How do you turn a hole in the ground into a sustainable, livable, and affordable urban oasis? And how do you do it in a country like Argentina, where skilled labor is scarce, and a high inflation rate quickly eats the value of any investment?
That was the question that the Argentinian construction company OCSA grappled with after taking on the project “Cantera Urbana”.
A sustainable model urban center
“Cantera Urbana”, meaning Urban Quarry, is an ambitious development project that will turn an over 5-hectare large former quarry in La Plata, the capital of the Buenos Aires province, into a lush and sustainable residential, commercial, and recreational area.
“It was a 20-meter-deep hole in the middle of the city. It was awful,” describes Natalia Larocca, Director of Entrepreneurship and Projects at OCSA. “Now, we want to transform it into something beautiful.”
The vision is to turn a disused part of the city into an environmentally friendly model urban center with a balanced distribution of buildings and public park areas. The planning takes maximum advantage of the area’s climate with large water reservoirs and vegetation in the sunniest areas.
A financially viable construction of more than 300 family homes, five public parks and 23,000 square meters of commercial buildings is, however, not straightforward in Argentina. The country suffers from sky-high inflation and interest rates and a lack of skilled construction workers.
Innovative thinking was needed. Could precast technology be the answer to OCSA’s prayers?
Finnish technology hit the spot
After studying and visiting a long list of companies from both Europe and Latin America, an OCSA delegation took off to Finland in 2018. Larocca says that she has not looked back since.
“It felt so comfortable in Finland. We went to several factories and saw that the equipment from Elematic was still working after decades.”
A couple of years later, a new and modern precast sandwich wall factory was installed at the premises of OCSA’s long-standing partner Astori. “Sandwich walls form an efficient ‘architectural envelopes’ around our buildings,” Larocca says.
The precast producer Astori already knew about Elematic’s equipment and decided to invest in it in a partnership with OCSA. The staff was – due to Covid – trained remotely from Finland, so it learned to use the equipment with the required precision.
“With Elematic, we feel that we are in the best hands possible,” Larocca says. “When Covid hit, they waited for us, and when our currency was devaluated, they waited for us. They helped us all the time without any pressure. Not only is their equipment the best, but we also have a personal relationship. They are a part of us.”
Astori’s new precast facility is the first Elematic wall plant in Argentina. Moreover, according to sources in the Argentinian construction industry, it is only the second precast wall plant in the country.
Pioneering wall supplier
“Cantera Urbana” is a daunting task for OCSA that until now has mainly taken care of public construction projects. The hope is that this private urban quarry development project will become a display window of what modern precast technology can do.
After starting the production of concrete panels in the summer of 2021, 10 buildings have already been erected.
“We are taking the first steps with this project. We might later sell precast concrete to others as well,” Larocca says.
Bumpy road ahead
It will take seven years at least – depending on the state of Argentina’s economy – to finish “Cantera Urbana.” According to Larocca, Elematic’s equipment allows OCSA to build the new urban area within five years, but it will take a few more years to sell the buildings.
The speed of construction also depends on whether the required spare parts and materials can be imported to Argentina. There is a cap on the amount that you can import for to the country, which has already led to a lot of headaches at OCSA. At the time of writing, for example, Larocca is struggling to import connectors from Finland.
Larocca is, nevertheless, optimistic about the future and happy and proud of what OCSA, Astori, and Elematic have achieved so far.
“In Finland, it takes 1.5 hours to cast one meter of concrete. The same work takes us five hours, but I am sure that with time, we will learn and improve,” she says.
“I think that we can do something really good here in Argentina!”