Knowledge is power in education

Earlier this year, AECOM, the global construction consultancy, released a report entitled the ‘Middle East Construction Handbook 2013’. This report broke down and analysed the major drivers of growth in the Middle East’s construction industry, covering a sectors such as healthcare, leisure and commercial interests. However, one sector that received a significant amount of attention […]

Earlier this year, AECOM, the global construction consultancy, released a report entitled the ‘Middle East Construction Handbook 2013’. This report broke down and analysed the major drivers of growth in the Middle East’s construction industry, covering a sectors such as healthcare, leisure and commercial interests.

However, one sector that received a significant amount of attention in the report was education, which is only natural, given the importance that sector is going gain as the GCC and its neighbours continue their march towards progress and diversification from their oil-based economies.

With a huge percentage of the population under the age of 25, the need for education facilities, right from kindergarten to university level, becomes vital to the future success of the regional economies. As a result, the governments of the GCC, led by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE, have been investing heavily into the education sector.

“The Middle East is characterised by a young, rapidly growing population and a high rate of urbanisation. These factors, combined with rising income levels and increased integration with world markets, make the region a high demand area for educational developments,” the report says.

“Educational developments sit high on the government agendas and public spending is expected to grow as countries try to improve their economic standing by developing local skills and capabilities.”
This is something that Christopher Seymour, a partner and head of Property and Social Infrastructure – UAE at EC Harris, agrees wholeheartedly with, telling Big Project ME that there is now a ‘refocus’ on investing in education as the region has realised the benefits of creating a fully functioning ‘knowledge economy’.

“It (education investment) not only brings stability to the economy, but also diversifies the economy away from depending solely on oil,” he explains. “Of course that’s going to be one of the key drivers. Over the next 20 years this is going to be one of the fundamental factors in the economy of the region.”

“That’s around universities, by partnering with international universities and aiming funding towards their specific requirements, that does include creating the physical infrastructure, will have an impact on the construction market,” he adds further.

“The same is true when we’re talking about education in terms of schools,” he says. “(Although) the context of that also includes a more demographic response, we’re certainly seeing (progress). In Saudi Arabia, there’s a double headed infrastructure drive, both in research and development and also in infrastructure around education, healthcare and social housing,” he says.

“Qatar, in that market, there’s a huge demand in demand brought on by the increase in the expatriate population, driving the need for schools. I think 26 schools were opened in 2012, while recently Ashghal has launched another 44 schools, so there are a lot of contracts there. That’s certainly going to have an impact on the construction market in that location,” Seymour adds.

Alan Robertson, the chief executive for the MENA region at Jones Lang LaSalle, tells Big Project ME that there are two key areas of education that will have a major impact on the development of real estate and construction projects, particularly in terms of residential projects.

“The availability of primary and secondary education facilities is a key issue for private individuals and families. It’s something that will be taken into consideration when they’re deciding where to live, and where they want to buy or rent a house or move for an occupation. Developers will be missing a trick if, in a master planned community, they build lots of wonderful apartments and villas, but don’t have a school, because that will really detract from the attractiveness of it,” he explains.

“There needs to be a growth of really good quality educational facilities, for different nationalities, at primary and secondary levels,” Robertson adds.

“Secondly, in terms of the impact on real estate, on a university level, I think you’ll get joint ventures between academia and industry, which will create employment opportunities and there will also be opportunities for scientific and technological work in the universities, which will be commercialised in science parks,” he says. “We think it’s still in its infancy in this part of the world, but we see that developing considerably in the years to come.”

Briji V Rag, a project manager with Airolink International Construction, a Abu Dhabi-based contractor, points out that education construction growth is directly linked to the economic development of the region. This is especially true of the increasing demand for regional educational standards to be on par with global education standards, he adds.

Currently involved in the construction of the Bright Riders School in Abu Dhabi, which will hold more than 4,000 students and will have more than 140 state-of-the-art classrooms, Rag says that he sees significant promise in the development of the education sector.

“Numerous international educational programmes are being envisioned,” he says. “This certainly gives a promising position to the entire educational sector of the UAE in general. New communities have been completed and there is a steady increase in the population of the UAE. Entrepreneurs and businessmen are coming in with new proposals and offerings; of course many of them are relocating to the UAE, especially from Abu Dhabi and Dubai.”

This is certainly true, and is best evidenced by none other than Rag’s client on the Bright Riders project, the NMC Group. Founded by Dr BR Shetty, the group has been known through the UAE and the rest of the region for its work in healthcare, with a number of clinics and hospitals being operated by its NMC Healthcare division.

However, Alphonso Francis, the business development manager for Bright Riders School, says that the excessive shortage of schools in Abu Dhabi, along with the need for quality, accessible education, prompted the group’s entry into education.

“Overall, we see a very positive sign of growth in the region, in the education sector. Abu Dhabi alone needs about 100 new schools over the next seven years, to serve up to 146,000 students,” Francis tells Big Project ME, adding that there are plans afoot for Bright Riders to open other campuses in Abu Dhabi.

“The key growth drivers across the GCC will be the increasing population, increasing income levels and rising expenditure for quality education. Increasing private sector participation in the education and government support (for education projects) are also drivers of growth,” he adds.
With phase one of the Bright Riders School complete in April 2013, the school currently educates 1,700 students from Kindergarten to Grade Six. Phase two will be completed by October 2013, Francis says.

He adds that the school will be future proofed to leverage on the latest education technologies and allow the project to remain relevant long into the future.

The need for future-proofing educational facilities is vital, Chris Seymour says, given that most structures are expected to last for at least 60 years, if not longer.

“As a so-called knowledge economy develops, demand develops, so flexibility is the key (for education construction). In building education assets, we see that as one of the key requirements.

You’re building assets that ostensibly should last 60 years, though in 60 years, the demands of education and research and development will also change,” he points out.

“So in order to get the best use of the assets, it’s necessary to ensure that flexibility and future proofing is included (in their construction),” he adds.

This unique combination of demands on education sector projects has led to increased focus on the types of contractors involved in these projects. While it is certainly true that local contractors have been getting heavily involved in the construction of schools, when it comes to the iconic, higher education projects, developers are preferring to hire contractors with a demonstrable track record, Seymour says.

“Contractors who already have a demonstrable track record in delivering these types of buildings will be high on the list,” he says. “If they don’t have that (track record), then some have found it beneficial to partner with a foreign contractor who may have operated in the UK, US or Europe. Someone who can bring with it that intellectual capacity to understand how to most efficiently deliver these types of buildings.”

“Procurement methods may also change and we’re certainly seeing a certain drive towards design and build and if that becomes a requirement, then the contractors have got to have the knowledge to be able to deliver,” Seymour warns.

Furthermore, education projects will have more authority influence and constraints, says Briji V Rag. He says that there are additional requirements from the Civil Defence, ADEC, the MOE, KHDA and other authorities and bodies, all of whom are advocating and inculcating various safety standards for design and construction.

“Design and construction planning for the education sectors call for stricter safety norms to be considered during the early stages of conceptual design and presentations,” says Rag. “Furthermore, education projects have mostly close deadlines with no extensions of time allowed, due to the constraints of opening the school for the academic year.

“Therefore, planning of the project completion and setting milestones are very critical and are made considering these constraints.”


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