Cambodian Construction Standards Rising

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As a construction professional working in Cambodia, Bernie Durkin, General Manager at YellowTree Interior Co., Ltd, is seeing a general shift in the safety standards and level of professionalism expected by the international firms behind Phnom Penh’s major developments.

Established in 2002, YellowTree has worked with big-name clients such as Foreign Trade Bank, Qatar Airways, KPMG, H&M, Carrefour, Dupont, Jardine Schindler, ANZ Royal, Marks and Spencer, CIMB Bank, Deloitte and Infinity Insurance. Durkin joined the company in 2011 and shifted YellowTree’s focus from small jobs to increasingly upscale clientele and projects. “What we do best is offices, banks and retail,” says Durkin.

YellowTree has been involved in the interior construction of many of the big buildings that now dominate the Phnom Penh skyline, including Vattanac Capital Tower, Phnom Penh Tower, The Landmark (2016) and GT Tower. Despite a new construction law currently being drafted by the Cambodian government, construction standards are already changing due to client demand —more so than in response to any regulatory development, suggests Durkin.

For smaller firms, price still defines the standards of construction ahead of other considerations. Durkin explains, for instance, “Often we’ll say to the client, ‘If you’re buying this locally it’s only going to cost you $50, but if you’re importing something slightly fancier, it’s probably going to cost you $200.’” More materials are becoming available in the local market, but Durkin says Cambodian builders and developers are lucky that Cambodia is not too far from Thailand, Vietnam and especially China; countries from which you can import almost anything.

With the standard of the buildings coming on-line now, for example, “Vattanac, Phnom Penh Tower and places like that,” Durkin notes that, “building owners and management simply will not accept low quality finishing’s or low quality construction materials.” Many international companies have become more discerning over the last few years, and both demand and, to some extent, supply, are beginning to reflect this.

“Health and safety standards are poor in Cambodia generally,” Durkin attests. However, international clients bringing their own standards to Cambodia are increasingly enforcing higher standards, regardless of the added cost and added time to projects. “Vattanac, because it is a Grade A building, was very, very strict in terms of health and safety regulations. You couldn’t get in if you didn’t have a hard-hat or protective footwear—they literally wouldn’t let you on site.”

Another client YellowTree finished working with at the end of last year, Dupont, came to Durkin with a list of regulations his workers had to comply with on-site. “These standards were very much driven by Dupont,” says Durkin. “It’s nothing that comes externally from government rules or anything like that. They choose to implement these rules, and we have to apply and police them ourselves.”

Yet, while the average westerner might be alarmed to go outside and see a Cambodian construction worker twenty feet in the air, wearing flip flops and no hat, Durkin says, ”to them it’s just the way they’ve grown up, and what they’re used to in the construction industry here.” International standards are forcing the industry to amend dangerous mindsets like this, and ultimately improve the standards of construction and the long term safety of workers.

Direct regulations from clients allow managers such as Durkin to take time to teach their staff the right way and say: “Look, this is the way it should be done. You shouldn’t be cutting corners like this because you’ll hurt yourself and other people, and you’re not allowed to do it anymore.”

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