Operating a resort on a remote island is a complex thing. These islands are self-contained and have to become self-sufficient, producing our own electricity, water and ensuring a functioning sewage system. This requires a lot of local/contextual knowledge and experience for initial set-up and maintenance. Luckily, we have tried and tested these systems for 50 years now. There is a lot of tacit and explicit knowledge within the industry on most aspects of engineering operations in a resort.
What is required to succeed as an engineering director or chief engineer on a resort in the Maldives is not in-depth knowledge of one specific engineering area. It is instead a range of exposure to mechanical, electrical, environmental, civil/architecture, and a basic understanding of generic engineering concepts and a whole lot of common sense. One of my earliest mentors in resorts, Abjee, made sure that this was drilled into me from the start. He said to me that to manage a resort, I will require some knowledge of everything so that none of my team tries and takes advantage of my ignorance. Our forefathers called this ‘dhuniyeyge aaju faaju engun’. For them, it was about understanding how nature works, what happens when and how we should react to the elements.
Here are some broad and generic insights on how we can make better engineering-related decisions. I am not an engineer but I have a fairly good understanding of how things work from a technical perspective and hope readers find them helpful.
Backlog will suffocate you
The core functions of a resort hotel are mostly hospitality related. They include the provision of accommodation and F&B. However, both these functions require a lot of engineering support. Resorts have two parallel hospitality operations going on at the same time – that of the front of the house and the back of the house. Staff and guests must be fed and sheltered; as resorts age, all infrastructure succumbs to natural wear and tear. The number and frequency of incidents requiring engineering attention increase as operations continue. Resort operations happen in cycles, and every day these cycles are repeated. Murphy’s law says we should always get things done ahead of deadlines to avoid last-minute glitches. Another insightful wisdom comes from Parkinson’s law where work expands to fit into the available time, making us wait for the 11th hour before starting on projects. Unfortunately, the operations cycles do not stop and other departments keep sending more SOS requests for engineering support. Engineering is just one department, and carpentry is just one section that has to deal with requests from 10 or more departments that all have ‘urgent’ requirements.
Ensuring a backlog-free operation requires a lot of daily planning and getting in specialists from time to time or outsourcing some tasks as special projects.
When you fix problems, they come back and bite you harder
A leaky roof is perhaps a good example. We get bothered by the leaks only when it rains. Sometimes engineering can only see the leaks when it rains. It is easy to plug holes temporarily always intending to attend to it at some point later. However, when more tasks come in, the team will never be able to as there are much more urgent areas where the same resources are needed. And then, one day, the whole roof collapses.
Stormwater management is one area I have seen most engineering departments struggle with. Challenges in the form of flooded roads, puddles and pot-holes can be a nightmare at some resorts. Some architects design for aesthetics and engineers then need to make the buildings and spaces functional through innovative solutions. Instead of attending to floods every time it rains, proactive and purposeful landscaping can create lower areas adjacent to pathways and roads most likely to flood. Gutters from large roofs should be directed away from public areas.
Don’t swim against the current
I have written on the importance of harnessing nature for landscaping and this concept of understanding nature’s processes and cycles is important in coastal engineering and landscaping. Most islands in the Maldives deal with beach erosion at some point in time and some resorts also deal with sand accretion or too much sand at some points in the monsoonal cycle. The simplest solutions in beach management come from understanding how sand behaves around the island and this is a function of many things including the orientation of the island, where it is within the atoll and what is happening in the neighbouring islands. The shape/profile of an island is the result of many (thousands if not hundreds) years of current moving around it. When we start building around it, extending the beach, and building multiple structures in the surrounding water, current flow is disturbed and nature starts compensating for these changes. I never understand why we are so surprised by beach erosion when we disrupt the natural flow or current.
What is theoretically possible is not always practical
In one of my previous places of work, the management decided to invest in a kitchen waste processing machine. If I remember correctly, the machine can process 100 kilos of waste in a batch and each batch took about 3 hours. At this rate, the machine will take 30 to 40 hours of operation to process the daily kitchen waste collection. What was more complicated was the amount of power required to run the machine. It could only be run at off-peak times. This, therefore, limited the effective capacity of the machine and it was deemed not feasible for operation.
I have also seen a chief engineer start composting kitchen waste only to abandon the project halfway through because it was not practical. While composting at a small scale can be feasible and beneficial for an island, a lot of things need to be considered before starting a composting project. Not all organic matter decomposes at the same speed. If we put all our kitchen waste together it could take anywhere from 14 days to more than a year! It is practically not possible to have enough composting space to hold 7-15 tonnes of organic waste.
Master the art of juggling (resources)
One of the biggest challenges that I have seen heads of engineering deal with is that of getting the priorities. Most will find themselves constantly in situations where the same resources are required in multiple locations at the same time and especially when there are requests from front-of-the-house departments, they come with a great sense of urgency. Resource allocation can be tricky and may remain a very elusive skill to master for many heads of engineering departments. Resource allocation is very context specific. Most resorts will have ‘set in stone’ manning numbers that are aligned with the number of rooms or guests. These numbers d not take into account the volume of work in the ancillary or support services where workload not only fluctuates with occupancy but with weather-related events as well.
Engineering is a multifaceted function within the resort operation. There are many more components to a resort’s engineering function than I discussed here. Engineering is also the most critical function and incurs some of the highest recurrent expenses and by managing the function smartly, can contribute positively to the bottom line. Periodic review of power and water production, load and usage data and streamlining of the work processes can be very effective in reducing fuel costs.