A golden era for the construction industry
There is currently a construction boom going on all over the country. How would you evaluate it from an engineer's perspective?
The infrastructure of a country is one of the major wheels needed to keep an economy moving towards further growth. Development, nourishment and maintaining the infrastructure are important for keeping the wheels rolling. All disciplines of engineering contribute to development, whether it is ground, water or air transportation, electricity generation, transmission or distribution, telecommunication and informatics, or light to heavy industries in the fields of materials, textile engineering, agricultural engineering or food engineering.
We need proper infrastructure built, operated and maintained by capable engineers to support the targeted economic growth. Otherwise, the economic growth will be either stalled or slowed down. Post-independence Bangladesh has seen remarkable growth in the diversification and mechanisation of the agricultural sector and garments industry, which are heavily dependent on human labour. These two wings—agriculture and industry—should deliver a balanced lift to keep the economy moving toward its destination. If our farmers do not have the means of transportation or marketing facilities to maximise their incomes, this will affect the entire agro-economy.
The quest for safe but affordable housing and transportation is becoming an emerging challenge when it comes to meeting dwelling and physical connectivity demands. Such connectivity can keep society linked with development, not only in the virtual world but also in practical situations. Digitisation and telecommunication often reduce the need for physical connectivity and space, but the need for transportation of goods and products, and above all, for maintaining societal bonds can never be ignored. Foresighted planning was not always used in the past to secure spaces for sustainable infrastructure development. We have seen trials rather than solid far-out planning. Thus, investment demands exist in these sectors, with the goal of helping the future economy to be better than it is at present.
Affordability must go hand-in-hand with the level at which bars are set for each sector. Our densely populated country depends on its agro-economy for food security, and such a scenario leads to a limited budget and space for the government to work with physical infrastructure due to the scarcity of land. We need to pay a high price for the land.
Budget constraints are causing Bangladesh to turn to foreign aid or investment to support various national causes. Development choices are often governed by their affordability for low-income groups, as they can't always afford services that are readily available at market prices. Once projects are completed, operation and maintenance costs must be covered for a long time before we see it break-even. Hence a vicious cycle can be said to exist.
Our country needs the setting of visionary goals and synchronisation of planning. However, the targets of the “construction boom” may not be achieved if progress in all of these sectors does not occur synchronously. Mega-projects will stand as monuments, rather than as rolling wheels with which to transform society. For example, if we want to attract tourists, much work is needed in the tourism sector. When a tourist visits Bangladesh, this individual eventually takes back home his or her memories and experiences in our country. Convenient transportation, safe food, and safe stay are just a few examples of what tourists need in any country. Are we trying to improve these things in a synchronised way, in a planned way for our future guests?
When we speak of the “construction boom,” I would like to also remind you that we now need to depend more on foreign engineers for our mega-projects. What does this imply about our engineering education? Take one of the better-developed ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) countries, Malaysia, for example, whose students used to come to study at BUET (Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology) in the past. Now, the scenario has changed, and Malaysia has become much more self-sufficient than Bangladesh in many ways. We need to build ourselves up as a model for other countries with similar demographic and societal patterns to follow, which should be possible to do at this moment. We must take on projects that shift the mentality of our society. Projects in our country need to be implemented in ways that will complement the everyday lives of our citizens. If one major project is nearing completion but the satellite project that will boost the outcomes of the major project takes a long time to complete, then the benefits of the expensive investment will be of no use.
Now, there are two ways to consider our new development: meeting the bare minimum needs (just about enough to operate to meet the present needs) and meeting flexible needs (often overrunning small budgets but long-lasting). Developed countries can afford higher initial investments with lower lifecycle costs, unlike Bangladesh. In future projects with fewer budgetary constraints, we hope that our engineers will be afforded this flexibility.
What would be your assessment from a construction perspective?
