'Armageddon' for architects as new projects grind to a halt

 

THE COLLAPSE last Friday of such a prominent architectural practice as Murray Ó Laoire shows how bleak the outlook is for many professionals in the construction sector – not just architects, but also engineers, quantity surveyors and others in the frontline of an industry in deep trouble., writes FRANK MCDONALD, Environment Editor

Murray Ó Laoire Architects (MOLA) went into liquidation, with the loss of 127 jobs, after its bankers pulled the plug. The firm said it was “unable to meet its current financial obligations” because of cumulative bad debts, problems in getting more work and “the increasing difficulties in getting paid on time, or at all”.

Seán Ó Laoire, founder (with Hugh Murray) of MOLA, said it was “devastating” to find themselves in this position. “There was a sense of inevitability about it, with nothing coming in and then not being paid for work we had done. You can only keep going for so long on that basis. Contractors, too, are on the edges of liquidity.”

That a firm of MOLA’s high calibre and experience should fall by the wayside was greeted with shock and dismay by fellow architects. “They didn’t deserve this,” one of them said. “It’s a very sad day for the architectural profession in Ireland.”

And he warned that many others could go the same way in the coming months.

“Armageddon is upon us,” he said. “What we’re looking at now is the devastation of Ireland’s building industry and its associated professions. We could see many, many building, architectural and engineering firms disappear off the face of the earth unless there is a radical rethink about the allocation of resources.”

The Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland (RIAI) estimates that half of its members are unemployed. Since the start of the credit crunch, many practices have had to lay off staff to stay in business, and this has become progressively more difficult as the recession deepens and the work dries up.

As RIAI president Paul Keogh noted in his inaugural address last month, “there are scarcely any new commissions, forward planning has come to a standstill, existing projects have been deferred indefinitely and the public tenders website is virtually blank”; the private sector, of course, is out of the picture.

Nobody believes the €579 million allocated for the school building programme this year will actually be spent, despite the obvious need for more and better schools. “It’s not happening and it won’t happen either because of bureaucratic inefficiency or, more likely, intervention by the mandarins,” one architect commented.

“The reality is that this process of winding down public expenditure on schools, healthcare centres and other much-needed social facilities is going to continue even while the Government is committing sums of money beyond our wildest imaginations to prop up the zombie banks. What is it for Anglo Irish alone – eight or nine billion euro?”

He said this was only happening because “there is an entirely different frame of reference in terms of figures” when it comes to saving the banks compared to, say, allocating funds to build schools. “There’s a major problem in our society and this will continue unless there is a serious rethink of Government policy and priorities.”

Another architect warned that if the situation facing construction industry professionals doesn’t improve within the next six months, “we’ll be folding our tents”. Even some of the larger firms are worried because much of their current work involves completing major projects and there is very little, if any, coming in.

“There’s a horror landscape out there,” Seán Ó Laoire said.