Construct Innovate – Providing solutions to transform the way we build
COLM MCHUGH, Centre Manager, Construct Innovate, speaks with Robbie Cousins about how the Centre is bringing together the Irish construction sector and academia to identify and address the real barriers stopping the sector, particularly SMEs, from modernising and becoming more efficient.
Construct Innovate, Ireland’s national research centre for construction technology and innovation, is part of Enterprise Ireland’s industry-led Technology Centre programme. Launched in December 2022 with an initial funding of €5m over five years, it is hosted at the University of Galway.
The Centre leverages the capabilities, facilities and expertise available across its consortium partners, the University of Galway, Trinity College Dublin (TCD), University College Dublin (UCD), University College Cork (UCC), TU Dublin and the Irish Green Building Council (IGBC), as well as providing access to a broader network of European universities and research clusters. The Centre’s brief focuses on devising solutions for key industry challenges, particularly in residential construction in its first three years of operation. It will be at the forefront of initiatives to meet the demands of the country’s major building and investment programmes, Project Ireland 2040, the National Development Plan 2021-2030, Housing for All, and the Climate Action Plan 2023 (CAP23).
Colm McHugh was appointed Construct Innovate centre manager earlier this year. A chartered mechanical engineer with a Masters in Renewable Energy and additional studies in energy-efficient construction, he has over 17 years of national and international experience as an engineering consultant, main contractor, and equipment supplier. McHugh is well-placed to bridge the gap between industry and academia as he has a deep understanding of the needs of stakeholders at all levels. His leadership and operational experience will be critical in ensuring Construct Innovate supports the transition towards a modernised and sustainable construction and built environment sector capable of delivering Project Ireland 2040 and the NDP. Discussing the objectives of the Centre, he explains that Construct Innovate will be the interface between academia and industry in the search for solutions to overcome the challenges around productivity, modernisation and sustainability that the industry has. “Construct Innovate is a conduit between industry, academia, state bodies and policymakers, Colm McHugh says. “We are bringing together stakeholders to address the challenges they face and facilitate the transition of the sector to become a modern, productive and sustainable industry that can deliver the actions outlined in the NDP and Project Ireland 2040, one of which includes accommodating another one million people living on our island by 2040. Most critically, we will help the construction sector meet its targets outlined in CAP23. “This is ultimately what we all want to achieve, but it will not happen if we maintain the status quo.”
Research and innovation
He adds that his role as centre manager is to execute the strategy set out for the Centre.
“The co-directors of Construct Innovate – Professor Jamie Goggins and Dr Magdalena Hajdukiewicz – who led the tender bid for the Centre, brought me on board to develop the value proposition of the Centre and to facilitate industry and academia in engaging in a research journey together. To date, construction has been seen as a very traditional sector of the economy. Other sectors – manufacturing, pharma, food and health, and medical, etc – have all evolved, modernised and increased productivity as a result of having a solid research foundation.
“If construction is to become the modern, efficient and sustainable sector its stakeholders want it to be, research will play a fundamental part. To support this, Construct Innovate needs to engage with companies across the supply chain to show them what can be gained from getting involved in research as a collective.”
The research and innovation focus of Construct Innovate is towards tackling five main challenges or pillars, These are:
- Productivity, affordability & cost
- Quality & safety
- Skills & training, and
Digital adoption, sustainability and modern methods of construction (MMC) have been identified as key focus areas to achieve progress and improvement across all pillars.
Engaging with industry
Colm McHugh explains that success for the Centre will only be realised if it has ongoing active engagement with members and industry stakeholders in research on innovation projects.
“One of the USPs of the Centre is that it is an industry-led centre working to solve the real problems of the industry. What we address is not determined by government policy. We’re also not prescriptive in the topics we focus on. At our core, we’re relying on industry members to tell us exactly what they want. We want industry members to bring their problems to us so that we can determine how best to tackle those challenges through research.
“One of the first ways we brought the industry and academia together was an Academic Industry Meeting Day (AIMDay).
“On 30 May last, we had our first AIMDay in Galway when over 90 attendees from industry and academia came together to discuss and workshop challenging questions and tease out potential research projects that can then be funded through the Centre.
“An example of one issue that arose on the day is ‘Overheating in Irish Dwellings’.
This problem was brought to the Centre by industry members on the day. There was a discussion between a number of construction company representatives, developers, insulation suppliers and academics, all with appropriate expertise in that area. The academics are now focused on researching the challenge and will report back to the group with their initial findings before taking their research further.”
He adds, “Other examples of challenging topics that are now getting the focus of the Centre are ‘MMC’, ‘Mass Timber Construction’, ‘Innovative Material and Technology Adoption’ and ‘Whole Life-Cycle Carbon Accounting’, to name a few. To be honest, the potential areas for research by the Centre are vast. We will rely on industry to bring us the most pertinent challenges.”
Construct Innovate membership
Construct Innovate has over 40 industry members and aims to increase this to 60 members in the next few months.
“Membership is for all stakeholders interested in developing expertise in sustainable construction and built environment technology,” Colm McHugh comments. “Our current research-performing organisation (RPO) members are the University of Galway, TCD, UCD, UCC, TU Dublin and the IGBC. These organisations bring research expertise and academic rigour to the work, ensuring objectivity, transparency, and peer review.