Design and construction go hand-in-hand in many ways. Our construction industry is going through a golden era, with the engagement of foreign contractors. Previously we had lacked our own, but opportunities have been created to learn the best possible knowhow and practices when these are being implemented by foreign contractors at the doorsteps of our engineers. Knowledge, skill, and attitude are three requirements in the learning process that an engineering educator needs to deliver in grooming new engineers. Bangladeshi engineers and contractors are learning on the job and are acquiring the know-how of foreign construction procedures. This is paving the way for the “transfer of technology.” It is important to note here that we in Bangladesh have seen such technological interventions before on a smaller scale but with larger impacts, with the Mirpur Indoor Stadium (use of ready-mix concrete) and Bangabandhu Shetu (use of precast segmental pre-stressed box girders) being some examples. Such projects helped the cement and concrete industries in Bangladesh to flourish. Steel manufacturing and fabrication companies will soon flourish further in our country when steel is reintroduced, after about 100 years, to construct the Padma, Second Meghna, Second Gumti, and Second Kanchpur Bridges. These are solid yet giant steps toward higher construction standards. The level of skill of Bangladeshi engineers should be enriched by them.
Nevertheless, Bangladesh is currently “buying” construction technology and expertise from outside, with present budget constraints because of our need for affordability. Any government also looks only to minimise costs and to provide quick solutions to citizens where needed—for instance, where the leadership voices from engineers remain absent in decision-making. The engineers need to look for long term solutions offering lower costs in the end.
The mega-projects going on in our country are helpful to our citizens for their orientation and national mindset, a prerequisite for national goalsetting. Ongoing projects include a satellite in space, a metro rail, an expressway with access control, the double-decker Padma Bridge (roadway and railway), a subway, BRT (bus rapid transit lines), an airport terminal, a tunnel in the Karnaphuli, and a nuclear power plant. Note that we are making only “one” of each of the listed items. The reality is that we are a relatively “new” country. If one compares our state with that of neighbouring developed countries, one may deduce straightforwardly that we still have a long way to go. This is our first learning cycle in the development process. We must be looking for more tunnels under the waters of our rivers and shores, more river crossings that will be larger and more challenging than the Padma Bridge, more power plants, larger airports as regional hubs, a metro-subway network for Dhaka, an inter-district access control expressway network, and perhaps also some more satellites in the sky. Success in the current projects can offer better economic growth to escape the vicious cycle and offer these new ventures.
What are the key aspects of quality construction from the perspective of materials?
Currently, we do not have ample materials in Bangladesh for the ongoing mega-projects. We import all of the basic raw materials for cement. Steel, selected sand, and rocks (imported even from Vietnam, Malaysia, and Thailand) are all brought from outside the country. If we dream of an industrialised building system (IBS) offering faster construction, again, we have to rely less on imports. Specialised materials are also import-dependent. This is a scary proposition, as scarcity often leads to lower quality.
One way we could reduce material costs is by importing materials before they are fully processed. More concentration needs to be placed on adding value to all inputs of production. As discussed earlier, Bangladesh is on a development path. Yet, our overall advancement will not be possible without the efficient allocation of resources.
Who will regulate quality construction?
Our able engineers and their dedication are the future, and they will regulate construction quality. Quality assurance plans are limited due to budgets, but such plans must be acceptable. Quality levels need to be enhanced with proper budgets. Our aim should be to reach the maximum threshold with future flexibility, while keeping the minimum threshold in mind.
Our engineers need to develop in three areas: knowledge, skill, and attitude. They need to be involved in projects with innovation capabilities in all three of these domains. Our engineering education demands immediate reforms. Take a garments factory, for example. Even the smallest error on a piece of cloth may put off a retailer. Thus, our engineers need to treat our projects in a similarly pragmatic manner. The construction of anything should be done with adequate budget, and the proper purpose must be served. We must have plans that will benefit the whole nation. A list must be made of exactly what changes are needed around the country. Again, budgets need to reflect the costs of efficient construction.
What are some standard construction practices? How can we ensure that builders abide by them?
Standard construction practices are part of the “Engineering Bible,” and such, they are to be followed for a long time. Practices, however, are conjoined with quality assurance. Quality can be divided into material quality, construction quality, operation quality, and maintenance quality. Builders are usually nowhere to be found following the construction of their facilities. This makes future legal claims related to construction defects more complicated.