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The Standard of Building Projects

Seeking High Standards in Construction

The standard of construction in buildings varies considerably according to who is supervising the construction, and the quality of his/her staff. In some areas poor standard affects appearance and is relatively of lesser importance. Poor standards in other areas, however, particularly structural strength and electrical systems can mean the difference between life and death. Here we look at standards and things you can do to improve the chances of your building project being successful.

Good Building practice and the well built house

Last week I had the pleasure of inspecting a large house in a rather salubrious part of Bali. It is a large residence consisting of a collection of single and 2 storey buildings set in two landscaped compounds. It was clear at an early stage that this was a very well built house, none of the various buildings in the complex had cracks in the walls (not even the usual settlement cracking we have come to expect) even the many metres of boundary wall had only one or two minor cracks in them. Roofs were well constructed of wood shingle with glass wool and aluminium foil insulation underneath to keep the buildings cool and there were no signs of termites.

Everything worked. Doors were straight and not warped from poor seasoning of the wood. Electrical systems were correctly installed and were properly earthed (a rare thing in Bali). The contractor had even used the correct colours throughout for the cabling; red, yellow and black for the 3 phases, blue for the neutral and yellow/green striped for the earthing wires.

Everything had been thought about even down to the small details such as a stainless steel pump room cover, a roof over the externally mounted gas water heater, a sand filter on the bore pump with automatic backwash and a ventilation fan in the pump room. I am not sure of the toilet seats were heated but I wouldn't be at all surprised.

It was a pleasure to inspect such a well built house. It turned out that the owner, an Indonesian business man, had carefully selected and engaged a construction company from Jakarta to carry out the work.

Jakarta Construction companies are building a number of buildings in Bali at the moment and a recently completed building, a Toyota car agency, has been another example of good building practice. From start to finish construction of what is a large commercial building took only around 6 months but the quality was evident throughout from the filling of the site, the sinking of pile foundations right through to final completion. It was also good to see the respect for our Balinese hosts, the building has a Balinese roofline and a beautiful carved freeze across the front and before it opened all the local ceremonial procedures were duly followed.

Successful projects are professionally planned and project managed

The noticeable thing about this building was the professionalism with which the whole project was executed. Properly planned and project managed construction showed no signs of the usual do a bit here, do a bit there, oh dear we forgot that, I'll tell you what we'll just take that bit down again and put this bit in that we forgot and oh never mind no one will notice that there are no foundations.

Poor construction and low structural strength

In stark contrast recently I was looking at some half built villas that were a demonstration of poor and, I am sorry to say, dangerous building. Close to the sea these villas will fetch US$300,000 each and some poor unsuspecting person will buy them without knowing how little structure is hidden within those painted walls. Heavy concrete edge roofs are supported by some very weak red brickwork strengthened by a very sparse sprinkling of what are known as “practice” columns. I am always a bit wary when I hear the word “practice”. Have you noticed that our learned friends in the wealthcare and legal professions are always practicing? One has to wonder why they are never quite good enough to perform.

“Practice” columns are concrete columns that are cast into brick or concrete walls. The builder leaves a vertical gap in the brickwork, installs some very light steel rods and then casts a concrete column into the wall as though it were an afterthought (and well it could be). The concrete is usually mixed by hand in small batches (oh dear) leaving lots of air pockets (oh dear) and lines of weakness where the different batches of cement meet (oh deary, deary dear). All in all practice columns provide some additional strength to a brick wall but not a lot, perhaps it will have as much effect as public opinion has in stopping Berlusconi chasing attractive young women.

Practice columns are certainly not strong enough to support concrete roof structures and one has to wonder how these buildings manage to stay up. Perhaps their structures may be classed as 'acts of God'. Just keep praying if you buy one.

Recently we have seen a devastating earthquake in Christchurch New Zealand. This should be seen as a wake up call for Bali. At a magnitude of 6.3 this was not a large earthquake by Indonesian standards. As recently as February 8th we had a 5.3 earthquake only 200 kilometres South of Bali.

The New Zealand earthquake was devastating because it was very shallow ‐ only 5 kilometres deep.

