BARRY MCCALL speaks to some key members of the John Sisk & Son project team that successfully delivered the €233m Center Parcs Longford Forest resort.
The scale of the Center Parcs Longford Forest resort project in Ballymahon is quite breath-taking. Situated on over 400 acres of woodland, the €233m resort has added an entirely new dimension to Ireland’s tourism and leisure market.
At the heart of the resort lies the €100m central buildings area, which comprises nine buildings – woodland activity building (500 sq m); cycle centre (1,000 sq m); Pancake House and the water sports building (2,000 sq m); a 30-unit apartment block (3,000 sq m); arrivals lodge (500 sq m); the Aqua Sana Spa (2,500 sq m); east block (8,000 sq m); west block (6,000 sq m); and the 4,000 sq m Subtropical Swimming Paradise (STSP). The resort also includes 466 self-catering lodges. Overall, Center Parcs can accommodate up to 2,500 guests each night.
Brian Kennedy, Regional Director, John Sisk and Son.
“It was a very interesting project,” says Sisk regional director Brian Kennedy. “You don’t get one of those every year. The scheme first came to our attention when it was at the planning stage in 2015. We engaged with the Center Parcs team very early. They wanted to know about construction in Ireland and the overall environment here. It was their first venture in this country, We met with them, and from the very outset we found them to be a very collaborative client.”
This collaboration was very much a two-way street.
“They were very interested in getting to know the personalities and the culture of the companies they would be working with, and we found there was an alignment and fit with Sisk as a family business. There was a good cultural match.”
The project was divided into three main contracts, ‘infrastructure’, ‘central buildings’, and ‘the lodges’.
“Sisk won the central buildings and lodges contracts,” says Brian Kennedy.
Technology, research, and capability were critical factors in the contract win. Sisk presented a 4D model to Center Parcs at tender stage as part of its submission. In this submission, the company demonstrated precisely how it would go about the project and how it planned to deliver it on time and budget.
“We made sure we understood the client’s requirements,” Brian Kennedy adds. “We visited some of their resorts in the UK. We got to know what worked and what didn’t work so well, and we integrated our supply chain into that. A key aspect was looking at previous Center Parcs projects.”
The central buildings project presented its own unique range of challenges. The buildings are situated around a circular area with a model of an ogham stone at its focal point. They contain everything a family needs to make their holiday complete; from bars and restaurants to games areas, outdoor and indoor sports facilities, a five-star spa, and the STPS, which caters for all ages, with activity areas for very young children and three water slide experiences, including a four-person rafting slide.
Subtropical Swimming Paradise
As well as the water slides, the STSP boasts 29 degrees Celsius water and 31 to 32 degrees Celsius air temperatures, in the middle of the Irish midlands. Guests can also enjoy the rapid stream, which runs outside of the building for an exhilarating body surfing experience.
This amazing environment is controlled from a three-story basement facility, which houses the underfloor heating, wave-making machinery, water recirculation and filtration systems, and everything else that makes this a truly unique experience in this country. When finished for the day in the STSP, guests can use the walk-in drier to get dry in double-quick time before returning to the entirely digitised changing area, where a wrist band gives access to the lockers and can interface with touchscreens to let guests know where exactly they left their clothes and belongings.
This building alone cost almost €40m to build. And little wonder. It is a masterpiece in both function and form.
It is a timber-frame building of almost unimaginable scale and design with curves across all axes.
The glulam structural timber elements were manufactured in Austria by specialist firm Wiehag and were transported to Ireland across Europe on ferries on specially designed vehicles. Some of the elements were up to 50 metres in length and two metres in depth, meaning that the trucks transporting them couldn’t go through Mullingar due to the number of roundabouts in the town. A special route had to be taken, which saw the vehicles cross the Shannon twice, going through Strokestown, Co Roscommon, before going back through Lanesboro, Co Longford, to reach the site.
James Moloney, Regional Manager – Ireland North, John Sisk and Son.
“We researched previous Center Parcs projects and similar projects in Europe to understand how best to construct this building,” says James Moloney, Regional Manager – Ireland North, Sisk.
“We decided to utilise cross-laminated timber (CLT) structural timber instead of steel for the cladding. This was manufactured off-site and installed on top of the glulam. This was chosen because timber is a sustainable material and very appropriate for the forest setting of the project.”
The roof is made of ETFE plastic, which is formed into pillows and kept inflated by small air compressors in the roof space.
“These are very lightweight and translucent, which means that when people are looking up from the pools and other areas of the STSP, they see natural light coming through the roof,” continues James Moloney.
A large number of tropical plants complete the STSP.
“Center Parcs has relationships with growers in Indonesia and Malaysia, and the plants were first exported to the Netherlands, where they were acclimatised for a year, before being transported to Ireland,” James Moloney adds. “Overall, 20,000 plants, costing €1m, were planted in the STSP.”
On-site logistics and organisation played a key role.
