Climbing an 80-metre (262ft) tower crane wasn't part of the plan when pitching the idea of a monthly Irish Times crane survey to this newspaper's commercial property editor in January.
But as the survey, which offers a snapshot of surging construction activity in the capital, gained in popularity along came an offer from the Construction Industry Federation that was too good to refuse. "You've been counting cranes for eight months now, so how about climbing one?" suggested Shane Dempsey, communications director of the CIF.
A few days later, on a calm and bright Saturday morning in Dublin's docklands, I'm introduced to the site manager for Walls Construction at the Project Wave development next door to the new Central Bank building in what was to be the headquarters of the former Anglo Irish Bank on North Wall Quay.
Eoin Redmond, who describes his job as "everyone's problem is my problem", is having a very busy morning. A steady, sequenced stream of what will amount to more than 100 cement mixers are delivering their grey goo to a telescopic spreading device which then pours the concrete over a vast lattice of steel supports. When this dries, it'll form the reinforced ground floor of what will be a 50,000sq m (538,195sq ft) mixed-use development of offices and 230 apartments. This is major-league construction, even by international standards, and Redmond has got to oversee preparations for another "pour" of concrete in four days – this time it'll be scheduling the arrival of a mere 80-to-90 cement mixers.
After furnishing me with a high-viz bib, hard hat, glasses and grippy gloves, Redmond leads the way through the 2.2-hectare (5.4 acres) site to a chorus of hammering and banging, roaring engines and boots squelching in muck. Diesel fumes hang in the air and sparks fly as workmen apply powerful cutting tools to steel supports.
“It took three days to get that monster up and operational,” says Redmond of the 80-metre crane we’re about to climb. “I’d say only the one across the river at the Capital Dock site is taller.” We look at this giant next to where the Liffey meets the Dodder – it stands well above the skeleton of a 79-metre (259ft) tower that will be the city’s tallest building – and wonder how long it takes its operator to climb it.
After reaching the bottom of Project Wave’s double basement, we approach our crane – and what an awesome sight it is, all thick white-painted steel thrusting ever skyward like some Modernist beanstalk.
The base, which measures about 3.2 metres square, is enclosed by high MDF board. Redmond punches in the code on the lock, a door opens and we scramble through. “Even though this crane is twice the height of some of the others we have on site, it’s really solid and barely sways at all,” he says. “It’s way better than the older, lighter cranes which would tend to move around a bit in the wind. The base is attached to 100 tonnes of concrete, there’s 10-tonne of counterweight on the back of the jib [the crane’s lifting arm] and the frame of the mast [tower] is rock solid.”
Redmond sees that I’m getting nervous: “Have you got a head for heights?” he asks. “Yes,” I reply, secretly praying that nerves won’t win out half-way up. He then informs me, in no uncertain terms, that the only way to climb is to look straight out – never up or down. “That way you won’t get freaked out by how far from the ground you’re getting or focus on a moving reference point, like a cloud in the sky, as this could affect your balance.”
Climbing the crane involves scaling 13 six-metre sections. Each has a metal ladder, set at about an 80-degree angle, and this is surrounded by a cylindrical skeleton to negate a fall backwards. At the top of each ladder is a platform of thick wire mesh which gives access to the next ladder and so on up. The starting point for each ladder is the centre of the mast and you climb out towards the frame.
Redmond leads the way and scales the first section quick-smart. I practise the “looking straight out” technique and ascend in slow, deliberate movements making sure that feet and hands are in contact with the metal bars at all times except when reaching for the next step up.
At the top of the first and second sections are hatches that the crane operator closes and padlocks after a day’s work. This is to prevent unauthorised access to the heights above while rings of metal spikes around the exterior of the frame reinforce the message: no intruders. I briefly wonder what sort of thrill-seeking eejit would consider climbing a crane this tall but, then again, here I am.
We break at the top of the third section. There's not a breath of wind and the view over docklands is beginning to open up as a giant cruise liner berths in Dublin Port and a Luas tram rumbles along behind us on Mayor Street. What strikes you instantly is the amount of vacant space in this part of docklands between the Convention Centre and the Point Depot. Most of the riverfront plots are now being readied for construction but there is a considerable amount of land ripe for development away from the Liffey.
Redmond starts climbing again. Three further six-metre sections are scaled quickly enough but, starting another at about 36 metres up, I feel the first bit of breeze and realise how exposed we are to the elements. Unnerved, my heart starts beating a bit faster and each step is gripped even more tightly.
Then the crane starts to vibrate – a lift is in progress – and my pulse is now positively racing. My phone beeps – it's Vodafone texting about their latest rate advice – so I let lose a volley of vile curses and promise to change to Meteor when this is over. A drone recording proceedings is buzzing about outside the mast just a few metres away and the whizz of its blades is making the hair stand up on the back of my neck. The phone beeps again – it's someone on the ground encouraging me to wave at the drone – and I begin to understand what Roy Keane feels like when the red mist descends. An image of King Kong climbing the Empire State springs to mind: I see myself reaching out to grab the drone and crush it in my fist just as Kong did to one of the planes trying to kill him in the movie.
