By Poyi (Natalie) Leung
You may have had heard of the Civil Engineering Laboratory of Macau or its abbreviation “LECM”, but how many of you know what role does it play in the construction industry and what does its major tasks involve?
The company was recently relocated from a small area in Largo da Sé, Macau to a large property that houses all the five laboratories and various departments in Avenida Wai Long facing the Macau University of Science and Technology.
The expansion suggests that LECM has been doing something “big” in society, but what is it?
In an exclusive interview with its president of the Board of Directors, Dr. Ao Peng Kong, the Macau Daily Times finds out the answer.
Govt as the main shareholder
According to Dr. Ao, before the 1999 handover LECM was mainly controlled by the National Civil Engineering Laboratory of Portugal (LNEC) and the Macau government.
At that time, the Macau government and LNEC had to look for materials manufacturers, building contractors, consulting or design companies in Macau which were interested in public construction projects in order to form the rest of the capital for the company, Dr. Ao said.
“LECM maintained the closest connection with the government when compared to all other public departments before the handover, because we were partly owned by the government of Portugal,” he added.
Since 2000 LNEC withdrew from the LECM which then became an organisation in which the SAR government owns the largest share.
“We do not serve as a formal government department but is under the jurisdiction of the Secretary for Transport and Public Works. I was directly appointed by either the Chief Executive or the Secretary for Transport and Public Works to head LECM,” Dr. Ao said.
Yet, LECM’s administration and finance are completely independent from the government. The government is required to sign business contracts with LECM and of course, will also be charged for the services provided.
“In other words, LECM operates in the form of a private company, because we have a General Assembly, Board of Directors and Supervisory Council, expect the SAR government is our largest shareholder,” Dr. Ao explained.
Among all the LECM employees, Dr. Ao is the only civil servant and the others are recruited by the company itself.
Other entities that operate in the similar way as LECM in Macau include the Ka-Ho Container Terminal, the Macau International Airport, Air Macau and CEM.
The president of the Board of Directors said LECM’s duties can be divided into three main parts.
The first and the largest part is to represent the government to supervise public construction projects and also to provide technical assistance and quality control.
Past projects included the Macau International Airport, terminals, tunnels and Macau-Taipa bridges.
“We have to ensure works are being done according to design layouts. We are only concerned about technical quality, but not about construction budget or construction progress,” Dr. Ao told the MDTimes.
He said people have become more aware of construction quality, “between the three they will choose to leave out budget and progress, but they can’t ignore the quality issue”.
Meanwhile, the second major part of their work involves laboratory experiments such as of construction materials and soil structure.
And the third part is “miscellaneous” such as to contribute to the drafting of engineering regulations, promote new engineering technologies, and also examine and approve all imports of construction materials including piles, pipes, reinforcing bars and cement.
Under the Board of Directors, it comprises a Coordination and Technical Support Office, Construction Materials Department, Structures and Buildings Department, Geotechnical Department and Quality and Standardisation Department.
LECM also houses five laboratories of structure inspection, soil testing, pile testing, material testing and metrology.
“The sculptor of the Earth”
“When you look at the words ‘civil engineering’, it implies ‘civilisation’ or a ‘civil project’,” Dr. Ao said.
At the beginning, there were only two types of engineering – civil and military. Afterwards civil engineering evolved and gave rise to mechanical, electrical, chemical, marine, aircraft and computer engineering, he said.
“What’s the importance of civil engineering? It just like everyone needs to wear clothes to protect themselves. Our works involve providing protection to buildings,” Dr. Ao pointed out.
“Some may even describe us as the ‘sculptor of the Earth’ as we are able to create what is missing in a place such as building a reservoir to keep more water or building a tunnel,” he added.
According to the LECM head, in developing countries such as Africa, South America and even China in the early days, when infrastructure is still poor and hunger and other livelihood problems remain, civil engineering must be the first priority to develop.
“It is because only when there are terminals, airports, roads and agricultural irrigation systems can a country start to advance,” he explained.
However, when civil engineering has been developed to a certain stage, environmental and cultural issues started to become prominent.
“In Europe and the USA where people pay high attention to environment conservation and culture, civil engineering is relatively weak. People like to live in century-old buildings and don’t prefer to knock them down,” Dr. Ao said.
In contrast to mainland China, “people can demolish all buildings as they wish as long as they have the money”, and that’s why there are many construction projects going on, he added.
To him, Macau is currently in the transition from being a developing to a developed region.
It is because society nowadays will have “a lot of opinions” regarding construction and demolishment in the historic centre.
“Development and heritage conservation are not contradictory, but to a certain extend they can complement each other,” Dr. Ao told the MDTimes.
He referred to the city of Paris, where its history is “well preserved” but major development was also attained.
The same phenomenon can also be seen in Beijing or other European countries, he said.
“Of course Paris has ample space and many things are being put underground. But there are many issues that can be solved by technologies,” Dr. Ao added.
Since the condition of Macau is different and the land resources are limited, the LECM head said people have to have a compromise in order to determine which is more important.
“We need to follow a standard principle in developing a place and constructing buildings,” he said.
Macau’s population increased from around 400,000 before the handover to over half a million now. But at the same time the number of buildings in the territory soared at least 25 percent.
“There must be a consensus of what society can let go and what is necessary to hold on. Contractions exists between everything and one side must have to step back a bit or otherwise there will never be progress in society,” Dr. Ao pointed out.
“It is like the steps of dancing tango. But to what extend a certain thing has to sacrifice depends on the consensus,” he added.
Dr. Ao believed that the urban planning legislation will be able to help in such dilemma, but he said he hopes people can share a “consciousness” of how to merge new construction into surrounding historic buildings, “which will be even more effectiveness than the law”.
Higher demand for living environment
The LECM head admitted that construction projects were not as many as it used to be and have slowed down in these two years.
Yet, he said there are still many opportunities in Macau as a lot of infrastructure are “seriously lagging behind” such as public housing and the traffic network.
“Before the economy was developed, a building would only require to have ‘windows and doors’, whilst nowadays the demand is no longer that simple and people will look at whether such building is liveable,” Dr. Ao said.
Hence, LECM set up to team specially to check buildings’ water leakage in collaboration with the Housing Bureau and the Land, Public Works and Transport Bureau about a year ago.
The special team is responsible to provide technical support to the Joint Centre for Building Leakage Issues, which will then exercise authority to order the related people to fix the problems.
“Water leakage is a nuisance and the impact is almost instant. The victims are the neighbours downstairs while the household responsible for the leakage remains unaffected,” he said.
“Our team uses advanced technologies to find out exactly which pipe goes wrong and whose responsibility it is,” he added.
Although water leakage is more likely to happen in old buildings, Dr. Ao said it can also be found in new property.
He said the team used to check a newly built five-star hotel where the rooftop leaked on rainy days because the waterproof system was faulty.
“Construction is done by men and therefore there must be negligence,” he added.