Setting the foundations for a zero carbon future
Walls Construction CEO and IGBC #BuildingLife Ambassador EUGENE O’SHEA discusses the contractor’s expanding portfolio of work and the steps it is taking to reduce the carbon footprint of its projects, particularly in data-centre construction.
About Eugene O’Shea
Walls Construction CEO Eugene O’Shea led the team that completed an investor-backed management buy-out of the company in 2015. He has since overseen the company’s expansion into new sectors and the introduction of modern and sustainable construction practices and processes, and, under his leadership, the company is on target to achieve a turnover of over €550m this year.
The contractor’s turnover of €473m in 2022 placed it sixth in the Irish Construction News Top Contractors Listing 2023. The business employs over 450 staff and operates across a diverse range of sectors, including large residential schemes, commercial offices, data centres, education, industrial, leisure, life sciences and pharma.
Eugene O’Shea opens by saying that Walls achieved its targets in 2022, having emerged from the Covid pandemic with a solid portfolio of cross-sector work on its books, a strengthened senior management team, and a new vision for the company’s future.
“Looking back, Walls has achieved the targets it set for itself for 2022,” says O’Shea. “Firstly, the business successfully re-emerged from the pandemic with a strong demand for our services, while Covid elevated the importance of crucial emerging issues such as the future of work, ESG planning and digital transformation. We also navigated the risks associated with increased energy prices, other inflationary pressures, and disruption to our international supply chain.
“During 2022, we strengthened our senior management team with several new appointments and an expanded organisation structure resulting in a broadened span of control providing checks and balances as befitting a business with an annual turnover over €500m.”
Walls Construction projects
In the past 12 months, Walls set targets to increase its activity in sectors such as data centres, life sciences and education whilst maintaining its standing in the commercial office sector.
Eugene O’Shea notes that it has achieved all of these targets, with a major data centre complex under construction for a private client in Dublin, as well as the new Centre for Future Learning building on the UCD campus, which will add to the impressive portfolio of work Walls has completed at Belfield.
In the past year, Walls has also completed several significant commercial office developments, including the award-winning Cadenza building on Earlsfort Terrace, Dublin, for Irish Life, whilst the 7,000-sq metre Glencar House project in Ballsbridge for Kileen Group is nearing completion.
College Square is a mixed development for the Marlet Property Group currently under construction, and it will provide more than 50,000 sq metres of grade-A office space in an unrivalled city centre location.
Eugene O’Shea is keen to emphasise that fit-out is an integral part of Walls’ business.
“Having completed the ESB complex on Fitzwilliam Street, an extension to the Central Bank of Ireland building on North Wall Quay, and the An Post offices in the Exo Building in Dublin 1, our fit-out division is currently fitting out the Google buildings at its Boland’s Mills urban centre.”
Walls is one of the largest residential contractors in the country, based on the number of homes it has either delivered in recent years or currently has under construction.
“In the past year alone, we completed major residential projects that have added over 2,000 high-quality apartments to the Dublin rental market, while we have 3,000 further residences currently under construction,” O’Shea says.
Its recently completed residential developments include Santa Sabina in Sutton and Clay Farm in Leopardstown for Park Developments; Hamilton Gardens for the Royalton Group, consisting of 484 residential units on Carnlough Road in Cabra, Dublin 7; and Two Oaks, providing almost 500 homes at Scholarstown Road, Dublin 16 for Ardstone Homes Limited.
Current residential construction projects include the significant Grand Canal Harbour development in Dublin 8 and Claremont in Howth Village, both for the Marlet Property Group.
“We are set to maintain this level of residential construction for the foreseeable future, with construction underway at Shanganagh in Shankill, Co Dublin and other locations. Backed by the Land Development Agency (LDA) in partnership with Dun Laoghaire Rathdown County Council, the Shanganagh development will provide 597 social and affordable homes.”
Walls embarked on a focused ESG strategy at the end of 2021, which includes a sustainability policy and an environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) action plan for 2022 to 2025, which aligns with UN Sustainability Development Goals.
“Our ESG action plan focuses on some key areas in which we know we can make a positive impact with respect to our responsibilities under ESG,” he comments. “These include looking at how we manage waste, water, carbon, the natural environment, social engagement and contribution, and corporate governance.”
He adds, “Actions are taking place across all our construction projects and at a corporate level to make good on sustainability commitments and to educate all Walls personnel and our supply chain partners. Our 2022 ESG report summarises how we did this in 2022 and what we achieved so far, setting the foundation for more work in the coming years. IGBC
Eugene O’Shea is an ambassador for the Irish Green Building Council’s #BuildingLife campaign. To date, the campaign has produced a science-based and industry-backed national decarbonisation roadmap for the built environment, and its ambassadors, who are key figures from across the construction sector, are pushing for the industry to move to a more sustainable footing.
He comments, “We are keen to work with industry leaders and expert groups or associations to get on board with sustainable construction techniques and practices, and we have started working with various leading specialists to enhance our knowledge and get involved in sustainable construction solutions and initiatives.
“The construction industry as a whole should be endeavouring to examine elements of the circular economy and design best practice in terms of the life cycle perspective of a project, with project design specifications that take account of sustainable construction techniques and material selection that aligns with the circular economy concept,” states O’Shea.
The new EU Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD) legislation, scheduled for national implementation in May 2024, will require companies, as well as their suppliers, to provide audited reports on their environmental and social impacts and sustainability practices for construction to be prepared for the future and future requirements.
“Getting on a more sustainable footing includes carbon management, green procurement, material optimisation, off-site construction techniques, as well as considering material flexibility and deconstruction in the future. It means working with all parties to address all aspects of sustainability in the life cycle of a building. Walls is fully committed to doing all that we can at an industry level and within our own operations to achieve this.”
