GMIT conference hears construction industry remains very positive about rapid recovery post-Covid
Dr Martin Taggart summarizes what the speakers had to say at the annual International Construction Management Day Conference
Date Article Written:
Thursday, March 18, 2021
The 11th Annual GMIT International Construction Management Day Conference was held on 9 March 2021 in GMIT Galway. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic the conference was held fully online this year, attracting an audience of over 700 delegates. The conference is generally attended by Architects, Engineers, Surveyors, Contractors, Academics from across the island of Ireland, and senior students from the built environment disciplines. Additionally, the conference is attended by staff from local authorities and semi-state bodies, and people with an interest in the building environment.
The conference is hosted annually by the Department of Building and Civil Engineering at GMIT and chaired by lecturer Dr Martin Taggart. It is supported and sponsored by: The Construction Industry Federation (CIF), The Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB), The Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland (SCSI), and The Chartered Association of Building Engineers (CABE).
The conference was opened by GMIT President, Dr Orla Flynn, and Head of GMIT School of Engineering, Professor Graham Heaslip, who warmly welcomed delegates from near and far. Dr Flynn noted she had attended the 2020 conference before she took up her role as GMIT President and reflected on the very changed situation we find ourselves in. Professor Heaslip said he was delighted to be attending his first conference and noted that the deliberations of the conference could clearly be seen influencing regional and national policy, particularly in areas such as construction innovation. Dr Flynn and Professor Heaslip wished all delegates a most enjoyable day.
The first speaker was John O’Regan, Director of AECOM Ireland. John is a conference regular and is a well-known draw for delegates, who look forward to his detailed review of the construction sector and evaluation of its prospects. John outlined the severe impact that the Covid-19 pandemic was having on the sector in terms of lost output, with an estimate reduction in 2020 of over €7 billion on the preceding year. John noted that the three big challenges and areas of opportunity for the industry was widespread adoption of data and digitalisation, carbon reduction and adoption of Modern Methods of Construction (MMC). John concluded that whilst the situation was currently very difficult, there was still a very significant pipeline of work moving through the system. John also introduced a team of young graduates that AECOM had hired during the pandemic, illustrating that demand and jobs remained very good in the sector.
The next segment of the conference entailed a wide-ranging interview by Dr Martin Taggart , Frank Kelly, President of the CIF, and Director of Construction at Walls Construction and Tom Parlon, Director General of the CIF.
Dr Taggart first asked about the current situation whereby a substantial part of the construction industry had been locked down by government order.
Tom Parlon noted that the industry was deeply disappointed with the ongoing lockdown, stating that the CIF had met with government regularly and provided ample evidence that the risk profile from the construction industry was small in relation to cases of Covid-19. Tom said that CIF would continue to lobby government for the reopening of the construction industry, as Ireland was unique in Europe as being the only country who had a full lockdown of construction. He was hopeful that the industry could reopen safely in April when the next government review takes place.
Frank Kelly discussed the extensive work that CIF had undertaken in terms of rapidly developing a Safe Operating Procedure (SOP) and worker training programme which was being fully utilised in his own company. Frank noted that detailed statistics from CIF showed that there was only a very small number of Covid-19 cases traced back to the construction industry.
Other matters discussed concerned the CIF agenda for diversity and inclusivity in the industry; skills shortages in the trades; mental health and wellbeing; and, the impact of Covid-19 on the SME sector.
Concluding the session, Dr Taggart asked Tom and Frank to say a word or two to students who are soon to graduate and may be worried about their prospects. Both Tom and Frank noted that they see a very positive future. Unlike the recent economic recession, they noted that the pipeline of work was still there and government and EU investment to restore industry is the preferred plan. Frank also noted that the problems we had before the pandemic have not vanished, we still for instance have a housing crisis, which is getting worse due to the pandemic lockdown. Martin Taggart noted that GMIT had held a built environment careers day the previous Friday and that 24 companies had carried out over 300 interviews with 80 students who will graduate this year.
The next section of the conference involved a three-way discussion on building a sustainable and inclusive culture within the construction industry.
