Procuring natural stone for destination-scale projects such as Saudi Arabia’s giga project to transform Diriyah, the birthplace of the kingdom, is a major challenge, demanding the greatest attention to consistency, quality and availability. And it is precisely this challenge that Australia’s Versatile Group aimed to address when it set up its professional services arm in the region.
Having identified an opportunity in the Middle East to support destination-scale projects with highly specialised natural stone consulting services, Australia’s largest end-to-end real estate and construction group set up Versatile International in 2019 in Dubai, with project delivery offices in Saudi Arabia.
“Working at a destination scale is much more complex than delivering a typical residential or commercial project. It’s not just the scale – the complexity of delivery and high visibility of the projects make it essential to get everything right from the start,” stresses Wajdi Marroun, Managing Director of Versatile International, in an exclusive interview with Gulf Construction.
With stone being both a natural and a finished product, it is essential to make sure that you’re getting the right material to deliver the look and ensure the longevity of the asset, he points out.
“And because it’s a finished, public-facing product, you need to ensure that you have consistent quality in finish and installation. It’s not like laying concrete or carpet, where you have complete consistency. If you make a mistake with stone, you can’t apply a quick fix. You have to replace it or live with it,” Marroun says.
“So, when you’re sourcing hundreds of thousands of square metres of material, a small quality control issue can result in huge costs and time overruns simply because of the complexity of the supply chain,” he states.
Versatile started working with Diriyah in 2020, and since then has been involved in more than 50 different projects, from public areas to hospitality, cultural and commercial assets on the $63.2-billion development in the Saudi capital.
“We’ve also been heavily involved in identifying and developing local quarries to ensure that the assets have an authentic local character and to minimise transportation,” he adds.
Marroun explains that Versatile is sourcing across the board, from kerb and gutter for roads to paving in public areas and to high-end hotel interiors for five-star hotels, museums, libraries, residential and commercial properties, and cultural assets.
“Each asset has different specific requirements but what is always top of mind is ensuring that the material is fit for the purpose it’s intended for and is available at the highest levels of quality and consistency in the volumes required. Stone is a natural product and each of the hundreds of different materials has its own unique characteristics and tolerances. Our role is to help the client select the right material for the job in hand, test it, identify the right source to meet the quality specifications, and oversee procurement, extraction and installation to deliver the vision,” he adds.
Versatile has been working closely with Diriyah and the government to support local quarries, while delivering the quality of material that Diriyah and other destination-scale projects require. It provides support with evaluating the local supply and selecting qualifying quarries.
“Then we looked at the suppliers who could extract from the quarries to ensure they had the right technical capabilities to meet international standards, including in sustainable practice. We put in place standardised quality control processes and are putting a geological engineer and quality control supervisor on-site at the quarry to ensure consistency. And we are also putting quality control supervisors at the processing plants to make sure that the finished product matches the needs of the client,” he says.
Essentially, Versatile is involved in every phase of production, from quarrying to sample testing to transportation to processing all the way to delivery of a certified product to the customer, he adds.
Some 700,000 sq m of stone has been procured for paving the public areas of the Diriyah development. Versatile is also supporting the supply and installation of 250 km of kerb and gutter limestone for roads and another 75,000 cu m of limestone for building plinths.
“Just completing the mock-ups for the kerb and gutter took two years, from finding the right material to testing it for durability and its ability to handle, for example, road traffic,” Marroun points out. “On top of that, we’re sourcing other decorative and construction materials, locally and internationally, for fascia and interiors on libraries, museums, residential and commercial properties, hospitality and cultural assets and so on. For these, we work with our network of more than 200 quarries and factories worldwide to ensure the standards of quality that our clients have come to expect from us.”
In the procurement process, Versatile analyses both physical and quality criteria as well as the location of the source material. From a physical perspective, the company evaluates the material for tensile strength, density, and water absorption, among others. It lab-tests materials to make sure that they are fit for purpose and that there is sufficient material at the quarry to deliver the volumes of material needed at the right specification.
“We also look at the quality of the material – its colour and finish as well as the degree of natural variation in the stone. Obviously, quality has an impact on price. So, we are not only looking at the physical properties of the material – equally important is ensuring the right quality of material for the available budget and that what is delivered matches the quality promised in the samples.
“We even go as far as to dry lay stone at the point of manufacture to ensure that any material shipped to the asset owner meets the specified quality criteria. Our model provides certainty of outcome by ensuring that all material meets each of our quality criteria before it’s loaded onto a transport,” Marroun explains.
Stone is a naturally sustainable product with a low manufacturing and carbon footprint. It has a CO2 footprint of around 100 kg per tonne, compared to concrete which has a carbon footprint of 830 kg per tonne.
Stone is extracted at the quarry, shipped to the factory, and processed before being delivered to the customer. Shipping the product has an impact on the overall carbon impact, which can be lowered by local sourcing, he says.
Marroun claims that Versatile International is the first fully integrated stone project management consultancy in the Middle East. “We’re not aware of any other company in the region or internationally that delivers an equivalent service with no conflict of interest,” he asserts.
Versatile International, he says, operates differently from the traditional model of natural stone management.
Marroun elaborates: “We believe that the traditional supply-chain management model for stone is broken. Essentially, the normal process is designed to push risk downstream. The more stages involved in the supply chain – contractors, agents, quarries, suppliers and so on – the less control the asset has over the quality of the finished product. That translates into a higher risk for the asset in terms of potential cost and budget overruns.
“We put the asset first. We aren’t stone suppliers – we are project governance partners hired directly by the asset to protect their interests. So, we get involved right from the start to make sure that the material selected by the architects and designers is fit for purpose and exists in the right volumes at the right quality at the right price to deliver the asset on time. From there, we get involved in every aspect of identifying suppliers, overseeing procurement, managing quality control at the quarry, and overseeing installation to ensure on-time, on-budget delivery.
“Our process gives the asset greater visibility across the supply chain and delivers certainty of outcome through stringent, consistent quality control.”
In addition to the 50-plus projects it is working for at Diriyah, Versatile International also provides consulting services to its sister companies within the Versatile Group for many landmark projects.
“For those clients, we offer the same end-to-end service that we provide in the region, from design testing to procurement management to installation oversight. The success of our model is generating a great deal of interest in the region, and we are currently closing a number of contracts that will be announced in due course,” he concludes.