Construction technology that will save you money and time

An engineer explains to her team what needs to be done on the site. With modern technology, a house can be built off site and later transferred to the site. Photo by Rachel Mabala

What you need to know:

Buying ready made products such as prefab houses or ready mix concrete reduces these hidden costs extensively.

The essence of technology and advancement is to make things safer and easier to do. Even with this promise of doing things faster and easier, the construction industry in Uganda seems reluctant to embrace new technologies. Construction engineer, Ronald Arinaitwe, confirms this observation by pointing out that engineering students are still being taught concrete and steel structures.
“While the world over has moved on, students are still learning the conventional or traditional methods of using cement, fine aggregate, coarse aggregate (concrete constituents), blocks, bricks for walls, timber and iron sheets for roofing , steel windows and doors, timber doors and windows, tiles for floors and paint for walls, among others,” Arinaitwe stresses.

Probably due to lack of awareness of other options, people continue to favour this traditional method yet there are cheaper and quick methods of construction.
Some of the advanced methods Arinaitwe wishes Ugandans would adopt include interlocking bricks, for construction of walls, which do not need cement and sand paste for bonding and using waffles to construct slabs rather than normal concrete and iron bars. “Waffles are smaller precast slabs joined together to make a bigger slab. It is so quick and saves money,” he explains.
Ronald Kaweesi from PropTech Uganda stresses that there are a number of technologies or innovations in construction that help simplify construction.

Innovations in construction help simplify planning, designing, installation, excavation and building.
Construction technologies can be put into four segments for our Ugandan market and projects; engineering and project management, procurement and construction, building materials and construction machinery.
“The construction industry has been characterised by fragmented management systems, delayed projects resulting from cost overruns, obsolete and manual procedures, which lead to low productivity. Therefore, construction technologies provide the right solutions to many of these challenges at all stages of construction ranging from planning, providing safer working places for workers to reduction of construction costs,” he explains.

For instance, using the building information modelling (BIM) enables encompassing the digitalisation of the entire value chain to achieve a connected construction environment.
“For example, the construction procurement and supply chain segment in Uganda has seen construction technologies such as Wena Hardware and Smart Hardware taking up this space to make purchase of hardware materials easier for customers,” Kaweesi notes.

There are also several project management platforms and software on the market though many used products are imported for BIM products that are seen as enablers encompassing digitalisation of the entire value chain to achieve a connected construction environment. Under construction material segment, innovators are developing environmentally-friendly construction materials such as Wazi recycling making construction tiles from plastic and other innovators addressing the affordable housing challenge in Uganda through innovations in modular construction technologies.

Modular construction
Adoption of construction technologies has been hindered by among others socio-economic factors. “Culture and social settings play an vital role in adoption of construction technologies. For example, modular construction such as container houses is a technology that is relatively cheaper than traditional construction if done well,” he says.
Across the border, Kenya’s construction sector has not faired any better and is accused of being rigidly stubborn when it comes to adopting new technology. And true to that, while most other industries are working day and night to re-invent themselves, some players in the construction sector went into hibernation mode, waiting for the Covid-19 pandemic to come to an end.

There is no doubt about it, this industry has enough technological tools to not only make processes safer and easier, but also lower construction cost significantly and reduce project completion time.
Albert Waithaka, the chairman at Concrete Society of Kenya, observes that it is high time players in the construction industry evolved if they are to stay relevant in the market. All stakeholders, he says, from architects, to surveyors, to those in academia, need to research, explore and accept other ways of doing things.

Before we delve into how to make work easier, let us explore the general situation in a typical construction site. First, the developer or project owner goes through approvals and design stages. Once the construction commences, the site will host different professionals at various stages. At times, there will be electrical and drainage experts, other times casual labourers and plumbing experts will take over. All through the process, suppliers delivering different construction materials will be moving in and out of the site. Of course, the number of people at a construction site will depend on the project’s size.
“A big construction project, such as a mixed use development can host up to 700 workers,” says Sahib Sethi, the Director at Landmark Holding, a construction company in Kenya that also deals in ready mix concrete and precast panels.

A grader expands a school pitch. Photo by Ismail Kezaala

High numbers on site
Managing high numbers of construction workers at a time like this can be difficult, especially if you are working on a strict time line. How would they, for instance, maintain social distance, work with masks throughout that day and effectively coordinate tasks? What if one or a few of them contracted Covid-19, would the entire construction site be shut down? How would that affect delivery time or budget?
While Covid-19 is a critical concern for players in the construction industry, the time that has been lost is also a concern. Developers are running out of time to deliver projects and funds may also be compromised.