President of the CIOB, Mark Beard, who is also Chairman of Beard Construction UK, joined the conference from Oxford and was in conversation with Dr Martin Taggart and Justin Molloy, Director of the CIF. Mark Beard first outlined the issues that required business to adopt a supportive culture, noting that such a situation was very good for the employees, but also made very good business sense, positively impacting in areas such as; motivating and retaining top quality staff, aiding in recruitment as a desired employer, and, increasing productivity. Mark noted that relatively simple approaches such as having an open-door policy and listening to the concerns of his staff and being very open and transparent when things get difficult pay great dividends in building trust. Mark outlined the contribution that adopting frameworks developed by Investors in People had achieved. Justin Molloy agreed that there needed to be a coordinated approach to developing a happy workforce and discussed the benefits of the Considerate Constructor Scheme which focuses on both a ‘good neighbours’ approach by contractors and respect of people in terms of their site workforce.
The next speaker of the day was John Barfoot , Learning, Education and Academic Director of CABE. John joined the conference from Northampton and spoke about the need for professionals to adopt a lifelong learning approach to help develop their competencies in their chosen profession. John noted that the initial studies that students undertake at college are vitally important, but their graduation should be the start of their competence journey and not the endpoint. John considered recent issues in both the UK and Ireland concerning Grenfell Tower in London and Priory Hall in Dublin as monumental failures of competence in terms of validating projects that are safe and compliant. John outlined the extensive number of professional bodies that promote Continuing Professional Development (CPD) in Ireland and require their members to remain up to date in their chosen field. An interesting question was posed from the audience concerning the lockdown on levels of CPD. John said that the professional bodies had rapidly adapted their CPD offerings to an online world and noted that attendances appeared to have increased. He concluded that more online offerings may encourage more professionals to attend CPD events. CABE are currently reviewing the nature of future CPD provision.
The final speaker in the first session was Micheál Mahon, President of the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland (SCSI) who focused on the housing crisis in Ireland, noting that it was one of the forgotten issues of the pandemic. But was still a very live and growing problem. He gave a very detailed and authoritative overview of the issues of lack of affordability in the Irish housing sector based on a very detailed research study carried out by the SCSI. The report noted that in Dublin a couple on a combined salary of €88,000 could not afford to purchase a new-build 3-bedroom house which has a typical delivery cost of €371,000 once land, build costs and all fees are included. Even with a large deposit and maximum mortgage the couple would still fall a minimum of €25,000 short of the delivery price. The excessive costs associated with building accommodation means that the stated numbers of dwellings needed to address the crisis will simply not be viable for contractors/developers to construct in many cases. The SCSI proposed a detailed 18-point plan of recommendations to ease the situation and make construction of dwellings more viable. The recommendations include planning reform, cost benefit analysis of any future building regulation changes, measures to free up land for development, enhanced support with critical infrastructure and a range of supports for potential house purchasers and renters.
The second half of the conference had a distinct focus on Innovation in the construction sector. The first speaker was Sean Downey, who is Director of Specialist Contracting with the CIF. Sean informed the conference of the many changes coming down the tracks in terms of innovation. For decades the construction industry has been under-funded in terms of government support in the areas of research and development. This was surprising, given the critical nature and size of the industry to the Irish economy. Sean was pleased to note that that situation is changing rapidly, and a large range of initiatives are fast coming to fruition. These changes include the support and opening of a National Build Digital Centre to support excellence in Building Information Modelling and digital adoption. The centre is supported by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. Additionally, a National Centre of Excellence for the construction industry to drive innovation in areas such a Modern Methods of Construction (MMC) and construction process improvement is progressing under the umbrella of Enterprise Ireland. Dr Martin Taggart was very pleased to note that the original concept of such a centre was established several years ago at the GMIT International Construction Management Day Conference between GMIT Staff and Past-President of CIF Dominic Doheny. The CIF took on the concept, supported by GMIT, and hopefully the centre will open next year.
Four GMIT Staff then presented on areas of innovation in the construction sector, reporting on both the future needs of the industry and assessing how academia can collaborate in providing the new skills needed.
