Reconstructing a War-Torn Country
As U.S. forces drew down in Afghanistan, a new phase of counterinsurgency strategy took place. HDR's construction management team was vital in the process.
Our client, the Air Force Civil Engineer Center, supported the U.S. Department of Defense in expanding the facilities of the Afghan National Security Force. The program sought to not only strengthen Afghanistan's national security, but provide hope for the country's people by creating professional jobs and boosting the economy. However, the $1.4 billion program required oversight within a war-torn country with archaic construction standards, unregulated material suppliers and a largely untrained workforce.
We provided leadership, oversight and training to make the mission a reality. Serving as on-site quality assurance representatives for 46 projects in 10 regions and 61 sites, our construction management team's work entailed design and material review, construction inspection, and progress reports.
"When the client needed a firm for an extremely large, diverse and demanding construction services program, we accepted the challenge and exceeded the goals and expectations," said Sean O'Brien, Managing Principal of Operations and Construction Services. "It took a vast team of personnel, both in and out of Afghanistan, to complete the requirements and it has been the most difficult and rewarding program that I, and many on our team, have had the opportunity to be associated with."
The program involved new universities, government buildings, training sites, barracks, recruiting stations, air bases, roads, bridges and other facilities needed for Afghanistan's security forces. Highlights included a five-storey "mini Pentagon" for Afghanistan's Department of Defense, a 105-acre military academy modelled after Britain's Royal Military Academy and an Afghan Air Force Academy that will graduate its first 70 pilots this year.
But utilizing Afghan workers and local materials to build the country's economy and foster optimism created unique challenges. Afghan construction practices lacked modern practices, including design standards, technology and safety protocol. The team developed new design standards to adjust to local contractors' lack of familiarity with U.S. construction practices. Innovations ranged from big to small, from constructing the country's first building designed with seismic zones to simple solutions such as installing glazed windows and P-traps in sinks and toilets. The team worked with local suppliers to conduct testing and develop better specifications.
"Our work in Afghanistan began in 2009 at a handful of sites and then went large in 2012 with sites throughout the country," said Chewy Johnston, Operations and Construction Services Program Manager.
"There are two important items learned throughout this growth," he said. "First, internal support—including human resources, information technology and leadership—gained valuable insight for future international growth. At one point, we had a mixture of many different nationalities working on the program including British, Indian, Egyptian, Afghan, Filipino, American, Canadian and African. Supporting so many differences and respecting the many cultures proved a challenge to our leadership and the project success is a tribute to our ability to stay focused and take care of our international team."
A technological divide manifested itself in multiple ways. First in the on-site construction work, where team members often found themselves in remote sites without internet or cellular service, then in the design of the facilities themselves, which often could not employ modern building technologies as they would be impossible to maintain long-term in Afghanistan.
"The second lesson was finding appropriate design solutions to meet the Afghans' capabilities to manage the new construction," Johnston said. "Using the most modern technology was not feasible because the Afghans were not ready to maintain such technology. Blending the best technology with the Afghans' ability to maintain was a constant challenge to which our U.S.-based engineering team and Afghan onsite teams managed with both our client and general contractors."
The team trained local workers to document work with hand-held devices and speak up when they observed issues on site—both cultural differences from western practices. They also introduced safety training to a workforce that previously considered sunglasses and open-toed sandals adequate for a construction site.
"HDR's management approach, robust internal quality assurance and quality control program, dedication to client service, and focus on safety contributed to the completion of construction projects across Afghanistan," said Jonathan Reeves, AFCEC Project Manager.
The Construction Management for Afghanistan National Security Force Facilities program was a recipient of CMAA Project Achievement Awards at the state and national level and was one of 12 projects considered for CMAA Project of the Year and ACEC Engineering Excellence Awards at the state and national levels.
As we continue our global focus as a company, the Afghanistan projects will serve as evidence to our quality of work and ability to exceed expectations on large and demanding construction services projects.