Richard Turlington AIA NCARB RIBA was the lead production consultant on a new tower in downtown Ho Chi Minh City for Vietcombank in Vietnam. Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects was the design architect while Ong and Ong Architects were the local architects of record. The project was one 34 story tower with a 4 level below-grade parking structure in the most prominent location in the heart of Saigon. As a technical consultant and the political “face” of Pelli Clarke Pelli, this project faced many challenges that US projects rarely face. Richard Turlington Architects was uniquely positioned to help this project to fruition because of our extensive construction knowledge of Southeast Asia coupled with effective communication skills in a politically charged environment.
HCMC is rapidly developing but still has a long way to go relative to modernized construction methods. The use of questionable building materials, mechanical equipment, construction methods and site safety made overall quality control a constant challenge. Because labor rates are insignificantly small to the overall construction costs in HCMC, contractors often choose to build poorly first knowing there is a risk of it being rejected outweighed the financial benefits of poor oversight. It often felt that this project was built 3 times over given the excessive rejection on poor construction assemblies.
Another challenge was a plethora of potential “savings” posed by many subcontractors that were presented to the Owner and there are no quality control measures in place, no “UL” assembly guidelines, no ASTM compliance, no guarantees that the products on site were no cloned from substandard materials.
The following is one instance that happens in many forms throughout the day on a construction site in Vietnam. This story underscores the overwhelming challenges a construction site faces in SEA. The issue: rebar that is not perfectly round. On the surface this seems like a very minor problem but, even though there are 20 on-site quality control inspectors, a material vendor would deliver rebar to a site that was “out of round” and it would not be checked with calipers and allowed to enter. Next, since the structural columns are dense with rebar there was not enough room to “lap splice” the rebar. So, we needed to use a device called a “coupler” which is essentially a threaded tube that receives the ‘died” ends of the rebar which would then be screwed onto each ends of each coupler thus eliminating all spliced joints. But, if the rebar is not round then the “die” would not leave complete threads on the ends of the rebar and create gaps in the rebar where there were no threads for the coupler to grab onto. This, in turn, created weakened tensile capacity of the couplers and compromise the strength of each column. Even through the contractors knew to avoid using asymmetrical rebar; they did it anyway because it was the cheaper solution. The result was that all the structural concrete columns for 3 subterranean levels had to be broken apart, selective couplers removed and tested, and a all the columns retrofitted with an unconventional carbon fiber jacket that restored the columns and the rebar to its original design intent. This one small issue negatively impacted the construction schedule by several months and unnecessarily elevated the anxiety of all parties in involved; the Owner, the Construction Manager, the subcontractor and the design team. None of this would have happened if there were basic manufacturing standards upheld and a less corruptible construction industry who simply don’t realize the impact that greed can have on the lives of people trying to do a the right thing.
Even though there are many hurdles for building in this part of the world, the people you work with on a daily basis make it all worth while. The people of Vietnam are wonderful, compassionate and the best friends anyone could ask for. It quickly became apparent that trust and relationships are far more important than building in the US. Gaining and giving trust is a precious commodity held in confidence by the Owner on down to the local craftsman who truly care about their trade and doing good work.