Site visit: Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
SZGM FM Mohammed Santina on maintaining the UAE's prestigious mosque
It’s the first thing one sees when crossing any of the bridges that lead into the heart of the UAE’s capital: glowing white orbs and minarets rising from the horizon. It’s when you know you have arrived in Abu Dhabi.
The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is the vision of the UAE’s first president, HH Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, also referred to as the father of the nation.
The integrated facilities management of the project fell in the hands of Etisalat Facilities Management (EFM). It now has a 24/7 on-site team, headed by Mohammed Santina, the project’s facilities manager.
Santina says: “We started working with Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque at a very early stage. Etisalat Facilities Management took the project on a consultancy basis, after the Grand Mosque committee asked us how to operate the site.”
He explains that the firm realised it was not a run-of-the-mill operation, but in actuality, a complicated set-up.
Santina says EFM offered the committee its full consultation, and advised on both hard and soft FM services, including aspects like security. This took place in mid-2010. In a few months, EFM won the contract for hard services including MEP and civil services, with the Grand Mosque committee deciding to take the soft services under its internal wing.
EFM now carries out maintenance of the AC systems, lighting systems, potable water, the drinking water in the fountains, control systems, the BMS, and of the CCTV system.
A strict operational regime is followed, says Santina. Daily meetings take place with the staff members, of whom there are 45 on-site, with specific instructions on how to carry out various activities.
“This facility is very critical. You need to educate your staff on how to work very carefully, because nearly everything in this mosque is irreplaceable. For example, if any marble is damaged, it is very difficult to replace it. Likewise with the chandeliers, carpets, and lighting systems.”
This is why EFM has worked on educating the staff members and its engineers on health and safety, and environmental policies that ensure the safety of the architectural wonder. It also meets regularly with the client to make sure all requirements are being taken care of. The health and safety plan is created specifically for the Grand Mosque because of the special needs of the site.
While Santina’s team is careful to carry out inspections in the mosque to identify any discrepancies, they also use a Building Management System (BMS) to monitor various assets of the project.
“We have the ability to monitor everything from the BMS. If there is any deficiency in any area, we can monitor it directly, for example if the cooling is deficient, or any equipment is not working properly.”
Inside the BMS room, EFM possesses separate systems for the fire alarms, the HVAC system and the lighting controls. Santina tells us proudly that the external lighting of the mosque changes according to the position of the moon, and was designed by lightning architects Jonathon Speirs and Major.
While EFM concentrates on MEP and civil services, it also lends support to, and co-ordinates with, the internally-managed soft services team. Santina reiterates: “Yes, we are always co-ordinating a lot (with the soft services team).”
He gives an example of how the teams work together to ensure the structure is impeccably maintained. “Inside the mosque, there are some areas which are of a critical height. To maintain these areas, we possess a very special lifting machine — these are one-of-a-kind that can go into narrow places,” he explains.
Moving these devices through areas like the car park does not present a problem. However, Santina explains that when the machines enter the mosque, there are only certain areas where they can be moved through safely.
“If you look at the mosque, the main sahan (the courtyard) and the walkways, each piece of marble can handle only up to 500kg. So there is a special route we have to use to navigate the machine.”
He goes through the steps of ensuring no harm comes to the marble used in the mosque, which is a mixture of many types from across the world.
“Once we reach a marble area with the machine, we undergo a procedure where we lay carpeting and special boards, made with plywood and rubber sides. The machine goes over the carpeting and the boards, so it can move without damaging the marble.”
This is used for maintenance access to the very high areas inside the mosque, which range from 16 to 32 metres of height. In order to carry out this task, a minimum of 10 people are needed.
“These 10 helpers will carry the boards, put it in front of the machine and then the machine can go ahead. It’s like the pyramids,” he says with a laugh. “They have to keep removing the carpet, then putting it again on the floor, then the plywood ... only then we can deploy the machine.
“When we do this, it is not random deployment. We create CAD drawings, based on exactly where we want to put the machine and how we want to access different areas. Access is one thing, but we do not want to hit a chandelier, or a wall.
It does not mean us putting the machine in one spot, and that’s it. We give our technicians the drawings and specify exactly where we want to position the device and explain the steps to access difficult areas.”
While all these procedures may seem tedious to an outsider, Santina stresses it is necessary to take extra precaution because of the unique nature of the materials used on the project. He laughs and says even the WC seat cover is a $408 (AED 1,500) Villeroy & Boch brand.
“Nothing is standard here. Everything is of high quality, even when it comes to mechanical. We have the best pumps, the best filters. Because of this we have our own procurement team on site. If you look at the quality of the water we drink here, it is highly sanitised. We have a special filtration system from Germany, which is very efficient and high-end.”
It is not hard to imagine that looking after such a prestigious project comes with its own set of challenges and pressure.
Santina admits there are challenges faced by his team. “We have critical parts we have to maintain in our system in case anything fails, since we have to replace it immediately. As an MEP service provider, our contract with the Grand Mosque is to ensure the maintenance costs for each year is less than the previous year.
“This is our commitment to the Grand Mosque and this is how we are operating the site. We are doing this by maintaining the equipment properly, making sure that nothing breaks down and we do this through preventive maintenance. In the long-run this will provide huge savings for the mosque management.”
He smiles and says this means he is always under pressure because of the nature of the operations. “Usually in other projects, during mobilisation time, people will be under pressure. But this is the only project I have worked with where we are under pressure all the time. Everything has to be right at all times,” he adds.
He explains the management of the mosque, which is the Ministry of Presidential Affairs, has very high expectations. “It’s a landmark for Abu Dhabi, and we are reporting directly to the Ministry of Presidential Affairs, which is managing the budget for this venue.”
This is also a critical period for his team because of Eid Al Adha (Feast of the Sacrifice or Greater Eid), an important religious Muslim holiday. The site is now undergoing inspections to ensure everything will run smoothly for Eid prayers.
“Because all the Sheikhs, and all the VIPS and VVIPs are coming here for prayers, everything has to be just right,” he explains.
He also recounts the challenges the team faces during the holy month of Ramadan. On a normal day, the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque plays host to 5,000-6,000 visitors, but during Ramadan, the footfall increases.
“During Ramadan, our daily visits were around 12,000-16,000, and this is not including the tents outside the mosque for Iftar. It was calculated we would get 30,000 people for iftar, but instead 40,000 people showed up.
“From the FM side, we made sure the tents had power and cooling, and other necessities. Because the mosque was over-crowded, some people were praying in the sahan and we provided portable cooling units in order for them to have a good experience,” Santina says.
He says he is proud to work for the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, in spite of all the pressure surrounding his job.
“When Abu Dhabi is shown in magazines or on the television, they show a picture of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. There are many levels of pride for me: first, we are working in a Muslim country and we are proud to be serving a mosque; second, it’s a landmark for Abu Dhabi and for the UAE; and most importantly, this is something that is attached to HH Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan.”