“Industry members are either patron or associate members.
“Patron members sit at our Thought Leader Circle Table and can influence where Construct Innovate focus our research efforts.
“All members actively engage with each other and contribute their input on research topics. This can be done by joining working groups, scoping project proposals, forming funded research consortia and participating in research. Members sign up to the bylaws of the Centre, which involves making an active commitment to be engaged in the Centre’s work.”
Colm McHugh continues, “Many of the members will be getting involved in research for the first time, and by showing organisations the value of research, especially where they may have no history of research in the past, we hope to be able to tackle the individual and collective problems of the industry and help individual businesses to prosper along the way.
“The membership model is very reasonably priced. We don’t see it as a revenue-generating stream. It’s more about getting an active commitment from companies to be involved in the Centre. In addition, companies that are members of IGBC or join up to IGBC can become members of Construct Innovate for free – so organisations can get even more bang for their buck.”
Another benefit of membership is the opportunity to engage with other people/organisations with similar interests and concerns.
“Valuable research output applied to industry needs is the most significant benefit to our members. But Construct Innovate is also a platform for communication. Networking between industry members, state and semi-bodies, and academia is and will be an important part of why we are here.”
A rising tide lifts all boats
He continues, “Much of the research that we will undertake will be open source, and we want as many eyes as possible on the valuable research outputs. A good analogy is ‘A rising tide lifts all boats’. In order to tackle the challenges, we want everyone to know about it.”
There are also opportunities for companies to be supported in conducting their own research, which they may not have done before.
“There are funding avenues that members can explore, and they can take their research journey alone, as a consortium, or as part of a bigger research project.”
Solo research projects may suit companies that have a specific problem within the company they want to address. They can fund this themselves or access some of the funding available through the Centre.
Construct Innovate members also have access to the Centre’s international network of research-performing organisations at EU partner institutions and international research bodies. Construct Innovate will be targeting Horizon Europe funding for pathway accelerator projects. Horizon Europe is the EU’s key funding programme for research and innovation, with a budget of €95.5bn.
Regular research outputs
Commenting further on the drivers of success for the Centre, Colm McHugh explains that in addition to engaging with members, the Centre will have a consistent stream of valuable research outputs being delivered on an ongoing basis.
“We want members, academic and industrial, to continually engage with what the Centre is doing. This is only going to happen if they get valuable outputs on a regular basis. So, we will have a consistent stream of valuable research outputs coming from the Centre.
“The only way to do this is to take on research projects of different sizes. If the industry has to wait a year or more for projects to land with a big splash, they’d have disengaged by the time that happens. So, we also have short-term projects with small, meaningful gains.”
Small- and medium-sized enterprises
Construct Innovate wants to engage with companies of all sizes across the construction industry.
Colm McHugh continues, “There are 57,000 companies involved in the Irish construction industry; 94% of these are SMEs employing less than six people. One of the challenges for the Centre is to address the fragmented nature of the construction sector. Having many small companies involved in one sector and trying to engage with them is an enormous challenge. By comparison, the pharmaceutical industry has fewer but bigger companies.
“The larger construction companies will need less support. Some are already conducting their own research and have the capability to fund this. We absolutely still want to talk to these companies, but the companies that need the most help are the SMEs, which are also working at full capacity. Large construction companies often have strong supply chains formed by SMEs and want to understand and address the challenges this sector is facing.
“We have to make it worth it for SMEs to engage with us. They don’t have the extra resources of larger firms. They don’t have the human capital to get involved in research. And in many cases, they don’t have a huge understanding of what value research can bring to their organisations.
“For example, digitalisation and innovation are really big words or topics, but they don’t have to be that complicated in reality. Part of the challenge is breaking down these big terms for small companies so they can understand that innovation might just require a slight tweak in how they do business, or digitalisation could be as simple as adding one piece of software that digitises, for example, signatures on documents. It doesn’t have to mean a complete reinvention of a workflow.
“Construct Innovate has to engage with and be relevant for small- and medium-sized companies as well as the big players to demonstrate the value all can get from research.”
Colm McHugh is very excited about the work that lies ahead, particularly working collaboratively across the construction landscape to develop innovative solutions for the very real problems the sector faces.
“I understand how the construction industry works. I’m bringing my experience and understanding of real-world construction and engineering challenges to facilitate the best-placed people to come up with workable solutions to address these challenges.
“There’s a huge opportunity for Construct Innovate to have a meaningful impact, and that is why I want to be here. If we get this right, it will transform Irish construction and bring it to a completely new level,” he concludes.
CONSTRUCT INNOVATE FIRST MEMBER-LED WORKING GROUPS
1. Sustainable Concrete and Cements
2. Modern Methods of Construction (MMC)
3. Mass Timber Construction
4. Materials & Technology Testing
5. Innovative Materials & Technology Adoption
6. Whole Lifecycle Carbon (WLC) Accounting
7. Lean Construction & Digital Tools
8. Socioeconomic Analysis of Sustainable Construction
9. Overheating in Irish Dwellings