Mega building projects in S'pore bring golden opportunities

Singapore's upcoming wave of mega projects is a golden opportunity to change how buildings are built here - especially when it comes to reducing the need for labour.

This was a point stressed by Building and Construction Authority (BCA) chief executive John Keung in a recent interview with The Straits Times, as he laid out the exciting challenges facing the construction industry in the next two decades.

"We cannot be building these mega projects in the same way as we did in the past. We must make good use of technology to find the most labour-efficient way to build them," he said.

These huge developments include the future redevelopment of the Paya Lebar airbase site when the facility moves to Changi East after 2030. The area will have new homes, offices and factories.

Meanwhile, the Southern Waterfront City, a district with commercial and housing complexes, will be built at Tanjong Pagar when the port there moves to Tuas after 2027.

Changi Airport will construct an iconic lifestyle complex codenamed Project Jewel by 2017, and other new airport facilities such as the fourth and fifth terminals.

Singapore, said Dr Keung, who has a Master of Science in town planning and a doctorate from the University of Wales, has a good chance of building these projects with fewer workers.

This is because the massive projects in the pipeline mean that construction demand will remain robust beyond the next few years.

"In a booming market, we can do a lot of things we can't when the market is down," said Dr Keung, who has helmed the BCA since 2006 and overseen its expansion from a regulator to an agency which oversees productivity gains, among other issues.

For instance, contractors and consultants are more willing to spend on new equipment and training "because the more work you have, the more you're willing to invest in it".

Already, over 3,000 companies have received $140 million in subsidies from the BCA across the last three years to do just that, he added. That is four in 10 of all active construction firms here.

Mr Kenneth Loo, executive director of Straits Construction, a building company here, said: "Currently, the labour crunch we all face is still very prominent. But with a stream of projects coming in, we see investing in technology as being sustainable."

The buildings themselves will also be different, with energy-efficiency a key guiding principle, along with making them easily accessible to the public, promised Dr Keung - even the "airports and seaports".

This means buildings with more greenery and public spaces which more people can access, said Singapore Institute of Architects council member Lim Choon Keang. For instance, public facilities can be located nearer the Tanjong Pagar waterfront, he said, so that more can enjoy the seafront.

Environmental concerns go beyond reining in energy use.

Dr Keung noted that the mega projects - many of which will be located near the coast - must be able to cope with rising sea levels that come with global warming and coastline erosion. The BCA is already conducting two studies on how long-term climate change will affect Singapore, and what can be done to mitigate it.

It is also studying measures other countries have adopted, such as 12m-high sea walls in the Netherlands.

All these considerations are not strictly new, said Dr Keung, "but the magnitude is quite different with all these projects going on".

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