The losers

Small contractors still resistant to change

Foreign workers working for a project at Cluny Hill under Joseph Liew, General Manager of GA Construction Pte Ltd. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

At the construction site for a two-storey house in Cluny Hill, contractor GA Construction is doing things the old-fashioned way.

Close to 40 foreign workers are building scaffolds - erecting the formwork, placing the metal rebars, pouring the concrete and waiting for it to set.

This has been the tried-and -tested process of construction here for decades, said GA's general manager Joseph Liew.

Ask him if new prefabricated methods would work and he frowns. It means pumping in a large investment into staff training and buying heavy-lifting machinery, while risking a loss in profits to prefabricators.

Yet, if the firm does not budge from tradition, it may risk losing the chance to take part in lucrative government tenders in future.

Said Mr Liew: "We still have to look deeper into PPVC (prefabricated prefinished volumetric construction) and how much it will cost us.

"The key concern is if we invest in technologies or hardware, can we use it in all our projects? Or will it become a white elephant?"

His conundrum represents that of most small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) here, many of which are resistant to change. Because most PPVC work is done in off-site factories, the roles of these smaller on-site building contractors, which rely mostly on low-skilled foreign labour, will likely be reduced.

And unlike the bigger construction firms, these SMEs do not have the financial muscle to build their own prefabricated modules. So, they have to rely on external prefabricators, which means giving up a significant cut of the contract fee.

Chong Tong Construction director Gwee Sung lamented: "If precasters do most of the work, what is left for us other than hoisting and assembly?"

Mr Liew and Madam Gwee estimate they will lose 20 per cent of their contract fees to prefabricators.The cost of PPVC adoption is still too significant for SMEs, they added.

This year, Mr Liew's company spent about $20,000 on hardware to try the building information modelling (BIM) - a virtual design system which is part of the Building and Construction Authority's push for technology.

But his firm has yet to implement it or build a specialised team around it. He estimated that complete BIM adoption will involve a six-figure investment and "a change of mindset" for his own staff and other sub-contractors.

"Conversion also requires us to pluck manpower out from our operations - some diploma courses stretch for a few months."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 19, 2017, with the headline Small contractors still resistant to change. Subscribe