Michael O’Sullivan, Chairman of the Heritage Contractors Registration Board, considers the role of the conservation and restoration sector within the construction industry
The construction industry is a major force in any country’s economy. It has one of the fastest turnarounds for monies spent and being put back into circulation. It also has one of the highest paybacks for monies put in, being returned in revenue and taxes to government.
This is especially the case for conservation and restoration projects as it has a very high labour content. It is vital that the dramatic boom and bust cycles in the industry are prevented from happening in the future and the industry is sustained on a more even keel.
Some of the major problems the country is currently facing include the shortage of housing, accommodation, energy supply, transport and the provision of general utilities. The construction industry has a major input into all of these. A healthy and competitive industry is vital in delivering long term economic and sustainable solutions.
The conservation and restoration sector can play a major role in some of the issues above. It can help deliver more accommodation, reduce energy demand, alleviate some of the transport issues and reduce the demand for additional utilities, all by some simple changes to housing policy and regulation.
Refurbishing our towns and cities
We currently have a situation where in most of our towns and cities there are thousands of unused buildings that could be refurbished and turned into good quality accommodation where a workforce can live closer to work.
It would drastically reduce the pressure on public transport requirements and cut down on the need for private car use. It would reduce energy demand as the building is already in existence and a large volume of materials would not have to be manufactured and delivered to site. The vast majority of these reusable buildings have waste, water, telephone and power connections already in place.
To make this happen, there would have to be changes to the building regulations. Planning policy may need to be reviewed to make it easier to get approval for changes. Financial institutions would have to review their requirements for split ownerships of buildings.
There may have to be some review also on the issue of ownership of derelict buildings with some incentives for building owners to develop the building or upper floors over commercial areas. If it can be done in other countries, why not in Ireland too?
Restoring a cultural identity
Another area where the construction industry can help the economy in the long term would be the restoration and maintenance of our culture and heritage buildings. We have a large tourism industry in the country, and we offer something unique in our scenery, culture and history.
We have developed the Wild Atlantic Way on the western seaboard and other unique routes around the country. We have seen the successes in opening up our historical monuments and historical buildings as major tourist attractions.
We only have to look at venues like, Muckross House, Kylemore Abbey (see video below), Kilkenny Castle, Guinness Storehouse etc to see the long-term advantages investing in these types of restorations can bring. There are hundreds of similar projects like these that could be developed around the country giving long term sustainable benefit to our economy.
The industry should have a dedicated minister for construction, who would have responsibility for the overall industry. This would give government a better understanding of the complete industry and all its elements, in turn leading to better planning, management, economies and co-operation within the industry as a whole.
While the industry is in upward growth currently, it is facing severe restrictions on supplies, labour cost increases and shortages of labour, especially in the heritage and conservation sectors.
We are anxious to improve the management of the industry through better working relationships with government departments for a more stable, economic, viable industry where we can attract the next generation into sustainable and enjoyable jobs, while retaining our skilled crafts people and giving them an opportunity to upskill and progress.