How to build innovation into the construction industry blueprint
The PPI conference will explore solutions to housing and commercial property shortages
‘You can have higher-density housing if you use innovative layouts. More and better design pays off in the long run.’ Photograph: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg via Getty Images
On June 21st next, hundreds of professionals from the Irish and international property and construction sectors will gather in the Marker Hotel, Dublin for the Property Industry Ireland (PII) annual conference.
PII is the business association within Ibec which represents business with an interest in the property and construction sector, including banks, financial institutions, asset and property managers, as well as contractors, developers and builders, and property professional service providers including architects, surveyors, engineers and planners.
The conference will feature a number of high-level international and Irish speakers who will address the role innovation can play in dealing with shortages in housing and commercial property, and other issues facing the sector.
“Whenever anyone thinks about innovation in property, they tend to think of off-site construction, but that’s just part of it,” says PII chairman David O’Connor. “But we need innovation in a whole range of areas including the way we look at density, contracts, procurement and design. We will have people at the conference who can talk about all of those things.”
O’Connor has strong views on these issues, particularly the housing shortage. “From a personal point of view, I have two sons in their 20s and 30s who can’t afford to rent let alone to buy,” he says. “That motivates me. My experience and expertise as an architect and in local authorities also motivates me.”
Indeed, O’Connor brings vast experience to his role, having begun his career as in architect in the 1970s before moving into local government in the 1980s. He became county architect for the newly established Fingal County Council in 2003 and served as county manager from 2006 to 2013. Since retiring he has remained active in public service and was involved in the establishment of the Housing Delivery Office. In the private sector, he works as policy adviser with Sherry FitzGerald.
The density issue has to be addressed if the housing crisis is to be solved, he believes. “There are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to density,” he points out. “For example, people think that you have to go to apartments when you get to a certain density, but you can have higher-density housing if you use innovative layouts. More and better design pays off in the long run. We will have a speaker from Cambridge in England who will talk about design innovation in that context. We are also about to visit Cambridge to see what they are doing there.”
Cambridge is dealing with its own growth challenges in a number of ways. A quite extraordinary 73,000 new homes are planned around a city which has less than 40,000 homes within it. The city is accommodating this growth through integrated planning of new transport links and compact higher-density housing which involves innovative two- and three-storey house types because most of Cambridge’s population don’t want to live in apartment buildings.
“We have to recognise the growth drivers,” O’Conner adds. “And the main ones are increasing population and smaller household sizes. The population of Fingal was about 160,000 back in 1996. It’s grown by 50 per cent since. But the number of households has more than doubled.”
Contractual innovation will also be addressed. “We need to look at some of the stuff Homes England is doing and how people bid for and develop housing for the State here. Our own Land Development Agency is still in its infancy, but I think some of the practices used in the UK could easily be adopted here. When it comes to State procurement here, it seems they want to control everything from the beginning to the very end. They are not allowing innovation to happen.
It’s a complicated and intertwined business, and identifying solutions is very difficult
“At the moment, innovation is planned out of the system,” he adds. “The design is done before a project goes to tender. It’s then put out to market and the contract is awarded following a negotiated process. That takes forever and it could be done much quicker.”
But that is only part of the solution. “It’s a complicated and intertwined business, and identifying solutions is very difficult,” he says. “At the moment, everything is being driven by individual issues. We need to take a more rounded view to ensure all parts of the machine are working. We visited Copenhagen last autumn and there is a real sense of collaboration between the providers and the state there. Unfortunately, we are all still hurting from what happened here. But we just need to get on with it.”
The cost of building has to be addressed in that context.
“There was a Society of Chartered Surveyors report two years ago on the cost of building, and it found that the State accounted for about 50 per cent of it. We are placing the cost of development which the wider community benefits from on the shoulders of first-time buyers. Charges and levies are spent elsewhere.”
“Many things have to be taken into consideration,” he concludes. “That’s the purpose of an organisation like Property Industry Ireland and our conference in June, which brings all the strands together.”