The sustainability of Irish construction has never been more important given current economic and geo-political pressures that have led to a sharp rise in materials among other stresses on the sector.
Though the outlook for the industry as a whole is cautiously optimistic, with output projections remaining strong for the next three years according to this summer’s EY Economic Advisory’s report compiled by Euroconstruct, the availability of skilled labour is an additional challenge given competing demands from the new build and retrofitting sectors.
The industry is working hard to adopt more Modern Methods of Construction to boost productivity and delivery times yet concerns remain over the capacity to deliver the unprecedented scale of public capital investment planned, which is projected at €35.4billion between 2022 to 2024.
Construction volumes are projected to increase by 4.9 per cent in 2022, followed by further growth of 4.1 per cent in 2023. This is exactly why facilities such as the National Construction Training Centre in Mount Lucas will be a key driver to future industry sustainability and stability.
Mount Lucas offers a vast range of skills development training and CSCS provision for those working in the construction sector. The centre is a Retrofitting and NZEB Centre of Excellence for the midlands and is home to the CIF-led National Scaffolding Apprenticeship, Utilities Traineeship and the Modern Methods of Construction (MMC) Demonstration Park, recently announced by Minister Simon Harris.
Bebhinn Kennedy leads Enterprise Support for the Laois and Offaly Education and Training Board (LOETB), which oversees the facilities at Mount Lucas. “Essentially I go out to employers and identify skills gaps through Skills to Advance, we provide fully-funded training to meet those needs,” she says.
Graduating from the University of Limerick in 2013 with Bachelor of Education in Materials and Architectural Technology Kennedy’s background has always been in construction. First, in the UK teaching technology-based subjects, advancing to leadership positions over seven years.
Then, perhaps a familiar fate for many people living abroad, Covid-19 prompted a return to Ireland. She took that opportunity to upskill in Nearly Zero Energy Building (NZEB) Standards, becoming a trainer for MosArt Architects delivering NZEB Fundamental Awareness courses for the Waterford and Wexford Education and Training Board and LOETB while building links within the construction community.
To the great benefit of the industry, in March of this year, she began work as Enterprise Support for the LOETB promoting the NZEB and retrofit courses at the NZEB and Retrofit Centre of Excellence at Mount Lucas.
“Right at the peak of the disruption from Covid lockdown new NZEB regulations came into effect,” she explains, adding how some new builds that had commenced design stages pre-Covid and had recommenced since can find themselves falling short of the latest regulations regarding NZEB standards.
“We have seen some inspirational contractors who during lockdown availed of upskilling opportunities in this area, and for that initiative you will see them benefit,” she says.
Still the mammoth challenge facing the construction industry in achieving higher sustainability standards is exemplified by the dual commitments from Housing for All and the Government’s Climate Action Plan for retrofitting homes.
Combined that represents “900,000 homes essentially within the remainder of the decade that need to attain NZEB standards”.
“The simple reality is that presently we don’t have the construction professionals in this country to meet that gap,” she says.
For Kennedy this only makes the work of the National Construction Training Centre all the more crucial.
“It is very important that we have these centres of excellence, like the National Construction Training Centre here, to demonstrate the technologies that will deliver NZEB homes, that will make our houses more comfortable for the future.”
So, what does it mean to adhere to NZEB standards? Bebhinn Kennedy answers the question with the three fundamental elements where NZEB can be attained.
“NZEBs are buildings with high energy performance, low carbon emissions, and the ability to produce renewable energy on- site or nearby.” Important to note is that the NZEB Fundamental Awareness programme at the National Construction Training Centre is open to anyone.
“This programme has attracted a diverse range of participants including architects, bank managers, and homeowners wanting to know more before engaging in a project,” Kennedy says. “Naturally, the greatest traction has been among the wider construction sector, with the likes of Chadwicks, availing of the opportunity to upskill their employees across their business.”
One interesting development she notes is that homeowners are increasingly aware of the requirements of NZEB principles and “therefore more conscious of checking that the person doing the work is up to speed on the latest regulations.”
A high priority for the team at Mount Lucas is responding to the needs of the industry. “In consultation with industry leaders and reviews of the challenges they faced, we identified that there is a massive gap in skills when it comes to external wall insulation (EWI),” she says.
Based on that they have developed an industry recognised award for external wall insulation to provide the means to address that gap.
The EWI programme, like all programmes at Mount Lucas, has been developed by LOETB in collaboration with industry and other key stakeholders, for example NSAI and SEAI.
The centre’s seven-day Retrofit Insulation Skills (RIS) programme is awarded at a QQI Level 5. The programme provides the skills, knowledge and competencies required by contractors when insulating a home.
The RIS programme has gained traction among the current construction workforce, from general operatives to company owners as well as new entrants to the sector.
A potential challenge facing the team is a history of negative perceptions when it comes to a return to education for some in the sector. Excitedly Kennedy speaks of the NZEB Centre of Excellence here at the National Construction Training Centre being a fully simulated construction site.
For convenience, programmes can be delivered on-site, online or a blended approach and are flexible to include evening and weekend provision. All can be tailored to meet bespoke company needs.
“That’s the beauty of our courses here, they’re short and relevant. What’s more, for any industry professional, employed or self-employed, all courses are fully funded by LOETB,” she says. “This allows us to do things differently, offering hands-on practical experience to break through perceptions.”