An interesting conference is taking place in Malta today.
Held at the University’s Valletta Campus, this meeting is addressing important aspects with regard to cement-based materials and structural engineering. It aims to showcase the latest innovations and advancements in both research and industrial applications, with a specific focus on promoting sustainability in the field.
The ‘International Conference on Concrete Sustainability: Materials and Structures’, that will serve as a space for experts, researchers, and professionals to exchange insights and discuss concrete sustainability, is being organised by the University of Malta in collaboration with the International Federation for Structural Concrete.
Ahead of this event, The Journal caught up with Stefan Zrinzo Azzopardi, Minister for Public Works and Planning. Noting that conferences of this nature play a crucial role in facilitating good-quality development, he held that quality needs to become a universal standard when it comes to building. He observed that, internationally, the ongoing discussion is revolving around achieving specific standards using advanced technology. Today, it is possible to attain the same strength in structures using less concrete, in so doing reducing material usage and construction time. This aligns with the global move towards decarbonisation and more sustainable building practices.
Will better buildings result in higher costs for customers?
Minister Zrinzo Azzopardi tells us that many ask this question because they tend to correlate property prices with the cost of construction and finishes. However, he points out that, in a small country like ours, the primary challenge has consistently been the escalating cost of land.
With heightened standards for structures emerging both locally and within the European framework, he emphasised the importance of embracing and adapting to new, sustainable practices. The current reliance on labour-intensive methods highlights the urgent need for adopting more efficient and affordable alternatives.
On skilled workers, the Minister pointed out that while vocational schools for building trades as we traditionally know them no longer exist, MCAST does offer courses related to construction. He remarked that ongoing efforts are emphasising skills development, acknowledging the evolving nature of the building industry: “Today’s builders require a diverse skill set beyond traditional bricklaying or basic ironwork. As the industry incorporates innovative technologies, such as highly advanced iron structures in buildings, collaborations such as that between Maltese and foreign workers and architects is highly beneficial.”
However, said the Minister, the ultimate responsibility lies with on-site workers, and there must be a bigger focus on ensuring more comprehensive training to promote proficiency, knowledge, and workplace health and safety. “This emphasis on training is crucial, considering the unfortunate history of painful experiences in the sector. Everyone in the construction industry must bear in mind the responsibility they hold for the well-being of their fellow workers,” he said.
Making buildings beautiful
The Minister recently addressed a KPMG conference during which he underscored the importance of developers not only focusing on the construction phase but also considering the lasting impact of their developments on the surroundings. He expressed the Government’s commitment to collaborating with the Planning Authority to formulate policies with a vision, aiming to enhance the aesthetic quality of developments.
We asked for his view on the fact that development in the past decade seems to have forgotten this important aspect: being beautiful. Gone are the days when buildings were equated to poetry etched in stone. He stated that, over the past decade, our country has witnessed an economic development of an unprecedented nature, characterised by a substantial increase in the size of the economy, elevated consumption levels, and a growing demand for property. The surge in economic activity has given rise to an increased demand for new construction projects to accommodate the evolving landscape of our nation. “There are examples of developments that are commendable and appropriate. Other developments, however, could have been better executed,” Minister Zrinzo Azzopardi said. “It is not merely a matter of permits that were issued and approved. I believe that those who proposed these developments should have put in more effort in enhancing them.” He remarked that one of the advantages of being an architect is being able to leave a legacy.
“If they design a beautiful building, it will live on. Similarly, if an architect designs something less aesthetically pleasing, it remains. This is an aspect that the Government is currently re-evaluating,” said the Minister. He emphasised the value of streetscaping, which involves not only evaluating a development in isolation but also considering the context in which it is situated, and the visual aspects related to it.
The Minister warned against general statements dismissing all new construction as ugly and added that the government has introduced several proposals, including fiscal incentives for those investing in properties in the Urban Conservation Areas (UCA). “Whilst we have seen instances where architecture could have been improved, significant funds have been invested to restore architectural heritage. As a result, previously unused houses are now being revitalised,” said the Minister. He referred to the grant on the restoration and finishing of privately owned residential properties, and said it is time to introduce additional schemes and revise the application methodology.
“The commitment to implement more stringent policies in favour of improved aesthetics is already in progress. Next year, we aim to witness a radical transformation, implementing policies that prioritise aesthetics and will result in a superior buildings,” said the Minister.
The need for more demanding customers
Minister Zrinzo Azzopardi insisted that increasing awareness among people about the importance of environmentally-friendly building practices is crucial. He said that an informed consumer will influence the market, driving demand for green building options. Banks are also adapting by considering a building’s energy efficiency and sustainability in loan rate calculations. Additionally, the sector needs to have a workforce with the necessary training to implement these changes effectively.
He added that that whilst good practices, such as the installation of features like double and triple-glazed windows, are often mentioned, attention needs to be given to the skilled workers involved in their production and installation. Moreover, people who set out to buy new property should be able to demand these features.
“The focus is not just on specific solutions but on fostering widespread awareness about the need for buildings to yield better results,” stated the Minister. He added that the impact of Covid-19 has highlighted the value of open spaces. Properties with open spaces command a certain value, and this emphasises the need for broader discussions within the sector, to make sure that properties being built align with what customers actually want.
“Although policies exist, the industry itself must actively participate in this transformative process,” held the Minister. He referred to today’s conference on concrete as the way forward: looking at the building sector scientifically – using data and scientific methods of observation rather than rely on opinions, assumptions, and downright greed – will help to really focus on consumer needs and preferences and contribute to the overall improvement in the industry. This, concluded the Minister, is not only vital for Maltese people who would like to purchase their property, but also in the rental market. Considering the increasing number of foreigners renting places across the country, understanding their preferences and aligning offerings accordingly is paramount.
This is a sector that none of us can escape since we all need a roof over our heads. It is a subject that affects us whether we put in the effort to invest in quality buildings or not, because we are inevitably impacted not only by our own choices, but by our neighbours’ choices too. We are all affected by what surrounds us: whether it is built with love and care or not.
We have recently reported about how the industry is expected to change in the coming months. It is encouraging to see that these proposed changes will be implemented with a sense of recognition of the ways of the past, and a resolution to incorporated heart and mind in tomorrow’s buildings.
Perhaps our hearts will encourage us to build structures for our great-grandchildren to enjoy, and our minds will help us look at the subject with enough logic and goodwill to finally change the way we build.
Main photo credit: Efrem Efre