do not meet specifications. While this can apply to all products installed towards the end of a project, it is particularly alarming when it involves safety items. Poor quality finishing items may be a nuisance, but the consequences of a product failure in an emergency can be fatal. "Dubai has become flooded with end-of-line stock that has become obsolete everywhere else. The market is sucking in products that could not be used in other countries because they are dangerous," claims a local agent for a European supplier.

The situation needs to be addressed if Dubai and the rest of the Gulf are serious about delivering quality developments, especially at the lower end of the market. Possible solutions include legislation where standards are incorporated into local building regulations, a more universal approach where the industry adapts just one set of standards for certain products and places a greater emphasis on education and training to ensure consultants, contractors and suppliers are aware of what different standards mean and whether products conform or not. If the problem is ignored and the current situation is allowed to continue, then the region may be left with a legacy of poorly finished and dangerous buildings.

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