Deciding that it just wasn’t hot enough in Christchurch over summer, Registered Master Builders Leighs Construction headed off to central Dili — the capital city of East Timor (also known as Timor-Leste) — after successfully tendering to build the New Zealand embassy complex for the New Zealand Government.
Leighs Construction is no stranger to remote building projects, having already taken on the Antarctic on more than one occasion.
“We’ve been completing remote location projects for the New Zealand Government for a number of years,” managing director Anthony Leighs says.
“We identified this design build project as an attractive opportunity and were excited by the challenges it held.”
Not surprisingly, there were a number of logistical hurdles to negotiate to complete this greenfields development, which included a chancery building, staff residence building, ancillary building, swimming pool and guardhouse all located within a high security perimeter wall.
One of these hurdles was the time things took to happen — Dili time — from the supply of goods and equipment to the painfully slow customs processes, not to mention the two weeks it could take to receive a courier.
Also, with most of the shops closing between 12-2.30pm daily, it took a while to get in sync with the local siesta time.
Leighs Construction directly employed a workforce of very talented Filipino tradesmen and enthusiastic Timorese labourers.
Communication was always going to be an interesting exercise, and there was a lot of drawing, sign language and, consequently, laughter that went into ensuring the successful completion of the embassy.
The tropical weather conditions that saw most days in the mid-30s in the shade, and torrential downpours in December, made the going tough for the New Zealanders there.
“This was a very different working environment for most of us Kiwis, and we all had to work at ensuring we stayed healthy and hydrated,” Mr Leighs says.
Even with permanent security guards 24/7, low level theft from the site was still occurring.
“When you supply 300 bolts for a job that needs 280 and run out with 20 to go, it gets very frustrating,” Mr Leighs says.
“Constant supervision of a large and enthusiastic workforce was required, and staying on top of Health and Safety could be hard work — barefoot bore hole drilling is not recommended!”
The embassy project was the first to use pre-cast wall panels in Timor-Leste. The team cast approximately 270 panels on site but not before the Leighs Construction staff did a lot of training, including teaching the local crane operator to lift and plumb tilt the panels.
The local Timorese labourers were also trained to cut and bend reinforcing steel equating to approximately 30,000kg — all by hand!
“The local workforce was fantastic. They’re wonderful people with a great work ethic,” Mr Leighs says.
Leighs Construction managed all the procurement and export/import of the building materials, as well as heavy lift equipment and machinery. These were sourced from a wide range of suppliers and locations, including New Zealand, Australia, Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia.
They directly employed the workforce for all but water bore drilling, mechanical services, plumbing and painting.
Also responsible for the design of the project in conjunction with the design consultants, Leighs worked through a number of issues to ensure the design was appropriate for the local environment while, at the same time, complying with the requirements of the New Zealand Building Code.
The project also had to be built to New Zealand’s seismic standards just as if it was in Wellington.
The formal opening of the new embassy building took place on 14 May, and MFAT say it is a further expression of New Zealand’s long-term commitment to Timor-Leste.
Defence Minister Wayne Mapp represented New Zealand at the opening, along with Timor-Leste Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao.
Mr Leighs says the project was quite a natural fit for the company’s skill set, and it also advanced their strategic plan to deliver international projects.
“We are looking at the possibility of operations in some of the high growth countries in the Asia-Pacific region.”
Beyond the building site, the not so subtle differences were also something for the Leighs Construction team to negotiate. No such thing as a parking ticket under your wiper — try having the air let out of your tyres and your number plates removed instead!
After a while, the initial culture shock and the sights and sounds that come with a different country didn’t seem so strange. Some Kiwi music burnt to disc and discovering home-made sausage rolls and frozen Mrs Macs pies at a local garage helped the guys at Leighs feel that little bit closer to home.
It’s great to see Registered Master Builders flying the flag globally and taking building excellence to the rest of the world.