In selecting a flooring solution, the number one client criterion in the GCC is often its cost at face value. Then matters of colour and style come into play, while maintenance and operating costs are of the least concern. André Dulka, regional director of Armstrong Floor Products, talks to FM Magazine about why this is the wrong approach to take.
“Physically, floor coverings are the only things that get walked on, and get abused by office furniture, dirt, spills, and so on,” says André Dulka, regional director of Armstrong Floor Products, a global leader in the design and manufacture of floors, ceilings and cabinets. “You don’t get many problems with walls and ceilings. Floors are the part of the building that get the most traffic.” And yet, they are also often a last thought and a means by which a project’s budget can in the final stages be further tightened.
This approach does not take into consideration the full cost of flooring over the life of the installation, which is significantly greater than the up-front cost. The result is that flooring can become more of a liability than an asset to a company.
A lifecycle cost approach is a ‘win-win’ situation for the client, the facilities manager and the end user as it guarantees an economical, easy to maintain and functionally optimal solution. Simply put, the cost of ownership breakdown for flooring comprises installation (including purchase of the product), maintenance, cleaning and disposal costs over the product’s life.
It is this understanding that Dulka is keen to promote in the GCC, where material selection decisions are more price-driven than most other regions. Having first come to the region in 1978 for the construction of Jebel Ali Port, Dulka joined Armstrong in 1986, two years before an office was established in Dubai responsible for the Middle East and Africa. The $3 billion (net sales in 2004) company tied up with Al Reyami eight years ago to further boost its presence in the UAE. Dulka talks candidly with FM Magazine about the unique characteristics of the GCC flooring market.
What’s the biggest challenge that you face here in the GCC?
If we’re going to do anything here, it’s to try to push and explain the ethos of investing a little more in higher quality products and solutions at the outset of a project in order to decrease lifecycle costs and increase functionality. Like most of the big manufacturers, we’re never the cheapest in the market. There are always people nibbling away at the bottom end and these are the ones the contractors love. So really our job is to work with some of the designers, specifiers and end users, and support these guys to go in and pitch the product – and explain the right benefits.
The number of specifications that are changed out here during the course of a project is ten times what you would have in Europe. It's just a different mindset, which sometimes European companies can't get.
What would you say are the unique characteristics of the GCC flooring market?
We’ve always found that if you look at the region as a whole, the contracting industry is very strong in terms of the input it has in any particular project. The number of specifications that are changed out here during the course of a project is ten times what you would have in Europe. It’s just a different mindset, which sometimes European companies don’t get.
In Europe, the number one intent is to get specified. Once you’ve got the spec in Europe, the job is pretty much 95 per cent yours, unless you muck up. Here it’s a different ball game. It’s not that difficult to get things specified and to get yourself on the approved list at least. But when it gets down to the contractor, you always find that what you do is put in some kind of balance for them. You’re trying to hold onto what you think is the right product for the job. But because of the price constraints that they’re all under, you sometimes have to shift a little bit within your product range and offer something that you still know will do the job but maybe is a little bit more interesting price-wise for the contractor.
Do you have to sell your products here at a lower price than in other parts of the world?
Yes, we do, I suppose. I think that’s pretty much the same for everybody. There’s nobody here that’s on the high ground and can actually say ‘Well, I’ll just charge what I like’. Unless you’re in a niche market maybe.
When you look at us, we’ve got three or four major competitors, our products are the same quality and pretty much the same styles. We’re bidding for the same jobs.
With so many glamorous buildings going up here, does it upset you that corners are being cut in areas such as flooring solutions?
To be honest, there is a serious lack of understanding sometimes of what materials are being used. And it seems that most of the glitz and glamour is in the concept of the thing, but when it gets down to the nitty gritty of actually fitting it out, they cut a lot of corners – just on the general quality of it.
We know some good designers in Dubai and they face the same problems. They get halfway through a project and then they cost it. The quantity surveyors go in and say ‘No, no, let’s cut that down by 20 per cent. It’s what the client wants.’ So they have to go back and undervalue everything – value engineering-type thing. They try and keep the same concept but basically go for not so good quality materials.
But a lot of them have the integrity to say ‘No, that’s as low as I’m going to go. That’s it. Anything else and it’s back to you and you get someone else to do it.’ They seem to be quite professional in the way that they do design work. But when it comes to the contractors, they’re just like naughty boys! But you have to accept that in this market; that at least 20 or 30 per cent of what’s specified will be changed.
And we see that in our own business where probably 30 to 40 per cent of the work we do is changing specs – putting something in that’s a little bit more competitive but hits the spot. We deal with fit-out companies who say ‘We’ve got this product from xyz company, what can you do for us?’ And I say ‘Well, we’ve got something similar that’s 10 dirhams cheaper’, and they take it to the client and say ‘What about that?’ It’s not that complicated, and it’s not that professional, but they do it.
