26/11/2022

TALKING TO… ROSS O’COLMAIN

The Head of High Tech Construction and Housing at Enterprise Ireland is calling on housebuilders, general contractors and manufacturers to get involved in the ‘Built to Innovate’ scheme

That’s the aim of the ‘Built to Innovate’ initiative?
‘Built to Innovate’ is aiming to support the domestic residential industry with productivity and innovation support. Our objective is to help homebuilders, general contractors and manufacturing companies to help them perform better. If we can help them improve their productivity, that has the potential to reduce the cost of construction, which ultimately may result in a reduced cost of homes.

What has interest been like from the industry so far?
Even though it was only launched three months ago, we’ve had some very good interest from a variety of sources. We’ve already approved a number of projects; one housebuilder has received a Digital Discovery Grant which will analyse their processes and investigate whether there’s an opportunity to adopt basic technologies to improve productivity. We’re also funding a Lean transform project with a midsize general contractor that delivers homes and apartments using off-site technologies. That contractor and their team will engage in training over the next year. We have also funded an innovation project for a company that manufactures timber frame panels. They’re looking at expanding the company’s offering and incorporating external cladding solutions. So that’s three projects that we have facilitated since launching the initiative, which fall under the headings of productivity training, digitalization and innovation.

Ross O'Colmain

The initiative specifically seeks to support construction firms that want to implement modern methods of construction. Why was that decision taken?
That strategy is based on extensive industry consultation. Late last year when we were researching what the industry needs to deliver more housing, we found that the major constraint to growth was labour shortages. The Future Skills Group also did an analysis of the ‘Housing for All’ plan and found that there’s about 40,000 people working in the homebuilding industry. To meet ‘Housing for All’ targets, that figure needs to increase to 67,000 by 2025. That’s a hugely ambitious number, particularly given the current constraints on the industry, so we need to identify ways that companies can be more productive and perhaps use skilled labour in a more efficient way. Increasing the use of off-site construction is a great way of doing that.

So if a traditional construction firm wants to adopt off-site methods, can they engage with Enterprise Ireland on the ‘Built to Innovate’ programme?
Absolutely and we have grant aid funding available to help companies do exactly that. Deciding which methodology of off-site construction best suits your company and how it will impact your business, your staff and your cashflow are complex questions. We would be delighted to help contractors with funding around these issues. Off-site is already quite popular in Ireland; in 2021, approximately 48% of houses that were delivered in schemes used timber frame panels. So although it’s already quite popular, we’re trying to up that figure and also increase levels of pre-manufactured value. Essentially, we’re investigating if more can be carried out in a factory to reduce the amount of skilled labour that’s on site. We’re finding that construction firms are very interested in exploring what off-site could mean for them and how it could help them grow their business.

One of the aspects of the initiative is around Lean strategies. Are construction firms keen to adopt Lean?
We’ve had good interest on the Lean side of the programme, particularly from general contractors and homebuilders. One of the areas that we’re seeing quite a bit of traction on is the Last Planner System, which is a Lean system specifically for construction services. It’s a simple system that improves communication on site between subcontractors and the general contractor. When implemented, it results in a more predictable project, on time or on budget. That’s an aspect of the initiative that we think will continue to be of interest. Larger contractors are certainly using it and it’s beginning to work through the supply chain. There’s also the general mindset of Lean that we’re promoting. An example would be a homebuilder that has a very strong ethos around repeatability and perhaps only uses four types of bathroom pod for their units. For the team that installs these pods, which are manufactured off-site, it’s a routine activity so uncertainty is taken out of the equation, as is the potential for any bespoke requirements. I think that type of thinking is important as we scale up in terms of the number of units we deliver.

With inflation and the rising cost of materials impacting the industry, are firms a bit slower to engage with the initiative at the moment?
Although there is good interest there, I think those issues are certainly a major consideration. Construction companies across Ireland are faced with massive uncertainty. They’re firefighting a crisis of labour and materials, which can be quite distracting from engaging in proactive, productive initiatives like ‘Built to Innovate’. The industry is currently in a very stressful period and management time is being taken up with trying to deal with these crises. We would stress the advantages of the initiative and the potential to access funding which will help improve their performance. Our doors are fully open; we want to have as many conversations as possible with companies. We’ve had a significant number of firms engage with us and we’ve translated that into projects, but our aim is to do more.

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Denise Maguire   Editor of Irish Construction Industry Magazine & Plan Magazine

Email: denise@mcdmedia.ie      WWW.MCDMEDIA.IE  WWW.IRISHCONSTRUCTION.COM