Technically speaking…

Four months of blog inactivity, but inactive we have not
been. Today’s post is about a construction project in Pokhara which for me is
close in many ways. Close to our house, close to my children’s school, close to
my office, and close to my heart. I hope, that in a few months’ time, it will
also be close to completion.

MPLC info poster

Back in June 2018, within the ‘Spotlight on INF’ post, I drew blog readers attention to Green Pastures Hospital in Pokhara, and the services which are offered there by dedicated INF staff. It was about the same time that I was asked to project manage the construction of a new ‘Multi-Purpose Learning Centre’ at the heart of the GP Hospital complex, and working closely with my Nepali engineering counterpart, put in place the processes and mechanisms which would ensure the successful delivery of this project. Paul Campbell Allen, an Australian architect, provided the concept design, with the detailed design and structural calculations being done by a Kathmandu based architectural firm. The building needs to comply with the Nepali Building Code, and meet all seismic requirements, to ensure earthquake resistance. Beyond this, the vision is for this building to provide a new home for the hospital’s pastoral care and social services team, and house an auditorium for speaking engagements, lectures, training, meetings and conferences with up to 150 participants. The MPLC project is managed by the INF in-house engineering team, and since July 2018 I have been taking the lead on the project, operating in the interface between consultants, hospital management, and the contractor. From the outset, I was conscious that I could only approach this project with my own training and construction management experience in mind, drawing on UK practice, laws, and ‘good practice’ expectations, whilst seeking to understand what local practices exactly are, and avoiding cultural faux pas.

So, what challenges could the construction of this building possibly pose? Well, there are quite a few. I will elaborate on three:

1. Australian design meets local skill level

Main roof truss lift

Construction firms in Pokhara do what they do. They will build certain types of buildings, which the workforce knows how to build. Larger steel structures exist, but roof trusses and roof truss connection details are replicated again and again over a square or rectangular footprint. Not so with this building. Sixteen posts need to be embedded in the concrete ringbeam whilst avoiding significant amounts of reinforcement bars. Ninety-two 20mm diameter anchor bolts need to be correctly positioned to secure applied structural steels. Secondary trusses connect to primary trusses at angle, and the two halves of the roof fall in different directions, not to mention the central box gutter, which poses its own challenges. A lot of complexity for the footprint. So, was the local architect able to draw and detail the roof correctly? No. Was the contractor able to produce correct steelwork fabrication drawings, and spot the mistakes? No. Was the contractor able to correctly manufacture to the drawings, which we corrected for them? No. So, that is why I have not been inactive, but became heavily involved in design management, document control, quality control, as well as contract administration.

2. Risk, what risk?

View from the roof of our house: Neighbour’s dog unafraid of falling

Many Nepali construction labourers grow up in the rural villages. As children they played near 100m drops, and now harvest fruit from trees by climbing them, drive vehicles across landslides, are used to dodging holes (and cows) in the road, and travel on the outside of vehicles. How do I explain the dangers of working at height to people? What safety measures should I insist on? Soon after commencement of works, with the excavator having reduced levels for the foundation pads to 2m below ground level where required, I noticed a little girl of maybe two years playing between the excavator and the foundation pits.

Labourers digging pits

Mum and dad were both labourers. They lived on site with other labourers in corrugated sheet shacks, which is common practice. Children present on construction sites, as I found out, is also not uncommon. In this instance, we discussed the scenario with the site manager, as we did not consider it safe for the child to play near the holes and near the digger, and the Nepali Building Code places an onus on the client PM to enforce good H&S practices. Both mum, and dad, needed the work however. One option we discussed, was to create a safe zone on site where the child could play, when mum and dad were working. In this instance, the site manager however chose to send the family to another site, hopefully with less risks for the girl…

3. Transactional vs transformational approaches to construction project management

In organisational management speak ‘transactional vs transformational leadership’ are well know known concepts. With construction projects, in general, the customer will arrive at the bricks and mortar they required, and the physical structure which was envisaged. In my mind the question is: Can we also make this process transformational? Can we improve practice in a small way, in our sphere of influence? INF targets the holistic care and prevention of disability. There are many, and well known, health risks to construction work, and very little of good H&S practice is adhered to here. So what are we doing to facilitate change? It was my view that as a client we have a certain leverage to influence practice. Any initiatives with outcomes then? Yes, small changes have been made by the contractor. We do have a fire extinguisher on site now, and a site plan with fire escape routes. We do now have rubberised electrical cables on site, rather than two wires twiddled together. We do have a first aid box on site. We are having success with an incentive scheme for wearing hardhats. We have invested extra money to ensure UK style scaffolding was erected in high risk areas, rather than loosely tied poles with a plank balanced on top. And, I am working to put together a ‘H&S at Work’ workshop, which will be compulsory for any contractor construction managers involved in hospital work to attend. Information, demonstration, and rewarding good practice, maybe something will rub off?

A little snippet there of what managing construction cross culturally can throw at you. I am not expecting the next three months to be without challenges either, but hopefully come June, the hospital will start benefiting from a new facility, which will strengthen staff morale, and enable an improved response to the many needs around us.