“We had 750 people working on the village centre at the peak. The first thing we built was the car park and two offices for the lodges and central buildings projects. We also built a 500-seat temporary canteen. The idea was to allow people to come on site and have their breakfast, lunch and tea there. It also allowed us to have town hall meetings to update the staff on progress and so on,” James Moloney says.
These meetings played a key role.
“When you have a break in construction, such as a bank holiday, that’s when you are most likely to hit a problem or glitch when people are coming back cold. We had town hall meetings on those days to make sure everyone was fully focused on the job.”
The overall complexity cannot be overstated. “It was a design and build project with over 3,000 design deliverables that had to be managed,” James Moloney adds.
“We used a common data environment to manage the flow of information between all design teams. We had monthly meetings with the client to discuss progress. The client was able to go back to the original 4D presentation that we made at tender stage to measure progress, and we were delighted to be able to say we met all the targets.
“A big part of the project was the logistics,” he adds. “We transported all staff from the car park onto the site by shuttle bus. We constructed a central walkway around the site and had mobility plans in place to enable people to get around the site without getting in each other’s way.”
Preparation was critically important.
“We had a plan, we knew where we were, we could identify any issues, and we were prepared to deal with any variances that might arise. Over time you build up trust and credibility with the client, and they knew they could plan for opening on time and get going with their preparations to operate the resort,” James Moloney continues.
The first building, the woodland activity building, was handed over in February 2019, and the final building, the signature Subtropical Swimming Paradise, was handed to the client on schedule in June of 2019.”
Technology remained central, and Sisk utilised a federated 4D model with all members of the design team and contractors feeding into it so that it was kept updated continuously in real-time.
“This is very important for the coordination of large-scale projects,” says Cillian Kelly, Sisk BIM Leader for Ireland and Europe. “The Center Parcs project involved multiple contractors from Ireland, the UK and mainland Europe working on the project. 4D modelling linked the 3D physical construction model with the construction programme. We used it to demonstrate to the client exactly how it was going to be built. Multiple contractors and design teams all fed into it and worked off the central BIM model managed by Sisk.”
The advantages were significant.
“The project would have taken longer and needed more people without it. There would have been additional delays and risk in the process. It’s what we do. BIM wasn’t a contract requirement, but it was an ideal tool for this project. It’s company policy with Sisk to use 3D and 4D modelling on projects, both during tender stage and to manage them during the construction stage. Benefits include cost avoidance, delay prevention, improved productivity and increased certainty.”
Cormac Fitzpatrick, Contracts Manager, John Sisk & Son.
Lean construction principles were critical to the successful delivery of the lodges project. The 466 A2-energy-rated self-catering lodges were built over 68 weeks in accordance with Irish Building Regulations.
“There was an awful lot of repetition involved in the project,” says Cormac Fitzpatrick, Contracts Manager, Sisk, who led the lodges project. “This presented a huge risk. Any mistake or materials wasted would be repeated 466 times. We had to be as lean and efficient as possible. We decided to minimise the waste of materials as much as possible, and we utilised off-site manufacturing for the frames. All panels were pre-fabricated off-site and delivered just-in-time to site.”
Kitting was another essential tool utilised.
“We took various elements of the mechanical and electrical components and kitted them. Only what was required for the tasks went to the site. A tradesperson on site would collect the kit they needed each day and only get what they needed. It was the same for carpentry work. Everything was kitted, and this saved materials and time.”
All of the tasks required to build a lodge were programmed to ensure the same output each day. “We programmed three lodges per day,” says Cormac Fitzpatrick.
“All tasks were fully aligned, and each subcontractor knew precisely what was required of them each day. We introduced buffer times and planned downtime to allow for a little bit of variance.
“This approach applies to any multiunit project, such as a large residential development,” he adds. “It is quicker and more cost-efficient. When we prepared the original design and plan for the project, the overall labour requirement was considerably higher than what we used eventually.”
Brian Kennedy attributes much of the successful delivery of the two projects to partnership and collaboration.
“We worked in close partnership with Center Parcs and our supply chain throughout. If we weren’t working as a team, we were never going to deliver the projects on time. There were no silos and no barriers. Everyone bought in, and we had an excellent team approach. Each member of the supervisory team had a different aspect of the project to look after and reported back at the end of each day. They used a progress mobile app to report back to the master programme, and this enabled the generation of real-time progress updates each day.”
Get it Right First Time
“Digital project delivery was also critically important,” adds James Moloney. “We didn’t have the time or the money to do this three times. We had to get it right the first time. We had 18 months to do it from a standing start. It’s like a plane going down the runway; you’re going nowhere fast if you can’t get everything working together and ramp up the speed to take off. For us, that meant having everyone working together happily and having that esprit de corps, which would deliver the project successfully.”
Brian Kennedy concludes by saying, “When I reflect on the key success factors of the project, they come down to collaboration, a one-team approach, shared problems and shared solutions, and a great culture of problem-solving.”