Serious building failures have resulted in hundreds of people killed, as in all earthquakes it is the collapsing of buildings that kills people, but the important thing to remember is that in New Zealand there are strictly enforced building regulations. All modern structures would have been properly designed and constructed with steel reinforcement and concrete mixes as specified.

All too often this is not the case in Indonesia and I have seen many buildings under construction here that I am sure will not survive a powerful earthquake when (not if) it comes. The buildings of most concern are detached villas which often do not have sufficient reinforced columns and beams to support the concrete roofstructures that have been placed on top.

A layer of cement, a coat of paint, some wood veneer, this is only the finishing. In any building it is what you don't see that really makes the difference. A lot of cost is invested under the ground in the foundations before you ever start putting the building itself up. The main strength of the building is in the structural beams and columns hidden in the walls, the plumbing is hidden under the ground and the electrical systems are all out of sight.

There are other things that you don't necessarily see. The design drawings specifying the foundations, structure, plumbing and electrical circuits, the bill of quantities that states what will be used. Not least are the accounting practices and project plan the builder uses.

If mistakes are made in costing the project the builder will have to take short cuts to save money. He will save on the hidden aspects and not on the finishing that you see.

An example of cutting corners I once came across was of a high profile luxurious complex in which the electrical contractor had saved money by installing 2 core cable instead of 3 core cable to all the power circuits. To provide earthing he connected the neutral wire to the earth in the plug sockets. For saving a very small amount of money someone nearly died and an expensive complex had to rewire all its circuits (not easy when a building has been completed).

Good builders accurately cost the jobs they take on and they plan how they will carry out the project task by task. Working within predefined parameters with allowances for unforeseen circumstances means that the project can proceed in a logical, fully determined manner which makes a huge difference in how the final result is achieved. Nothing is forgotten, nothing is shortcut, there are no horrible surprises and stress levels are low. Happy builders produce good work and happy clients.

How to make sure a building project goes well

For many, many people building in Bali becomes a nightmare, but it doesn't need to be. So what can we do to try and make sure a building project goes well?

  1. Select a good team. You will need a good lawyer (not easy to find), a good architect (check their past work and their credentials), a good structural engineer (not the architect unless he can prove he has Indonesian structural qualifications), a project manager, an inspector (find an independent person who you know will look after your interests), and finally a good builder (check their work and interview former clients).
  2. Keep your relationship with these people professional and avoid using 'friends'. Check everything every step of the way. Do not assume that a foreigner will do a better job than a local person, many of the more serious cases of incompetence or outright scams I have come across over the years have been perpetrated by foreigners. Also remember that to have legal credibility that might be needed at a later stage in a court of law the experts should be Indonesian, foreigner's qualifications are not recognised in Indonesia and you should always be ready just in case there is a court case down the track.
  3. Make sure the project is fully documented before you start with full sets of drawings and a bill of quantities. It may be a good idea to have an expert look over the documents as a second opinion. If an architect's name is on the drawings check that he did in fact design it. Ask the builder for an accurate bill of quantities (get this checked by an independent Quantity Surveyor) and a project plan that breaks the job into tasks and sets timelines. If he backs away from this (many will) then you need to start doubting his ability to complete the project.
  4. Plan the flow of money to make sure you always have leverage to make sure the work is done correctly. In many cases the builder will walk away from the project at three quarters completion because he has received most of his money and he can maximise his profit or avoid the cost of rectifications in the finishing work.
  5. Realise that it is false economy to negotiate a very low price. Yes you need to avoid being overcharged but if the builder cannot make a sensible profit make no mistake you will be the loser. It is best to determine the 'right' price (this is why you should use an independent Quantity Surveyor) and stick to it.
  6. Make sure that full supervision and independent inspection is carried out through all phases of the construction. The structure needs to be inspected by a structural engineer ‐ not an architect or a Master Builder, these people are not qualified to do the complex structural calculations involved ‐ it should be an engineer.

By taking these steps you will not only be helping yourself, you will be playing your part in establishing higher standards and helping us all to build a stronger more professional real estate industry.

Copyright © Phil Wilson March 2011
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