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Singapore construction's future in an alphabet soup


Andrew Tan.

Li Xiao Qian.

Chang Chew Kient.

Thomas Ng.

Shawn Ang.


The acronyms are flying thick and fast as Singapore's construction industry gets drastically reshaped.

The aim: To reduce Singapore's reliance on foreign workers, and increase productivity to offer better-paying jobs for locals.

Nudged by the government through a mix of regulations, grants, quotas and levies, many construction and engineering companies here are investing in technology and exploring new ways of building.

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The investment is slowly bearing fruit in an industry notorious for its reliance on cheap labour.

Annual site productivity has improved from 0.3 per cent in 2010 to 2 per cent annually from 2014 to 2016, said John Keung, chief executive officer of the Building and Construction Authority (BCA).

More companies are adopting advanced construction technologies, he said. And though these cost more initially, they offer the promise of a faster completion of projects. Thus additional costs can be offset by the earlier delivery of public goods and services, the earlier generation of revenue for private projects as well as lower financing costs.

BCA has required developers to adopt certain technologies for suitable government land sale sites, while supporting workshops and courses to educate the industry.

"We aim to champion sustained demand for such productive technologies, and considerably reduce the upfront construction cost premium over time," he said.


The changes sweeping through the construction industry can be broadly summarised in two areas: Virtual building, and making big components off-site.

One of the first technological developments talked about as Singapore embarked on a productivity drive post-2009 was BIM, or Building Information Modelling.

It describes a computerised system of modelling the details of design, engineering and architecture in three dimensions. Models can be precise down to the last 10 millimetres, contractors said.

Hwa Seng Builder, a civil engineering and construction firm which builds roads and bridges, began implementing BIM a few years ago.

Thomas Ng, its founder and managing director, said BIM allows workers and clients to better visualise the construction process. If need be, the system can even be plugged into a virtual reality headset.

BIM is an aspect of a construction methodology called virtual design and construction, or VDC, that improves productivity.

VDC has been applied to projects like the Changi General Hospital Medical Centre, the JTC Furniture Hub, Northpoint City, and residential developments like High Park Residences and Gem Residences.

By simulating the construction process before executing it, potential design and logistics problems can be detected early. Addition and alteration works can be kept to a minimum.

With even power points, mirrors and cabinets simulated first virtually, sub-contractors can minimise mistakes, said China Construction (South Pacific) Development Co, or CCDC.

CCDC, the regional subsidiary of construction giant China State Construction Engineering Corporation, built the High Park Residences condo in Sengkang.


Another key development for the industry in recent years is the increasing use of off-site construction of large modules and components.

Contractors have invested in factories in Singapore, Malaysia and China to make construction components, be it 12-metre-long bridge beams, bathrooms, or even entire apartment units.

The use of prefabricated bathroom units, or PBUs, became mandatory for non-landed residential Government Land Sale sites from Nov 1, 2014.

Increasingly, for public projects, the authorities are mandating the use of prefabricated, pre-finished volumetric construction, or PPVC. This refers to how entire modules complete with finishes for walls, floors and ceilings can be made off-site.

PPVC projects include residential halls at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), an extension to the Crowne Plaza Hotel, The Brownstone executive condominium, and other residential projects.

Making units ahead of time cuts down on the actual time spent building on site, contractors said. This not only reduces the number of workers needed by 30 per cent, but also improves site safety and minimises noise and dust pollution.

For mainboard-listed BBR Holdings' chief executive officer Andrew Tan, industry study trips in 2012 to factories building apartment units from scratch showed the potential of the technology. BBR secured the first public high-rise PPVC project in Singapore in 2014 at NTU, and is now on its fourth PPVC project.

Dr Keung of BCA said that PPVC technologies fit within an approach dubbed the Design for Manufacturing and Assembly, or DFMA. This is the practice of manufacturing as many building parts as possible in a factory.

More than 25 completed and ongoing projects have adopted the higher end of DFMA technologies like PPVC and mass-engineered timber (MET), he said. BCA targets a 40 per cent adoption rate for DFMA technologies by 2020.

Apart from DFMA, companies continue to pursue other ways to innovate and to be more productive.

Greatearth Pte Ltd, the integrated building services firm previously known as UE E&C, said it was inspired by the manufacturing industry to cut waste. It adopted the industry's efficiency programme, Lean Six Sigma, for its own operations.

For homes of the future, automation and the Internet of Things are becoming increasingly common.

German switches and systems specialist Jung Asia said that should they choose to, homeowners can control their homes from an electronic device. They can turn on security cameras for rooms, activate an intercom system, pipe in music, and even change the colour and intensity of lights.

Andrew Tan,
chief executive officer,
BBR Holdings (S) Ltd

"Because we were one of the earliest adopters of prefabricated pre-finished volumetric construction (PPVC), we have a track record that enables us to secure contracts. Our early investment has reaped positive results and we are confident that it will be a new growth engine for us for many years to come."

Li Xiao Qian,
managing director,
China Construction (South Pacific) Development Co Pte Ltd

"The use of technology is deeply embedded in China Construction's culture, enabling the firm to tackle the most challenging projects. We strongly support the government's efforts to drive innovation in the construction industry."

Chang Chew Kient,
chief executive officer,
Greatearth Pte Ltd

"We have trained our staff to deploy productivityenhancing technologies like building information modelling (BIM) and prefabricated pre-finished volumetric construction (PPVC). We strive to introduce effective, timeand cost-saving yet safe processes to deliver quality products and services."

Thomas Ng,
founder and managing director,
Hwa Seng Builder

"By using precast technology, the construction process is safer and more environmentally-friendly. We can also improve our productivity and reduce our reliance on foreign labour."

Shawn Ang,
general sales manager,

"People understand and appreciate German quality. We will continue to offer innovative switch systems and products with technical precision as well as a high standard of design."

Supplement coordinator: Cai Haoxiang Sub-editor: Gouw Huat May Cover illustration: Alice Ang Cover design: Gareth Chung Photographer: Kelvin Chng Advertising sales: Chew May Lin 91900055; Lilian Gan 96566465; Lina Tan 96201355