Construction conundrums

Sunday July 1, 2012

http://thestar.com.my/education/story.asp?file=/2012/7/1/education/11567910&sec=education

By Priya Kulasagaran
educate@thestar.com.my

DEPUTY Education Minister Dr Mohd Puad Zarkashi says that a major issue faced by authorities in school construction is dealing with errant contractors.

He relates his experience with a school project in Johor, which has been delayed by almost three years.

“I paid a visit to the site as the project was running behind schedule, and I was surprised to see just a group of workers just laying about.

“They (the workers) told me: ‘How can we do anything? There are no materials, no machinery, nothing’. The contractor begged for another chance, so we relented – he still failed to deliver.”

The contractor was eventually terminated and wound up on the ministry’s blacklist.

For most cases, there is a standard set of procedures before one earns a spot on the blacklist.

“If a contractor is behind schedule, we will first give them an EOT (extension of time) of up to four or six months” explains Dr Mohd Puad.

“Usually if the project is still not completed by the third EOT given, we will issue a certificate of non-compliance (CNC).

“With the CNC, the contractor will be required to make LAD (liquidated and ascertained damages) payment on a daily basis.

“Finally, we will issue a letter of termination and blacklist the contractor involved.”

In this regard, Dr Mohd Puad says among the most important aspects of school construction is the procurement process.

“We need to be strict when it comes to appointing contractors, we need to make sure they have a proven track record – that’s why it’s good to have a proper open tender system (currently in place).

“Authorities also should not be taken in by contractors who under-bid; the cost may seem unbelievably low, but then you have to deal with delays and unfinished projects,” he says.

Business of building schools

There are currently two contracting bodies responsible for the building of government schools; the Education Ministry and the Public Works Department (JKR).

“Before the Eighth Malaysian Plan, schools were wholly contracted by the JKR,” says Dr Mohd Puad.

“The Education Ministry decides which schools it will be responsible for building.

“Since we have limited manpower, especially in terms of technically qualified staff like engineers, we will leave the rest of the schools under the JKR’s purview.

“This is why, when it comes delayed school projects, the ministry can only take immediate action on contracts directly involving the ministry.”

As for the design of the schools themselves, it seems that each contracting body has its own way of doing things.

“JKR has a set of requirements for school designs, whereas the Education Ministry very much depends on our consultants and architects,” says Dr Mohd Puad.

“For the ministry, as long as the designs are cost-efficient, meet the required building standards set by the Economic Planning Unit, and emphasise safety, we are open to new designs that architects may come up with.

“We do have more interesting school designs now, and it’s important for students to be able to learn in a conducive and welcoming environment.

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with schools differing in terms of architectural design, as long as they meet the cost, quality and safety standards.”

The cost of constructing a school follows a standard formula based on the amount of classrooms built, where each classroom is allocated a budget of RM1mil.

“We usually build at least 12 classrooms per new school, so the minimum cost for a school is at least RM12mil,” says Dr Mohd Puad, adding that the allocation factors in external works such as electrical fittings.

Rural settings

Relating his experience of visiting some of the country’s most remote schools, Dr Mohd Puad says the transportation of building materials is a problematic affair when it comes to building rural schools, especially in the interior of Sabah and Sarawak.

“For one trip in Sabah, we left by boat at six in the morning, and only arrived at our destination at 4pm,” he says.

“At one point, the water was ankle-deep so we had to get out to push the boat.

“It was only later that I found out that the river had crocodiles!

“From that village to the nearest school was a five-hour trek though jungle and hills.

“Can you imagine hauling construction materials across in such situations?,” he asks.

He adds that bringing in building materials by air to remote areas was not necessarily an easier alternative.

“One contractor was particularly unlucky as the timber that was being transported snapped free from the helicopter harness – twice.

“Such things have to be written off as a loss, since it would be impossible to track the materials back by land,” he says.

Dr Mohd Puad thinks that the best way to build schools in such places is to use design-and-build methods, where structures can be readily assembled.

“The type of materials used is important as well; concrete for example, would not be suitable for certain areas such as steep hillsides. This is why for residential schools there (in the interior of Sabah and Sarawak), we now use fibre-composite cabins which are both fire and termite resistant,” he adds.