What benefits does one get for using higher end flooring solutions in terms of lifecycle?
One of the things that we see time and time again is that people would go for a product of a lower standard than the minimum we would recommend and you’ll see the obvious signs. You go into a building and look at the corridor and you can see all the tracking lines in the carpet where people have walked. That’ll sometimes happen within 12 months.
And what happens is that we go back when we get the enquiry two years later that they’re going to change the carpet again. If you look at that as a long-term investment, it’s not paying off. Whereas we’re looking at putting forward products that have got, even at the low end, a minimum of a five-year warranty and a maximum of 10 years.
It’s the quick-hit type of mentality here. It goes across the board. You know, save 30,000 dirhams now and not realise that in five years time, instead of having paid 80 dirhams for your carpet and it’s still good, you’ve paid 150 dirhams. Generally, you find that it’s the client, the actual end user, that has some influence over the price and type of carpet used.
The one thing I have found in the past four or five years is that the amount of specific knowledge that architects and designers have about things like floor coverings has gone up.
Is there any sign of this mentality changing?
A little bit, yes. The one thing I have found in the past four or five years is that the amount of specific knowledge that architects and designers have about things like floor coverings has gone up. Most of them would be able to talk to you and understand when you’re telling them about particular types of fibre. They pretty much have an understanding of the basics and really it just gets to the matter of what particular budget they’ve got or what particular budget they are going to propose.
So most of them now are probably recommending the right product initially in their presentation. But what happens between then and when it actually goes on the floor is the hit and miss thing that goes on when you get contractors involved and the end user trying to save money.
Who installs your products?
Most of our dealers have their own dedicated installers. When you look at textile products, they’re not that difficult to install. Most carpet fitters would know how to install them. And even if you muck it up, you can go back and re-install it – it’s just squares.
Vinyl and linoleum are a lot more difficult to put in. Because they are so thin, the sub-floor has got to be perfectly level – any little lump or bump will show. So there’s a lot of emphasis put on the sub-floor finish. Most of the companies we deal with have to have guys who can do selflevelling. We have training courses running every one or two weeks in Germany. So most of the guys nominate their senior fitters and we fly them over for the courses. Most of them are pretty good anyway, but there are certain tips and techniques that they can pick up. Especially if you look at hospitals, because the vinyl or linoleum sheets in hospitals have to be welded so it’s a seamless floor. Clearly, you don’t want cracks where dirt and germs can get in. We have a system now that includes a vinyl flooring and a vinyl skirting, and we can go up the walls with a vinyl wall covering as well. And the whole thing can be welded sealed. So you can literally wash it with a hose.
Going back to the specification side of things, you would find that most of the specifications on the resilience are generally pretty much held – especially if you’re looking at places like hospitals and schools. When they specify vinyl or linoleum, the spec’s ok and there are two or three competitors that can actually bid for that, but they don’t drop the quality and put something in cheaper. They’ll work within those main suppliers and you’ll all bid for it, and the right product will go on the floor.
But the textile side is far more open and woolly because it borders on the residential and contract products in the market. The difference between a 100 per cent contract carpet, for example, and a 100 per cent domestic carpet is not much to look at. So the people who don’t know could easily be fooled. You often find that with smaller offices it’s the manager who decides what carpets to buy and he doesn’t really understand the difference – and why should he? It’s not his job [to know] – he just wants a carpet. And he’ll pay around 25 to 30 dirhams per square metre, but after six months it’s gone.
Do you provide guidelines for the maintenance of your products?
Good planned maintenance is very important, especially on textiles. If you’ve got a planned maintenance program, you can keep the carpet clean, without dust and grit in it because that’s just going to grind everything down. All the big competitors in the textile side have a basic recommended regular maintenance plan. We’ve got a system where on large buildings we can give them a maintenance schedule for what we consider to be the heavy traffic areas so they can plan it into their budgets.
And we recommend what the suitable cleaning machines would be – there are two or three main manufacturers that we recommend. And that would not just give maximum life to the carpet but would also help them with their health and safety, with things like dust control.
The other thing is the anti-static management. The strange thing about static, especially in office areas, is that static attracts dust. You see it on your computer screen. If you’ve got a working environment where you’ve got static in the office area, it can accumulate a lot of dust. It sucks it in invisibly and before you know it, it’s in your machines. Even in a closed building with air conditioning.
People like IBM and ICL have an international standard and there’s a proper static control test on textiles particularly and on other floorings. It mustn’t go above two kilovolts [2,000 volts], or what they call ‘the threshold of human sensitivity’. As long as it doesn’t generate more static than that, you won’t have any problems with static in the office. And also you won’t get as much dust accumulation, which goes back to a health issue.