And then, just when things couldn’t get any worse, the jib of a nearby crane starts to move in our direction. Is it gonna clothes-line us? No, of course not, but at least it sends the drone buzzing off before its steel nose halts a few metres opposite. I can see the operator’s face, he winks and I’m reminded that the Dublin sense of humour is at times darker than a pint of Guinness.
Redmond gives me an alarmed look at the next platform: “Are you really sure you want to do this?” We’re half way up, above the seven-storey roof of the new Central Bank, the views are spectacular and this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience so, in short, there’s no way I’m quitting.
After a short break, during which Redmond radios the operator to suspend lifting to settle my nerves, we resume. It takes another 20 minutes to reach the top of the mast at about 78 metres but now comes the difficult part. Accessing the crane’s slewing unit – the rotating part with the operator’s cabin – is tricky and the now strong wind reminds me of how high up we are. We have to scramble on hands and knees inside the crane’s axis – nose-to-nose with its huge and well-greased gear set – before reaching a vertical ladder which brings us to the platform at the top.
The 360-degree views are sensational and a feeling of elation sets in at having completed the climb. So I chance a look down and what an OMG! moment this is. The workmen below are mere dots and my knees almost buckle at the distance down.
A few moments later Redmond introduces the crane operator, 32-year-old Shane Kierans from Bailieborough, Co Cavan. He's been at his job since the age of 18 and the height we're at is "no bother, you get used to it". His work space is small – it's not much bigger that its operator's chair – but at least it's warm thanks to a small radiator and there's a kettle in the corner for tea. His Monday-to-Friday hours are typically 7am to 6pm – but can finish later if there's must-do jobs at hand – while he also works 8am to 2pm on Saturdays. Despite these long hours he's a happy man.
“I’m making good money, over a grand a week,” he says. “But there’s other crane operators in this city who’re only earning €16 an hour. That’s not enough for the risks involved and the time spent suspended in mid-air on your own.
“A lot of us in the building game suffered big-time because of the bust – and not just financially, as it’s tough when you’ve four kids and you can’t buy them things they want. A lot of my friends and family in construction emigrated. My last job, before things began to pick up again recently, was next door working on the Anglo HQ. That stopped overnight in 2008! But now I’m back working, paying the bills, and it’s kinda nice that I’m working next door to where it all stopped for me.”
What does he like about spending half the day 80 metres up over Dublin city centre? “Although we’re very busy, there’s no one giving yeh guff up here, no hassles. I like the peace and quiet. Watching the sun rise over Dublin Bay is something else, too.”
Kierans lets me sit in his seat, explains what all the levers and screens do, and then points to the see-through floor. “We’re so high up here you can’t make out everything down there,” he says. “So you need a good man on the ground as an extra pair of eyes and ears.”
His radio goes, it’s the “good man on the ground” wanting to shift some steel. “No bother,” says Kierans, who retakes his seat, confirms that the load is “hooked up” and the crane swings into action before the load, radio-assisted, is deposited near some workmen.
What’s it like when it’s windy? “We’re allowed work in winds of up to 54kmh,” says Kierans, “and after that it’s at the operator’s discretion. I’ve worked before when the wind was in the seventies, but you’d only do that when you’re in a heavy crane with a powerful engine as you wouldn’t want to be swinging a load into a strong crosswind without plenty of power. It’s not for the faint-hearted. But the hardest part of the job is blind lifts – when you can’t see what you’re lifting because it could be on the other side of a building – they take time and your nerves only settle when you can eventually see the load.”
His radio goes again and it’s not long before the crane is swinging something else across the city’s skyline. It’s clear Kierans and his colleagues have a lot to do but, before departing, I wonder what happens when nature calls. “I go before I come up but, as it would take so much time to climb down and back up, I’ve a bottle in the bag that does the trick,” he says.
The descent is far easier and quicker. After five minutes we're half way down. Redmond mentions that, as part of Construction Safety Week, he's running a training exercise with Dublin Fire Brigade to simulate removing a crane operator from their cabin should they suffer a heart attack. Well, given my heebee geebees half way up, that exercise might well have become a reality. Climbing a crane gives you a whole new perspective on the risks and dangers of working in construction.
On the up: Irish Times Crane Survey
The Irish Times Crane Survey was launched on February 3rd when 34 cranes were counted over the city’s skyline from the seventh floor of the newspaper’s headquarters on Tara Street in Dublin.
Since then the count has risen steadily, bar the occasional dip, to stand at 46 in September. However, Seán Downey, director of specialist contracting at the Construction Industry Federation, said that while the number of visible tower cranes was a good indicator of construction activity, the industry believed it “understates the true level of building activity in the city”.
“There are perhaps three mobile cranes operating ‘under the radar’, so to speak, for every large visible tower crane on the Dublin skyline. These mobile cranes are working on other commercial industrial and commercial construction projects,” he said.
Mr Downey points out that Irish crane companies are operating at 75 to 80 per cent capacity. "Having anticipated the upturn in the construction activity, Irish crane companies have already procured new cranes and have adequate plant to meet demand forecast. With billion-euro construction projects for companies such as Bristol-Myers Squibb, Alexion, Facebook and Google coming online, Irish crane companies are reporting more activity and see a pipeline of work in the medium term," he said.