Jan 26, 2007

HDB projects won't be delayed, spike in building costs unlikely

By Jessica Cheam

INDONESIA'S ban on sand exports will not result in any delay in Housing Board projects under construction, nor will it have a significant impact on the cost of building the flats.

Home owners will also not be asked to pay more for the upgrading projects in public housing because of the ban. Indonesia is Singapore's sole supplier of the key building resource material.

A spokesman for the board said that the sand needed for these and upcoming projects can be met from existing supplies and if necessary, from HDB's stockpile of sand.

HDB will also be obtaining sand from other sources to address the supply situation in the longer term.

By taking these steps, the spokesman said the board 'does not expect the ban on sand to have a significant impact on the overall development cost of HDB flats'.

He added that in any case, the selling prices of HDB flats are based on their market value rather than cost.

This year, 3,000 to 4,000 Build-To-Order (BTO) flats are being offered by HDB in the Sengkang and Punggol area, while upgrading works are in progress in 19 precincts.

Cost issues aside, the spokesman said that HDB has also been studying refinements in its construction practice to minimise the use of concreting sand.

Alternative designs and materials being used in new public housing developments include steel piles, dry partition walls, prefabricated toilets, glass facades and metal parapets.

To help the building industry move away from its heavy reliance on sand, the Building and Construction Authority (BCA) is also stepping up plans to train the workforce in steel-based construction techniques.

If the industry makes a complete switch and 70 per cent of all building projects are built using structural steel, BCA estimates about 15 per cent of the workforce will have to be trained in steel construction.

This involves re-training existing workers and attracting new ones.

'We will be increasing the capacity of steel-related trade tests at our Overseas Test Centres,' said a BCA spokesman.

The four centres in India and five in Bangladesh are to be operational by year's end.

This response followed industry-wide concerns that the ban would dampen the industry, which is expecting $19 billion worth of contracts this year.

Currently, Singapore imports about six to eight million tonnes of sand from Indonesia a year. Industry players estimate price hikes of 30 per cent from the current $20 per tonne in the future, which is why BCA is encouraging the industry to move to steel-based construction.

For example, in place of concrete floors, metal decks can be used, topped with a thin layer of concrete. This reduces concrete use by about 30 to 40 per cent.

This is the right direction for the industry, said Dr Teo Ho Pin, MP for Bukit Panjang and Mayor of North West District, who has spoken up often in Parliament on issues related to the industry.

The necessary training is available, said Dr Teo, but attracting professionals - especially local workers in experienced supervisory positions - is the difficulty.

But he saw a silver lining - the transition to steel-based construction provides 'a very good window of opportunity' for locals, especially those aged 45 and above who are prepared to pick up new skills and join the industry.

Also in favour of 'going steel' are architects here. Ms Rita Soh, president of the Singapore Institute of Architects, said the choice of materials is decided by developers, which is usually determined by cost.

Steel construction has many benefits, such as better sound acoustics, and it allows for faster construction.

'End users need to change their mindset that dry construction is less solid,' she said.

Dr Teo added: 'This method of construction has been around for a long time. Now, it's a matter of public education.'