As published in The Sunday Business Post, October 6th 2019.
Project Ireland 2040 requires innovative and brave approaches from sector, the CIF annual conference was told. Quinton O’Reilly reports
Collaboration from all parties is now more critical than ever if Ireland is to meet the challenges that construction faces in the next 20 years. The path “from concept to concrete”, as CIF president Pat Lucey described it, is fraught with challenges and while there’s optimism, there are significant issues that need to be addressed.
At a busy Croke Park, those who attended this year’s CIF annual conference witnessed robust panel discussions on a wide variety of subjects.
The likes of Project Ireland 2040, delivering better value procurement, ways to encourage more students to pursue careers in the sector, NIMBYism, and the frustration of planning applications were all covered.
Ferga Kane, partner, government and infrastructure advisory at EY Ireland, said that the focus of Project Ireland 2040 should be on delivery and collaboration, which can have a knock-on effect for other projects.
“The plan is there and it’s incumbent on us to work with government, deliver these projects and deliver the enhanced infrastructure,” she said.
“The way to do that is through new innovations. [There are] vast amounts of data available, collected by public sector agencies . . . that give us info about what citizens are doing, where they locate, where they’re going.”
“We need to use that to inform our decisions about prioritising projects, and prioritising where we need to make investments. If we can use that information in the main cities, that may help free up capital to be spent on these regional goals.”
The other part of Project Ireland 2040, said Clare Cashin, partner at Philip Lee, is it involves projects of a scale the country has never witnessed up to this point.
“If you look at the projects as part of this plan, exciting as they are, a lot of them are mega-projects,” she said. “They are of a scale and concept that haven’t really been seen in this country before.
“In approaching those, there needs to be new innovative and brave approaches. Everyone seems to recognise that having a significant weighting on price doesn’t necessarily benefit the ultimate project because it can lead to things like low-balling.”
Throughout the entire conference, there was a reluctance to mention Brexit. But since Britain is one of Ireland’s biggest exporters, it was hard to ignore its potential impact on the country.
There is cause for optimism, though, as Julie Sinnamon, the chief executive of Enterprise Ireland, explained. “The fastest growing sector of Irish enterprises last year in exports was the construction sector,” she said. “At this stage, we have 12,000 of the best multinationals in the world here, and the construction sector has delivered first-class buildings.
“Multinationals in Ireland have been able to source from Irish construction companies these quality buildings, and now those companies are getting business across Europe, becoming successful and growing.”
That said, there are significant challenges faced by the construction industry. For one, climate change has become a major issue in recent years and one of the aims of Project Ireland 2040 is retrofitting 500,000 existing homes.
That alone will be a significant challenge. But as the general manager of Kingspan Insulation Ireland, Fergal Murphy, said, the cost of not doing so is more than just financial.
“Two of the key priorities identified by 2040 were the transition to a low-carbon economy and climate-resilient society,” he said. “That’s important for everyone in this room and their kids and their kids’ kids, while [the second is] the management of environmental resources.
“The reality is we’re moving into a different phase in terms of climate change. We’re here today talking about a storm [Lorenzo] hitting us, but the reality is our climate, our economy and our resilience has to grow and change.”
While the likes of Project Ireland 2040 can inspire optimism, there is frustration over how the current system is set up. The applications process for new builds, for example, was a source of great frustration with John Downey, chief executive of Downey Planning, offering up one example.
For a 2,000-unit build over 50,000 square metres of commercial, Downey Planning submitted a Strategic Housing Development (SHD) application which required 58 trees’ worth of paper to complete. To say the current process doesn’t suit larger applications was an understatement.
“It’s a huge amount of work,” he said. “Technically it’s impossible and the system isn’t set up for that volume of paperwork. But we had three sets of architects, we had huge teams, the number of meetings we had . . . [and on] the last day, it nearly killed two of my staff members.
“They came in at 7am on Thursday and they left at 5.30pm on Friday. They put in 34 hours in one go and that was because of the stress.”
Downey called for a time limit to be set on compliance – eight weeks was the suggested time frame – while calling for more resources in planning as local authorities are under huge pressure.
Thinking outside the box
While regulations were the source of frustration for many, the conference also brought fresh perspectives on existing processes. One example given by the director of innovation at Mace UK, Matt Gough, was a multi-storey apartment project in London that was built through a ‘rising factory’ method.
The six-storey factory, built around the tower, created an indoor construction site which helped reduce risks, avoid delays from bad weather, such as stormy winds, and increased the speed of construction. The result was that it delivered 18 storeys in 18 weeks, and reduced site waste by 75 per cent.
“Some of this platform thinking can really help us accelerate construction and start to tackle some of the bigger societal challenges that we’re facing,” he said.
“As the process is completed on one floor, we jump the factory and start the process again. Working high up in the air is a risk, but [with a ‘rising factory’] they were working in a controlled environment and were more efficient.”
On the talent side, Andy Clifton, Topcon’s applications engineer – geospatial, mentioned how it’s encouraging students to consider careers in construction through projects such as Class of Your Own, which brings the many digital, design and architecture skills that construction requires into the classroom.
“The schools where we had success is where we convinced not just the kids, but their parents,” he said. “This isn’t [a career] where you’ll be laying bricks, it’s a professional career that they’re going into.
“The kids have got brilliant talent, especially in the digital world . . . [and] when they get to university level or apprentice level, they’re already years ahead of where their peers will be if they haven’t done the course.”
Despite the many issues that need to be addressed, ultimately there was an undercurrent of optimism throughout. As Gerald Knights, director of broking at DRS Bond Management, said, all projects are ambitious by their nature.
“Every plan in its conception is utopian,” he said. “To be serious about the delivery of it, a lot of the issues have been discussed today such as infrastructure problems, the workforce . . . if you can address those, you can turn what is a utopian view into something deliverable.”