Brian Kavanagh, President, ACEI, speaks with ROBBIE COUSINS about how consulting engineers are leading construction in the move to net-zero and why consultants not already members should engage with the association to learn what it can do for them.
Brian Kavanagh, Chairman and Director of consulting engineers Garland, was recently elected President of the Association of Consulting Engineers of Ireland (ACEI).
A chartered engineer and registered professional consulting engineer, Kavanagh qualified from UCD in 1987. One of a class of 52, he was also one of 48 who emigrated due to the recession of the time.
After moving to the UK, his first job was at Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant.
“This was on a two-year £42m project,” he says. “Considering the British Nuclear Fuel Ltd was spending £1m a day on construction projects at the plant then, it was a small project by comparison, but a very exciting one for someone just out of college.”
He later got to work on, amongst other projects, high-rise building developments in the City of London. He returned to Ireland and joined Garland in 1997, where he has been ever since.
“At Garland, my early area of expertise was healthcare. I was the resident engineer on Tallaght Hospital and have worked on James’s Hospital, Crumlin Hospital, and Coombe Hospital.”
He adds that he also worked for the Irish Prison Services, joking that he is in the unique position of having been in every prison in Ireland, but purely on a professional basis.
Association of Consulting Engineers of Ireland
Brian Kavanagh’s involvement with the ACEI began in the early 2000s. He later was elected a member of its executive board and has chaired various committees within the association over the years.
In more recent years, Brian Kavanagh was an advocate for the introduction of Building Control (Amendment) Regulations (BC(A)R) and was to the fore when negotiations on BC(A)R implementation were taking place.
“I have a keen interest in structures and regulation generally,” he comments. “I am also the convenor of the ACEI Building Control Regulations Committee. The association saw BC(A)R as a very positive move for the sector. Anything that improves building standards is a force for good, and BC(A)R has made a huge difference in how the industry works. It has also set up a position whereby the sector can more easily adapt when new measures are introduced.”
Kavanagh’s expertise on BC(A)R led to him taking on the role of Assigned Certifier.
“At this stage, approximately 50% of my time is spent as Assigned Certifier on projects rather than as a civil and structural engineer. I also engage more with the client as an assigned certifier than I would as an engineer. This is worrying, as it suggests clients’ perception of the importance of engineers to any project differs from the reality.”
Bridging The Gap
Before taking up the role of ACEI president, Brian Kavanagh spent a year as vice-president, a senior officer role on the executive board. During this time, a key focus of the board was on the ACEI’s Bridging the Gap initiative. The final commissioned report examined the value and contribution that consulting engineers provide to construction and the wider built environment on behalf of communities and how consulting engineers can better present and promote that contribution.
“There is a consensus among members that in recent years the role of the consulting engineer on projects has been somewhat devalued by certain clients and indeed society. However, the consulting engineer’s role on projects has not changed. We play a pivotal role in ensuring a successful outcome on the projects and continue to be the client’s trusted advisor.
“Clean water has saved more lives than all medical advances together, and consulting engineers worldwide are responsible for the delivery of clean water. There’s nothing that we do in our daily lives that an engineer has not touched, whether it be the houses and offices we live and work in, our cars and the roads we drive on, or the delivery of electricity and heating energy required for everyday life. All have been made possible by the ingenuity and skill of engineers.”
Pledge to Net Zero
Brian Kavanagh is proud that ACEI was the first Irish professional body in the country’s built environment sector to sign up to the Pledge to Net Zero.
“We are encouraging all our members to sign up to the Pledge, and I am delighted that Garland was in the first tranche of consulting engineers to do so.
“The Pledge means that we are committing to become carbon neutral by 2030. While it is an aspiration, it is definitely possible. Consulting engineers, by their very nature, have been at the forefront of sustainability for decades. It’s just the name that has changed.”
He cites a Garland project example where a small specification change resulted in a substantial carbon footprint reduction.
“We switched from a reinforced concrete slab to a thinner pre-stressed concrete slab on one project. By doing this, the project had an impressive carbon emissions reduction, equivalent to a family car being driven around the world constantly for 57 years.”
Another Garland project, 35 Shelbourne Road, which achieved LEED v4 Gold Standard, was recently awarded Green Project of the Year at the Irish Construction Industry Awards.
The ACEI president says that overcoming barriers is nothing new for the engineering sector, but despite the construction industry having a healthy pipeline of work in the coming decade, there are firms currently facing an existential crisis.
“The overall construction sector has come through a torrid time over the past 15 years. We have gone from an industry with €38bn of projects per annum to €8bn, with 270,000 people having left the industry at one stage. Young people were also choosing other sectors in which to build careers. From an engineering perspective, there were about 350 civil engineering graduates per annum 15 years ago. That figure dropped to 35 graduates at the lowest point of the recession.
“We need to get the numbers back up within our area of the sector. But the way public contracts are structured means that engineers accept a huge risk every time they take on public works. This makes it difficult for many firms to recruit and train newly qualified graduates. We need to be able to pay engineers adequately for their expertise, but the industry has been forced into an untenable position where tender prices are being driven down while costs rise.”
Brian Kavanagh explains that before 2007, the average fee of a consulting engineer on a typical school project was in the order of 2.2 to 2.3% of the overall costs. During the recession, this dropped to 0.7%, and that is now around 1.8 to 2%.
“If an engineer tendered for a public project on a fixed cost basis two or three years ago and the project is coming on-stream now, they cannot afford to take on the work on the basis of the tender price because of hyperinflation. It has got to the point where engineers may have to walk away from projects.”
