A Modern ERA
Construction Network Ireland sat down recently with, Pat Kirwan, the newly appointed Head of MMC (Modern Methods of Construction) at C+W O’Brien Architects.
Pat is an industry veteran of many top tier large scale projects – the redevelopment of Spencer Dock, the Aviva Stadium, the construction of the new Central Bank in the Docklands and more recently the new Tik Tok HQ, to list a few.
Pat’s experience in large scale construction means that he is used to being a part of something that becomes a major part of his life – when working on Aviva Stadium and other mammoth projects “you live and breathe them every day” and his new role as Head of MMC for C+W O’Brien is already something that he is living and breathing.
An early advocate for sustainability within the industry, Pat was involved in the Irish Green Building Council at its infancy more than a decade ago, advocating for building methods that emphasise lower carbon, higher efficiency outputs.
He is a member of the Construction 4.0 MMC working group, a sub-group of the wider Construction Sector Group which was established by the Government in collaboration with the construction sector to help deliver the commitments of the ambitious Ireland 2040 programme. He is also a member of the RIAI National Council and various committees within the Institute.
The state of play
We began by asking Pat what MMC is, what benefit it can bring to clients and the wider construction industry and how it is currently being utilised within the industry in Ireland.
“MMC encompasses a wide array of construction methodologies. On one end of the spectrum, it could be timber frame housing where the walls of houses are constructed offsite in a factory and then assembled onsite, and at the other end of the spectrum it could be volumetric modular where whole apartments can be built in a factory and assembled quickly onsite”.
“MMC as a term might be new but some construction methodologies that would be deemed MMC have been used in the Irish construction industry for some time such as timber frame and precast construction. Unfortunately, the rate of MMC adoption at present within the industry is not yet at a scale where the full benefits of MMC are being realised. There are many reasons for this, such as industry capacity, skills + knowledge, procurement methodologies and a general fragmentation of the industry. If this is to change, we need more collaboration across the industry and cohesive governmental policies that will lead to increased levels of MMC adoption, an example – procurement of low carbon housing construction methodologies to achieve the carbon reduction commitments given under the climate action plan”.
Pat concedes that some aspects of MMC have unfairly garnered a poor reputation in Ireland due to practices by a small section of the industry however, the MMC sector is rapidly developing internationally based on increased industry and regulatory standards.
“A core aspect of successful adoption of MMC in Ireland will require in some instances a change in our building regulations and the development of new product certification schemes backed up with a national capacity for performance testing. Typically, MMC moves construction from onsite to factory settings, this creates a shift in traditional project certification processes. Project designers and certifiers will need to carry out more inspections in manufacturing facilities ensuring that manufacturing quality is consistent with certification. While this will begin to improve and maintain quality and standards, we need to be mindful that it developed so it doesn’t act as a barrier to MMC adoption”.
Open to change
Pat says that the covid pandemic has exposed many of the issues within the global construction industry such as supply chain security, labour and skills availability and the reliance on carbon intensive energy supplies and feels that this has instigated a willingness to change within the industry itself.
“The Irish construction industry has proven its resilience over the past two years despite extended periods of lockdowns and the impacts of Brexit. We have maintained reasonable levels of output and bounced back strongly following national lockdowns, all in the backdrop of constrained supply chains and material availability. I feel the industry has reached a point where it is now willing to look inward and begin to instigate the changes needed to address the issues exposed by Covid and tackle the far more wide-reaching impactful challenges posed by Climate Change. In fact, I see the use of MMC accelerating over the next 5-10 years as the government and international lenders focus more on reducing carbon emissions across the entire project lifecycle”
“From C+W O’Brien’s point of view we have a strong background in MMC and digital construction and are well positioned to instigate the changes needed across the design and construction lifecycle.
“In order to maximise the full potential of MMC, it is critical that MMC is considered at the early design stages of a project. We are currently working with clients that have a good understanding and awareness of the possibilities of MMC and building on that awareness to optimise the design process to produce quality sustainable projects delivered in a highly efficient and cost-effective way”.
“My role is to build on C+W O’Brien’s strong reputation in this area and to guide clients and construction teams on the adoption of more sustainable and efficient construction methods that will reap rewards for them as well as helping create a low carbon construction industry”.
Long term viability of MMC in Ireland
A major challenge to rolling out sustainable, faster and potentially lower cost construction, is the current capacity of the industry within Ireland. Pat says that a change in how projects are procured is needed to give long term viability and build capacity within the industry.
“We have some very innovative companies in Ireland that are already producing great products – bathroom pods being one good example – but for large scale modular to take off and be viable for indigenous companies in Ireland, current procurement models need to be challenged.”
“If you look at Ireland’s requirements for housing over the next 10 to 20 years for example, there’s no doubt that there will be enough demand to justify volumetric modular construction. However, due to the current fragmented project by project approach to procurement there are limited guarantees on long term viability for manufacturers to invest and establish manufacturing facilities. If a private developer or a public sector body for example is looking at delivering over 2,000 residential units spread over 5 to 10 projects, with each project procured separately, then economies of scale may not exist. If on the other hand all 2,000 were part of a forward purchasing agreement, then perhaps we could build capacity and scale within the industry which could potentially start reducing construction costs over time.
In the longer term it could become a major export market as the potentials for high quality large scale modular construction on the international markets are huge.”
Pat says that C+W O’Brien plan not just to leverage their own reputation within the construction industry in Ireland, but also to work together with other leaders in the industry to bring Modern Methods of Construction to the forefront in Ireland.
“We have some initiatives that we will be launching in the new year to collectively engage with industry including the development of an Offsite and Modular Institute, a strategic partnership with the Irish Green Building Council to begin to address embodied carbon across the lifecycle of projects and improved service offerings that will give better outcomes to our clients and to the end users of the buildings that we design.”
Pat’s vision is an enticing one and speaks to a much more sustainable, agile and cost-effective industry in the future. Though he may be a 25-year veteran of the industry, he has a big future ahead of him.