Community engagement and EM Ireland membership
Eugene O’Shea expands further on Walls ESG commitments by adding, “Our ESG strategy and objectives include considerate neighbour policies and plans, social contribution and value and various governance actions, including communications, employee wellness, inclusion, and fairness, in tandem with a range of health and safety policies and initiatives.”
Walls has also invested significantly in various sponsorships and other support initiatives. It has worked with the charity DePaul since July 2022, helping to upgrade and refurbish its various facilities and providing financial support, advice, management and access to contractors.
In December 2022, Walls Construction began a partnership with TU Dublin for Design+Construct, Ireland’s first Centre of Excellence for Architecture, Engineering and Construction (AEC) education and research.
Earlier this year, Walls announced its membership of the European Movement Ireland (EM Ireland). This is an independent, not-for-profit, membership-based organisation working to develop the connection between Ireland and Europe.
Being a corporate member of EM Ireland enables Walls to gain access to programmes, expert insights, networking, and team development. The membership also grants access to EM Ireland’s researchers and staff for organisational training and events, as well as guidance and facilitation on interactions with local authorities, large multi-national companies and government bodies across the EU.
Modern methods of construction
Eugene O’Shea stresses that it is vital that the sector embraces the rapidly evolving technological advantages associated with modern methods of construction (MMC), which are essential for enhancing not just efficiency and productivity but also sustainability and all-round quality.
“’Journey to Our Digital Transformation is an in-house document developed to review how the company has progressed with these technologies and what future opportunities are available, including the training and development of staff members. Developments in areas such as BIM-aided project planning, while also reducing health and safety risks, are improving overall quality and delivery timelines. We can now quickly and easily gather data on a project in a way that would simply not have been possible previously, resulting in real-time performance feedback.”
Walls’ sustainability innovations on its data centre projects have reduced its environmental impact through the reuse of materials, the introduction of waste management initiatives, carbon reduction strategies and general environmental good practice.
“As the building contractor on a major data centre project currently under construction, we have adopted various energy-saving initiatives during the project as part of our overall ESG strategy. These include the use of hybrid generators that require much less fuel and replacing traditional diesel fuel with HVO – a bio-low-carbon equivalent fuel. We also installed high specification energy efficient office accommodation and welfare facilities with water and energy saving mechanisms.”
He adds, “The project adheres to the waste management objectives of the company – with a particular focus on reusing materials to eliminate waste. It has successfully reused a significant amount of existing resource material within the build process that otherwise would have been removed off site as waste material. A key example was our ability to reuse subsoil in a soil stabilisation process, to reuse material in the construction of berms and to reuse concrete and stone to create access roadways. This waste management approach has been replicated on other projects we have under construction.”
Skills and diversity
Eugene O’Shea says that Walls has been very active with various employee recruitment initiatives to attract the right people to secure the company’s future.
“From graduate recruitment programmes to attendance at overseas recruitment fairs and other events, Walls has had a strong attendance on the ground at key recruitment events. We have significantly increased our social media presence in the past 18 months, with a deliberate focus on quality over quantity, leading to a corresponding increase in the number of direct job applications received.
“However, skills shortages continue to exist, both in Walls and throughout the sector, and we have vacancies across all disciplines, including engineering, quantity surveying, building services and site management,” O’Shea adds.
Speaking about diversity, he explains that Walls works with the Irish Centre for Diversity for guidance and support to enhance its equality, diversity, and inclusion (ED&I) policies and processes in the company.
“Following the achievement of our ‘Bronze’ award in 2022, this year, to broaden our knowledge, we’ve held leadership training for our senior teams focusing on ED&I. This includes ‘Lunch n Learn’ sessions covering topics such as Inclusive Language, Unconscious Bias, and Creating a Culture of Dignity and Respect at Work. Feedback was excellent, and further sessions are planned for the final quarter of 2023. As our goal is to progress to a ‘Silver’ award, we have also completed a staff survey asking for their feedback on how they think we are doing. The Irish Centre for Diversity will use this feedback to help us continue our ED&I journey.”
Increased building materials costs have significantly impacted the sector over the past two years, and Walls, in the same way as other contractors, has had to be prudent in how it manages its projects.
“We have managed the inflationary challenges of the past couple of years well and have remained competitive. Our subcontractor partners and supply chain have been real contributors to this by being proactive in managing and minimising inflation costs throughout.
“Also, employers have taken a pragmatic view of inflation and recognise the requirement to make provision in contracts. However, on the positive side, there has been a definite reduction in the rate of inflation this year to more manageable and normal levels.”
Eugene O’Shea continues by saying that while government funding through programmes such as Housing for All has facilitated improved housing delivery, whether through the LDA, Respond, or other bodies, a more practical approach to planning is needed if Housing for All goals are to be achieved.
“There are still significant barriers in the way of the Housing for All roll-out, including planning, the increased cost of funding and, in cases, at the site level, the availability of power supply, not to mention delays between deciding to construct and commencement on site being too long.
“Outside of this, skills and resource shortages remain our number one concern.”
Walls Construction outlook
Walls Construction’’ projected turnover of over €550m for 2023 represents an increase of more than 15% on its 2022 turnover, and €600m is in the contractor’s sights for 2024.
“Our pipeline until 2025 is strong, with both contracted work and potential projects for existing clients,” he notes. “We continue to benefit from the fact that the large-scale nature of many PRS projects means they entail multiple years of turnover, which gives the business a high degree of medium-term commercial visibility, which has been traditionally absent in the construction sector,” Eugene O’Shea concludes.