“ACEI has held a series of stakeholder engagement meetings to address the challenges consulting engineers and clients face. We met with 15 stakeholder organisations in 2021, including government departments and semi-state bodies. We are now saying to them that we have reached a stage where if given the choice of two projects, one a public project with onerous conditions and that is slow to get to site, and the other, a commercial contract that can move quickly to site, engineers are choosing the latter. This decision is clearly due to the level of risk attached to the public project. It should also be noted that any delay on a project at the moment has enormous consequences for the entire supply chain.”
Professional indemnity insurance
Brian Kavanagh notes there are signs that professional indemnity insurance (PII) premiums are currently stabilising. “But I’m not sure whether we have enough evidence of that yet,” he comments, “we will see as the year progresses. Insurance premiums are based on the level of claims in a market, so when reviewing a market, insurance companies consider whether they have earned more premiums than they have paid. Unfortunately, engineering can be seen as an easy touch for some clients. We have the situation where if you are 1% to 2% liable on a project, then you can get landed with 100% of the cost of the claim. That has certainly happened in some circumstances, particularly when architects or contractors have gone out of business in the recession.”
Through its stakeholder engagement process, ACEI has met several times with the Office of Government Procurement (OGP) to discuss the issue of PII, with some success. Brian Kavanagh says that there is more work to be done, but progress has been made.
“The new OGP guidance on PII published in February is a step in the right direction. However, it remains to be seen if this works.
“When public bodies tender work, they don’t always follow the OGP guidance. ACEI has been writing to client bodies to let them know it is there, but the Government also needs to engage to ensure their bodies follow the guidance.”
He notes horrendous situations for some consulting engineers.
“We’ve had reports of over 150% increases in premiums. I know one example of a €10,000 to €100,000 for a drop in cover from €6.5m to €1.3m. That’s clearly unsustainable. “We are also seeing a level of attrition in contractors. Roadbridge is the biggest closure so far, but other contractors and engineers are coming under increasing pressure because of the unprecedented global issues and hyperinflation of the past few years.”
While the pandemic reshaped the way the construction industry works, before that, Brexit had created a number of high barriers to be overcome.
“It is six years since the UK voted to leave the EU, and Brexit is still a major thorn in the side of the Irish construction industry,” Brian Kavanagh comments. “We had challenges within the supply chain, initially because of Brexit, then Covid-19. There were also several other factors that played into this. The entire global supply chain has been disrupted. Many products traditionally used in Irish construction are sourced in the UK. Also, in general, British manufacturers have been slow to get their products EU certified. For some, the Irish market is a small part of their order book, and they may not sell into mainland Europe.”
Getting goods from Europe and the UK onto the island of Ireland remains a challenge as well.
“With the fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the spiralling cost of oil will have a further profound impact on the cost of materials and transport.”
Housing for All
Brian Kavanagh points out that ‘Housing for All’ envisages a housing output of 33,000 units per annum over the next 10 years.
“The Ukrainian refugee crisis will probably add a requirement for another 33,000 housing units onto that in the next year or so. The only way to go from the current 20,000 housing units to 33,000 or, dare I say, 66,000 units is by employing a multi-pronged approach.
“One area that needs urgent action is the planning process. This, thankfully, looks like it will be addressed in the coming year, but we also need to look very hard at integrating modern methods of construction (MMC) into our operations and have assurances about the consistency and quality of products.
“Offsite is being hailed as the only route to mass development of homes, but offsite construction has challenges with ensuring and maintaining quality control. Let’s not forget the Western Building System’s schools debacle. Offsite needs standards that can be systematically monitored and maintained.
“The entire building sector is moving to a digital platform along with the integration of BIM and collaboration websites. This will drive productivity and quality, and consulting engineers are at the forefront, leading changes in these areas.
“The future initiatives of the recently launched ‘Build Digital Project’ will also be a significant benefit to the industry.
“Returning to a point I made earlier, many of the changes happening in the construction sector are being driven, and will continue to be driven, by the public sector and through stakeholder engagement. But for Housing for All and the National Development Plan to work, public sector clients need to make the space attractive and viable for consulting engineers. Otherwise, these plans will not be delivered.”
Brian Kavanagh says that during his term as ACEI president, he intends to focus on implementing the recommendations in the Bridging the Gap report; building further member support for Pledge to Net Zero; engaging with industry stakeholders to address challenges; and expanding ACEI membership.
“Bridging the Gap has provided priority actions that we as an association plan to implement. Some of these will result in structural changes for the association, looking at our executive board and its constituent members. We will also be reviewing membership opportunities and requirements for consulting engineers, as well as considering revisions to our code of conduct.
“I will also be pushing engagement around Pledge to Net Zero and getting more consulting engineers to register for the Pledge and commit to setting out their programmes.
“We will continue with stakeholder engagement meetings to find improvements that can be made in the sector. While we want to talk to stakeholders, we also want to listen to them and do what we can to address their concerns.
“Finally, I want to meet with as many individual members as possible to discuss how they can become more involved in ACEI, as well as learn more about what we can do to help them.
“We are an association with 102 member firms, representing about 4,500 employees. I want to see that number grow by 20%. Over the next year, I will be looking to recruit consulting engineers who are not already members and demonstrating that by joining ACEI, they will be better placed to overcome current difficulties and find new growth opportunities. By working together, consulting engineers will become stronger and be better positioned to help the construction and wider built environment sectors address the challenges that lie ahead,” Brian Kavanagh concludes.