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Stone management for Saudi Arabia's giga projects

Wajdi Marroun, managing director of Versatile International.

Versatile International is a stone consultant and procurement specialist. The company worked with the Diriyah Gate Development Authority in Saudi Arabia, and provided support in facilitating the opening of Ministry-approved Riyadh Limestone Quarries to provide material to the development as well as overseeing the procurement and installation of more than 700,000 sq m of natural stone for the project’s public areas. Wajdi Marroun, managing director of Versatile, spoke to Technical Review Middle East about the company's business operations. Read on: 

Technical Review Middle East (TRME): How is Versatile developing stone management in the region? 

Wajdi Marroun (WM): Basically, our model is designed to give destination-scale asset developers certainty of outcome by removing supply chain risk.

The traditional way of procuring natural stone is that the developer and the architect work together to develop the vision then they go to the market to identify a contractor who can deliver it. They approach multiple contractors, who each approach multiple suppliers who, in turn, each approach multiple quarries to develop a bid. But because everyone knows that the bid will likely go to the lowest tender offer, you have an incentive for suppliers to manipulate the product mix to keep costs down and assign the difference to natural variation in the stone. When your material arrives on site and it’s not exactly to spec, you either have to live with it, which affects the quality of the asset, or replace it, which leads to cost and budget over-runs. This happens because the asset developer is focused on delivering a vision and the contractor is focused on maximising the value of the transaction. 

Where a stone project management consultant comes in is at the design stage. We aim to get stone right from the start by reviewing the designs and advising on feasibility, fitness for purpose, availability, work planning and so on. Then we oversee the procurement process to make sure that the tenders are meeting the right specifications. We manage quality control at the point of extraction and fabrication, before the material is loaded for shipping, to ensure compliance, essentially making sure that the right material arrives on site in the right volumes at the right time. Then we oversee installation to make sure that the finished product properly reflects the vision.

Because we work for the client, we put the asset first. We don’t supply stone and we don’t handle construction. Instead, we provide visibility and accountability across the entire supply chain with no conflicts of interest to make sure that the final delivered product matches the vision that was laid out at the beginning.

TRME: Do you believe using stone project consultants is preferable to using a contractor? 

WM: Contractors have an important role to play in developing assets and the SPMC model is not intended to replace contracting. We essentially act as project governance partners, making sure that the asset’s needs are front and centre through the entire process, from planning to procurement to delivery. Ultimately everyone wins – the asset developer realizes their vision, and the contractor gets clear direction on what is required and is able to deliver on the vision at a reasonable price and margin. 

Ultimately the objective is to remove conflicts of interest, set clear guidelines, manage procurement and installation with a close eye on quality management and ensure that everyone gets what they need from the project. That means making sure you have the right partners with the right skills on board from the outset – architects, designers, engineers, stone consultants, contractors, builders, quarries, and so on. 

TRME: How is Versatile helping clients reduce risks and costs?

WM: In a number of different ways, really. At the simplest level, we begin by advising on the design and the associated budget and working with the client to deliver the vision that they are seeking at a price point that makes sense. That requires a very in-depth understanding of the stone being used. Every type of stone has its own characteristics and comes in a variety of qualities, reflecting the fact that stone is a naturally variable product. 

By bringing the client closer to the source of production we eliminate a lot of the mark-ups and service charges that can result from long, complex supply chains. Our focus is on efficiency, so we want to make sure that there are a minimum number of steps between the asset and the material source.

Managing quality from the start means that the right material arrives on site, certified at the point of production. That means that the asset doesn’t have to replace sub-quality material after it’s arrived, which reduces cost and time overruns. And because we are ensuring both product availability and supplier viability at the point of procurement, we mitigate against the risk of suppliers going out of business partway through the asset development cycle, with all the associated resource costs of identifying and contracting a suitable replacement that would follow on from such an event.

TRME: What procedures are in place to guarantee the quality of the natural stone during installation and purchase?  

WM: It really comes down to getting stone right from the start. We review, lab test, and report on fitness for purpose before the tender even goes to market to ensure that the selected material will meet the needs of the asset. 

Throughout the tendering process, we are looking at how closely bids match the specification of the design and ensuring that right volumes are available to meet the needs of the asset. Our quality control engineers review samples against stock at the point of production to ensure that what is being shipped matches the needs of the project and reject any slabs that do not meet the standards before they are loaded onto a transport. For interior installations we also dry lay at the point of production to ensure consistency of grain, colour, texture, and so on so that we can be certain that the installed product will meet the design vision.

At the point of installation, we provide the work plans, oversee the teams actually installing the stone, and ensure that the work matches the dry lay. The result is a piece of work that has been quality-controlled end-to-end from both a product and process perspective.

TRME: Why should natural stone be chosen over concrete?

WM: The most significant difference is in environmental impact. Processing stone requires it to be quarried, cut, transported, and installed. Producing concrete requires the extraction of a range of different additives, high heat treatment, sourcing, and production of steel to reinforce the material. Then you need to add more additives and mould the material. All of that requires energy and transportation.

The end result is that stone has a CO2 footprint of around 100 kg per tonne, depending on the type of stone you’re looking at. Building concrete, by comparison, has a CO2 footprint of 830 kg per tonne. That’s an important consideration when you are thinking about the environmental footprint and sustainability credentials of your development. It’s one of the reasons that the construction industry is really looking at stone again as a building material.