John Scahill gave an overview of the new Digital Academy for a Sustainable Built Environment project (DASBE). The DASBE project has been granted €7.5 million funding via the Human Capital Initiative funding programme. The DASBE project team is led by Limerick IT, with strategic partners GMIT, Athlone IT, Waterford & Wexford ETB, The Irish Green Building Council, Tipperary Energy Agency, and Future Jobs Ireland. GMIT have been tasked with developing a wide range of new skillsets via academic programmes at master’s level and below to provide the pipeline of people needed for areas such as the circular economy, regulation, and digital skills.
Irene Hayden, lecturer at GMIT made a very thoughtful presentation on the teaching of regulation. Irene noted that regulations, such as the Building Regulations are an ever-changing area and even professionals find it very difficult to keep up to date on the latest requirements. Irene also felt that this trend would only increase in the future. She is designing an innovative programme in the area of regulation teaching, using web-based visualisation techniques to make the area of regulation more accessible. The programme will eventually include certificate, diploma, and master’s degree offerings.
Gerard Nicholson, lecturer in digital skills and technologies at GMIT looked at the fast-moving area of digital technologies and building information modelling. Gerard, a GMIT graduate himself, has been involved in those areas for many years’ and noted that the Covid-19 pandemic had driven digitalisation onto new heights. Even, the GMIT conference today was now fully on online. Gerard reflected on both the lowering costs and improved performance of digital technologies, noting that things that might have taken him a day a few years ago, can now be done in minutes. He ranged over areas such as Artificial Intelligence, Robotics, Automation, Gamification, and 3D printing, all of which have a role to play in addressing some of the social and technological issues discussed earlier in the conference.
The last speaker of the day was Dr Mark Kelly, lecturer in GMIT. Mark heads up the GMIT BIM-360 research group. Mark is a very active researcher in the area of Circular Economy – This is a concept that views materials in a building as being ‘temporary’ and when the effective lifecycle of the building is finished, that they can be repurposed or recycled in a sustainable way, going full circle. This approach, which is starting to move rapidly up the political agenda will change the ways in which projects are both designed and constructed. Mark is actively working on developing new academic programmes that are focused on sustainable design and construction using a circular economy approach.
Professor Graham Heaslip brought proceedings to a close, by thanking the speakers and sponsors for their efforts and praising the delegates who had sat through a long, but hopefully very rewarding day. Graham finished by stating that he hoped to see some of the delegates in the flesh at next year’s conference, Covid-19 permitting.
Reflecting immediately after the conference. Mary Rogers, Head of Department of Building and Civil Engineering, congratulated Dr Martin Taggart on his commitment to the ongoing development of the conference since its first launch in 2010 and was absolutely delighted that the conference has been so successful as a fully online event that was a new experience for the department, students and staff. Mary noted that she was "particularly pleased that students who will shortly graduate in Construction Management, Civil Engineering, Quantity Surveying, and Architectural Technology got to hear first-hand a very positive message from industry, not just post Covid-19, but also for an exciting and innovative future."
Links to presentations
Copies of the speakers presentations can be found here: https://www.gmit.ie/engineering/constructgmit-presentations-2021
They may be used for educational and CPD purposes.
The video of the conference day will be available for several months on the conference website at: https://crowdcomms.com/gmitconstruction Thereafter, it will be moved to the GMIT International Construction Management Day YouTube repository.
International Construction Management Day YouTube conference repository
The YouTube repository contains over 120 videos from past conferences. They cover a wide variety of presentations of interest to the community:
International Construction Management Conference - YouTube
Galway-Mayo IT, IT Sligo and Letterkenny IT working together to become a TU for the West and North-West of Ireland www.cualliance.ie
Top, L to R: Sean Downey, Director of Specialist Contracting, CIF, Frank Kelly, President, CIF, Gerard Nicholson, GMIT, Micheál Mahon, President SCSI, Irene Hayden, GMIT, John O’Regan, Director, AECOM Ireland, John Scahill, GMIT. Bottom, L to R: John Barfoot, Learning, Education and Academic Director, CABE, Justin Molloy, Director CIF, Dr Martin Taggart, Conference Chair and GMIT lecturer, Tom Parlon, Director General, CIF, Mark Beard, President, CIOB, Dr Mark Kelly, GMIT.