Key figures in the building industry have taken cautious positions on Government’s decision to import prefabricated houses from China to replace those destroyed by Hurricane Elsa.
But the Minister of Housing again insisted late Tuesday that no Barbadian contractor has proven they can build low-income houses from scratch within six weeks.
A leading builder and cement-maker, has urged critics to embrace the move which will see some 150 steel-framed homes clad in pre-cut cement board arriving here on November 20 to jump-start the Government’s response to rebuild the houses of 530 families who were dislocated by the cyclone.
Minister of Housing Dr William Duguid has said speed was the primary consideration in importing the pre-fab homes, considering that the supply company, East West Building Solutions Barbados, promised to complete them within 42 days in contrast to the state’s Urban Development Commission (UDC) and Rural Development Commission (UDC) which normally take 12 to 14 weeks to build one house.
Dr Duguid has also suggested he is unaware of any Barbadian contractor who could produce the 150 houses within that timeframe.
But a leading developer said on Tuesday that it takes him a similar time to complete a low-income house.
“My houses go up in six weeks, but they are full concrete houses on concrete foundations finished. It is not a matter of whether it can be done locally. It is being done expeditiously by local contractors,”Bjorn Bjerkhamn, a founder of such companies as Jada Construction, Preconco and Spring Homes told Barbados TODAY.
“Right now we are doing about 15 houses per month,” Bjerkhamn added.
“I am a bit disappointed that we were not really consulted properly about it considering that the proof of the pudding is in the eating. The development we are doing at the Ridge is extremely visible,” he declared.
“I have done more low-income houses in this country than literally anybody ever. I started it out with Spring Hall and then I did it with Eastern Land Developments; we are doing it at the Ridge. Our lowest price house is $185,000 together with the land. It’s a concrete house on fixed foundations. It is not a chattel house.”
He said Spring Homes employs many small contractors to work on the masonry, carpentry and painting which are supported in the pre-casting elements by sister company Preconco, of which he is chairman.
“I don’t understand the rationale for it [imported houses] but I am sure they have their very good reasons for doing it. I can’t tell you if it is justified or not because I don’t know the rationale that has been applied to it. I am sure the government has their own rationale as to why they are doing it. I have to believe that, if not I am going to be very disappointed,” the prominent developer said.
Another building contractor who has been in the business for the past 32 years, said Government made a bad decision.
But the builder wished to remain anonymous for fear of losing business.
Declaring he has done some of the most well-recognized housing projects including for government, on budget and on time, insisted there are local contractors who can satisfy the building requirements for the emergency houses.
He asked if the company that built a model purple heart low-income house in the car park of the National Housing Corporation (NHC) in four days several years ago, would be getting to work on any of the emergency houses. That house, built during the Owen Arthur administration, during Elizabeth Thompson’s 2004-2006 term in office as Minister of Housing, following her claim that an affordable home could be built for $60,000.
The contractor also complained that a dearth of work has forced him to close his business and send home some 30 employees resulting in an additional 30 indirect job losses.
“Right now I am not getting any work. All of my equipment is parked and all of my people are laid off,” the builder told Barbados TODAY.
“I got my proposals but I have not given them to the ministry as yet because of the standoff kind of attitude.”
But construction mogul Mark Maloney suggested that Barbadians should embrace the government’s decision to import the pre-fab houses.
Maloney, the head of concrete prefabricator Preconco Limited and cement maker Rock Hard Cement, went further to suggest that contractors should start focusing on being more competitive and efficient instead of thinking only local companies should get work here.
“I like to be positive. I like to think positive; I like not to pull down something unless I feel that it is something that deserves pulling down. And at this stage what I am hearing and seeing, then maybe it is something we should embrace and see how it goes,” Maloney told Barbados TODAY.
“I assume this is something that has been well thought out. Hopefully, it is executed properly and that it benefits Barbados and Barbadians and the housing needs at whatever level they are bringing them in at. I don’t believe in monopolies; so I don’t believe that Barbadian companies are the only ones that have to be involved in working for government.
“If there are other companies outside and around the world; I believe in free trade just like Rock Hard Cement, I don’t believe there should be a monopoly in the region and if we can manufacture Rock Hard cement somewhere else and bring it into the country and we can supply a good quality product at a good price, then that’s what has to be done.”
Maloney had another message for Barbadian companies who may question the use of foreign firms.
He said: “I think that Barbadian companies, in general, need to be able to be competitive. Certainly, we are not able to produce as cheap as there are in other places in the world, but we need to focus on efficiencies and operating in a competitive environment. It is that side that also has to be considered.”
He also suggested that his fellow industry figures consider the geopolitical aspect of trade, declaring that governments need to foster relations with other nations particularly those which can give grants and loans.
Maloney said: “There are a myriad of different things that have to be taken into account; the complexities that maybe everyone doesn’t understand. So I always assume the best in situations where we have a government and intelligent people and boards making decisions. So, let’s see how it goes; and if Barbadian companies can get involved in working with them on the ground, assembly…there are foundations I imagine have to be built, I am assuming there would be work for everyone in that case.”
Adrian Christie, Managing Director of ADC Building and Maintenance, acknowledged he did not have details of the government’s deal on the Chinese imports but stressed the structural integrity of the houses.
“I would have to agree with the engineers,” he told Barbados TODAY. “Are they [houses] to the standards in Barbados? We have to look at the rusting, where they are going. So I could only agree with that.
“I would have to see the houses otherwise I would be commenting blindly. I would have to see the size of the house, I would have to see the complexity of the house, the design of the house before I can say it could be put up in a day, two, three days; so there are a lot of things you would have to take into consideration.”
The builder said he would also have to look at the electrical and plumbing work. “It’s more than just putting up a house,” said Christie.
The Minister of Housing had said 75 single units are being built on the lands originally occupied by the residents, but the planned quads and duplexes would be on Government property since a two-house unit would not be erected on an individual owner’s land.
The minimum size of a unit, said Dr Duguid, would be 700 square feet at a cost of $100,000 each.
“Some are two-bedroom singles, some are three-bedroom singles, then you have duplexes which are two houses joined together with a wall in between and then some are quads, which are four units joined together. So that is what we are trying to do to be able to get as many of these houses built in a short time,” he recently told Barbados TODAY.
“The advantage is that they have purported to us that they can get the houses assembled in 42 days. So we are using local contractors to do the foundation and when the houses arrive, they would then assemble the houses by putting together the steel straps, then cladding it and putting on the roofs and all the infrastructure.”
But the housing minister again stressed that no one in Barbados could deliver on the Government’s demands.
He told Barbados TODAY: “In my experience, we did 15 houses at Todds and even with the best will in the world, we started it in October of last year and we are only now finishing it up. That is the experience that we have had. As much as people would suggest they could get things done in 40 days, my experience has not borne that fruit.
“Can you point to any contractor in Barbados who can build a house in six weeks?”
When Barbados TODAY identified Bjerkhamn who said he could, the minister replied: “They don’t build houses in six weeks. Preconco, it’s the same pre-fabricated houses again; but they don’t build a house from scratch in six weeks.”
Dr Duguid said that if Bjerkhamn can build low-income houses in six weeks, he has not told him so.