Construction Challenges on the Island of Saipan, MP

On October 24, 2018, Super Typhoon Yutu, the strongest typhoon ever recorded to impact The Mariana Islands and the second strongest to strike the United States or its territories made landfall on the islands of Tinian and Saipan. Torrential rain and sustained winds of 130-180 mph killed two citizens, injured at least 133 others, and damaged or destroyed significant portions of the island’s buildings and critical infrastructure. A major disaster declaration was announced by the U.S. president on October 26, 2018, making federal funding available to affected individuals in Rota, Saipan, Tinian, and the Northern Islands municipalities.

InfoTran Engineers, PC was contracted by APTIM to provide construction supervision and quality control services for the rebuilding effort of the residential houses in Saipan, located 7,000 miles away from the US mainland. The rebuilding effort faced several technical, supply chain, and resource challenges due to Saipan’s geographic location. The COVID-19 global pandemic further exacerbated these challenges. The following sections describe the challenges and the suggested approaches to address them on the construction projects on the islands.

Technical Challenges


The design documents called for the concrete masonry unit (CMU) construction for walls from the ground to the roof. During the early stages of the construction phase project, The Project Management team recognized that the local contractors and crews were not very familiar with CMU construction methodologies.  The limited experience of the labor force on the CMU method was compromising the quality and design compliance. After working directly with the construction crews, the team recognized that the contractors were more familiar with cast-in-place concrete as a construction method.  The team proposed a recommendation to the design to terminate the CMU coursing at the 10th course and cast-in-place concrete from the 10th course to the roof level. This modification directly led to an increase in quality and workmanship and helped to gain positive time towards the construction schedule.

Similarly, the specifications required the use of lime in cement mortar and skim coat. However, this type of mix was not typically utilized on the island and lime was not locally available. The specifications not being tailored to the contextual environment created a steep learning curve, which involved several trial & error iterations.

An in-depth analysis of demographics, local construction techniques, and material availability during the constructability review and value engineering can address these challenges.

Delays in Permitting Process

The local city/municipal agencies required several weeks to several months to process the permit applications. Similarly, the local utility providers had limited resources available to support new connections to power, water, and sewer. This uncertain timeframe caused schedule delays. It is crucial to capture the realistic processing times in the project schedule to plan accordingly and to negotiate more realistic deadlines with the clients.  

Advanced Assessment of the capacity of local agencies will ensure realistic costs and schedules for the large-scale project.

Supply Chain Challenges

Limited Availability of Off-the-Shelf Materials

The drawings & specifications called for specific construction material and supplies that were not readily available in the required quantities or in accordance with the specifications. The common construction items such as adhesives, faucets, doors, windows, bolts & screws, roof coating materials, water heaters, insulation material, etc. were not readily available on the island. The Project Team had to coordinate daily with the subcontractors on identifying the construction material/tool requirements, months in advance, place orders, and track the items while in freight.  Contingency evaluations and plans were set into motion for materials and equipment when scheduling delays were occurring due to disruptions caused by COVID-19.

For example, the floor coating material, while available on the island, was not available in the required volume for the project and due to the global pandemic, the procurement of additional materials was not possible in the scheduled timeframes. The team was able to coordinate with the client and contractors to obtain a waiver to use similar products from various manufacturers.  While the quality of the products utilized was of equal or better in their performance, The Project Management team was able to work with the installation crews to ensure that the final aesthetics of the product met the client’s expectations.

In-depth knowledge of the limitations of the local supply chains on the availability of construction materials will allow accounting for the time and costs associated with procuring such items.

Limited Production Capacity

The new construction activities are limited on the island and there were not sufficient production facilities on the island because of the limited demand for construction materials such as concrete, prefabricated concrete blocks, etc.  For example, there were only three concrete batching plants on the entire Saipan and only two of the three plants agreed to mix concrete in the design mix specified in the design document.  In addition, only one of these two batching plants had a mechanism of printing concrete tickets electronically. The design document called for electronic ticketing for the batches. This requirement caused a severe bottleneck and The Project Team had to work with the concrete batching plant to reserve the capacity on days when multiple concrete pours were planned.

Similarly, the concrete blocks needed for the project were produced by two manufacturers and production could not be scaled to meet the project needs. The quick fix was adapted to use three cell blocks along with two cell blocks. This presented another set of challenges, as the workforce had to adapt to differences in sizes and shapes which proved to be an uphill task. The tolerance for deviation on the island was much greater than what construction contract documents specify.  For example, there was a variation of 10% to 20% in concrete block dimensions, in all dimensions, which caused the bed & head joints to be out of tolerance limits.   

Advanced knowledge of the production plant’s capability to manufacture needed supply and available production capacities can assist in addressing the needed design modifications and schedule/cost.

Resource Challenges

Insufficient Skilled Workforce

Most of the labor force on the Island was of foreign origin and was on a temporary work visa with set durations. The global pandemic of COVID-19 forced the team to work with only the workforce that was available from the beginning of the project. The team was able to mitigate this challenge by shuffling skilled crews to the houses that were behind schedules. The challenge was further exacerbated by limited access to power tools and equipment. With this constraint, the labor force would often perform tasks such as concrete block saw cutting; rebar bending, mixing paints/coatings, etc., using manual methods.  This was carried on through construction, even to the point when power tools were available to the workforce.  The Project Management team realized that the workforce was not accustomed to using power tools and was often not comfortable and scared of the use of power tools, such as electric saws. Some of the problems were mitigated by the team, to some degree, by becoming directly involved in training the crews on performing the work by conducting training seminars and demonstrating the use of equipment/tools.

Similarly, there was only one licensed firm on the island that could provide special inspections for the project. The availability of special inspectors for rebar inspections was extremely limited. The Project Team performed preliminary rebar inspections independently to minimize inspection failures and ensured that the special inspector’s reviews were efficient and concise.

This is a difficult challenge to overcome. However, the available skillset and communication gap should be considered during the risk, cost, and schedule plans.