The Kuwait City Villas, seen here as they neared completion in 2009, are just one of dozens of ICF projects springing up around the Mideast. The 20,000 sq. ft used locally molded LiteForm for all the exterior walls and LiteDeck for the floors and roof.
Insulating Concrete Forms (ICFs) are gaining market share not only in North America, but around the world. In some regions, they’re barely beginning to carve out a niche, while in other areas, they’ve become quite well established. In this article—the second in the series—we’ll look at an ICF market with virtually untapped potential: The Middle East.
This area presents intriguing possibilities for the ICF industry. On the positive side, the extreme year-round heat, and the well-entrenched tradition of concrete construction bode well for the industry. Additionally, the region is experiencing a prolonged building boom that is virtually unaffected by the factors that brought the U.S. economy to a standstill.
On the other hand, Middle-Eastern nations are awash in fossil fuels, so they don’t have the energy efficiency and sustainability mandates that are commonplace in the U.S. and Canada. Business practices and ethics in the region are quite different from those accepted in North America, which present multiple pitfalls for companies unaccustomed to doing business there. Still, at least a handful of North American ICFs have established a foothold there, and they say the area has considerable potential.
At least three North American ICF companies have sizable operations in the Middle East, and at least that many more are seriously considering enlarging their presence there, having built a project or two with forms shipped in from Europe and elsewhere. In addition, at least one local brand, Eco Green Block, is available.
LiteForm Technologies, headquartered in South Sioux City, Nebraska, has been supplying ICFs to the Middle East for more than a decade, and now has manufacturing facilities in the region.
“This is a region that is very familiar with concrete construction,” says David Hall, marketing manager for the company. “They want a more comfortable indoor living environment. And despite living in a region with plentiful petroleum resources, they’re receptive to energy efficiency.”
Jim Buttrey, vice president of sales and marketing at IntegraSpec, agrees with
Hall’s assessment on efficiency. “The Middle East has become much more energy efficient in the last decade,” he says. “It’s true they have plenty of oil, but oil exporting corporations recognize it’s far more profitable to export it than use it internally. My experience is that Middle Eastern nations are very conscious of energy efficiency, and that ICFs have considerable potential there.”
He adds that nearly all the buildings—residential and commercial—are finished with beautiful stucco exteriors, and ICFs provide the perfect substrate.
There is also a need for durability. Most populated areas of the Arabian peninsula are near the coast, located within the risk zone for typhoons blowing off the Indian Ocean. They’re also occasionally hit with the legendary desert windstorms that arise further inland. A few areas, such as the Iraq-Iran border, have high seismic requirements as well.
Finally, the ongoing violence in the region indicates a lasting U.S. military presence; the Marine Corps has already built a few buildings in Iraq and Afghanistan with ICFs because of their proven blast resistance.
State of the Industry
IntegraSpec ICF, headquartered in Kingston, Ontario, Canada, has likely done as much ICF work in the Middle East as any other manufacturer. They’ve built projects in half a dozen different countries, including Yemen, Israel, the Kingdom of Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates. While IntegraSpec doesn’t mold locally, the knockdown system is relatively inexpensive to ship from North America. The company is serious about developing the region’s ICF potential, and has hired an local territory manager to oversee sales.
One of the more notable projects was literally built in a war zone. “We were asked to supply ICFs to a vehicle maintenance shop to be built in the ‘Green Zone’ in Baghdad, Iraq,” states Buttrey. “This was a U.S. Marine Corps facility where they repair Humvees and other military transports that get hit by roadside bombs, machine gun fire, and so forth. The U.S. military wants ICFs for the force protection they provide.” (Several other ICF projects have been built for the military in Iraq and Afghanistan, but details and photos of those job are sealed.)
Other IntegraSpec projects of note include an office building in Jordan, a hotel in Saudi Arabia, and a 1,300 sq. ft. home in Yemen, which was completed and poured in just five days in late 2010.
Hall, at LiteForm, says they’re staying busy also. “We’ve built quite a number of residential and commercial structures in the Middle East,” he says. “We have a lot of things going over there right now, and we continue to get a lot of leads from the region. In fact, probably 75% of our international business comes from that part of the world.”
Hall reports that demand is particularly strong for LiteDeck, the company’s EPS planking system, and that they also sell a significant amount of the original LiteForm wall system.
Unlike IntegraSpec, the forms are made regionally. “We have a licensing agreement with a molder in Kuwait that is producing the panel-and-tie LiteForm system,” Hall explains. “From there we can ship to just about anywhere in the Gulf region fairly cost-effectively.
In 2009, they supplied the forms for a series of three-story apartment buildings in Kuwait City. Appropriately named the Kuwait City Villas, the approximately 20,000 sq. ft. project used LiteForm for all the exterior walls and LiteDeck for the floors and roof.
Promass, the Italian EPS tooling manufacturer, is also pioneering ICFs in the Middle East. Based on their assessment of the region’s potential, they developed an ICF system based on regional needs and their machines’ capabilities, named Eco Green Block. In 2009, Ian Giesler and Manfred Knobel, two well-known ICF consultants and builders promoted the technology at Arab Plast 2009, a construction plastics tradeshow held in Dubai. The response was quite positive, and shortly thereafter, Knobel managed the construction of two landmark ICF projects, probably the first in Dubai. One, a freight warehouse and office building, is visible upon landing at the Dubai International Airport. The other is a residential villa.
BuildBlock, the Oklahoma City-based ICF, began exploring the area’s potential just a year or so after they began operations. Mike Garrett, BuildBlock CEO, said at the time, “ICF technology is ideal for the region. An ICF structure can be completed in much less time than the post-and-beam method [common in the region], which is a tremendous advantage in terms of saving money and in meeting the construction needs of the area.”
By 2006, they had formed a joint venture with Al Hayat Group, one of the largest privately held companies in the Middle East. The venture, named BuildBlock MidEast, was announced with great expectations.
Hadi Al Alawi, the senior Al Hayat executive who was put in charge of the new operation, said, “There is much [potential] for the technology in the region as it offers enormous savings in terms of energy and construction cost. Unparalleled comfort, energy efficiency, safety ratings, and speed of construction are the main advantages.”
They exhibited at Gulf BID, a major construction tradeshow for the Persian Gulf area, and a few months later he reported, “We have successfully completed several ICF projects across the Middle East and now homeowners, builders, and government agencies are recognizing the superior features of ICF structures. The concept has been well received by the various ministries of Bahrain and in the UAE who have asked us to explain the benefits of the system better.”
Based on the enthusiastic response, BuildBlock MidEast began setting up a manufacturing facility in Bahrain with dedicated tooling, molding equipment, and 10,000 sq. ft. of storage area. The projected capacity is nearly 500,000 forms annually. Unfortunately, navigating the maze of international business is never easy. Limited budgets, red tape, and thorny cultural issues have so far kept this plant from becoming a reality.
As noted above, ICFs have already achieved several significant victories in the Middle East, and the beginnings of an industry are already in place. Giesler reports “there are several great ICF contractors in the region.”
But the Mideast also has significant hurdles to overcome. Accessory products, for example, are non-existant. Wall bracing and bucking is accomplished with dimensioned lumber; concrete is placed with chutes, crane buckets, and other “old-school” technology. In short, it’s at about the same stage the North American market was at 20 years ago.
Business and cultural difficulties also still need to be worked out. One ICF executive who wished to remain anonymous described the region as “an incredibly difficult place to do business.”
Yet those who can manage the risks may strike it rich pioneering ICFs in the Middle East.