Besides, after spending months working calmly online, it might be hard to re-adjust to the old way of doing things, which entails noisy concrete mixers, workers crisscrossing the site and cranes moving up and down. It is simply too chaotic.
Modern technology allows one to ditch noisy concrete mixers and tens or even hundreds of labourers carrying cement bags, buckets and spades.
“It’s hard to imagine modern cities without something as crucial as concrete. It is the basis of civilisation. Also, concrete can be what we want it to be,” says Waithaka.

Pre-mixed concrete
Instead of mixing concrete for slabs on site, for instance, one can easily order ready mix concrete from a batching plant. The ready mix concrete is prepared by experts and the right amount delivered to the construction site in a truck. A boom pump is then used to transfer the concrete from the truck to any floor, and just like that, the slabs will be ready.
While the ready mix concept may sound like news to many, it is an old concept that was developed in the ‘90s. It has however evolved over time and those who have adopted it enjoy simpler construction processes.

Dealing with wastage
Sethi points out that using ready mix concrete eliminates unnecessary wastage and improper mixing. Remember, many people running projects may not be experts at mixing concrete. They rely on what they are told by their contractors or fundis, while hoping the labourers follow instructions.
Bearing in mind that at times construction materials are stolen, concrete mixed on site may end up being of lower quality and even hazardous if it cannot hold the building together in the long-term.

Also, a concrete mixing spot at a construction site may not be advisable now due to many people that are likely to congregate at one spot, making social distancing impossible, you have to consider the safety of your workers.
Worth noting is that mixing concrete on site gets harder if one is running multiple projects.
“Imagine transporting materials to five different locations, supervising the five projects and ensuring the concrete is mixed properly in all five of them. The logistics, in such a scenario are complicated, thus costing more, besides, the administrative work becomes a headache. One may also have to hire extra accountants and site supervisors and ensure the processes are successful,” says Sethi.

Such a headache can be cured by being receptive to advanced ways of doing things. You end up saving time and money in the process, and at times you may even save lives, given that labour-intensive construction sites are prone to accidents.
The Expanded Polystyrene (EPS) Technology is another tool that may come in handy in construction sites.
EPS panels are made of steel wire mesh which is covered with polystyrene, a synthetic material. EPS building panels have a number of benefits, to begin with, they are so light, that they require only a few construction workers to carry them, a scenario that contrasts using building blocks which are so heavy that they require several carriers on site.

Teddy Aran, a Sales and Marketing officer at Boylen Magic Wall Panels, says that there are two main types of products one can get from EPS technology- prefab and precast. Homeowners or developers for instance can get entire buildings constructed at a factory and delivered to their construction sites. This product is known as Prefab. They will however need to prepare the foundation beforehand so that the prefab houses or buildings are installed immediately after delivery.

Precast panels are mainly used for constructing walls just as one would use building blocks. However, binding concrete is unnecessary when using EPS panels.
“The panels are bound together using a specially designed mesh wire which is part of the package,” says Aran.
EPS panels and prefab products result in high quality constructions with less input in terms of time, labour and cost. The technology is believed to reduce delivery time by 50 percent. A three-bedroom bungalow for instance can take roughly one month to design, construct, deliver and install at a designated site.

To understand how using the EPS technology reduces construction cost, think of the three elements of a project: time, scope and budget. If a project takes more time to complete, the budget will definitely expand.
Besides, brick and mortar constructions have many hidden costs that may eat up a big chunk of the budget.
For instance, transporting materials is an overlooked process which takes up a significant percentage of the total cost. At times, developers and property owners do not take into account factors such as wastage, theft of materials and legal issues that may arise during construction.

Buying ready made products such as prefab houses or ready mix concrete reduces these hidden costs extensively. EPS panels also eliminate processes such as the curing processes applied when using bricks or blocks.
On matters quality, EPS panels do make strong houses. They are also water proof, resistant to heat and rodents. These qualities also lower the maintenance and renovation costs in the long run.

Besides, the panels create sound-proof walls which would be perfect for noisy locations. Aran recommends EPS technology for areas with extreme weather conditions given that polystyrene is a poor heat conductor, meaning that during extreme hot or cold weather conditions, those occupying EPS constructed buildings are barely affected.
Sethi says these panels are good for those investing in mass housing, where the logistics are complicated. The two gentlemen agree that small scale projects, including single residential homes can benefit from these technologies immensely.

Container houses
These are perfect modules that simplify the entireconstruction process.
According to Francis Tamale, a container housing consultant, like the normal houses, construction work starts with grading that includes any required excavation for the foundation, utilities, storm water management, and septic. Install septic system and any storm water management system if required.

The foundation is a typical slab on grade application for shipping container home design.

Additional reporting by Daily Nation