– Dornan Group set to expand its European operations

Micheál O’Connor
Micheál O’Connor, Managing Director, Dornan Group.

Micheál O’Connor, Managing Director, Dornan Group, speaks with ROBBIE COUSINS about how the M&E contractor has been expanding its service offering to meet clients’ changing needs. He also reveals the one work concern that keeps him awake at night.

Whether building state-of-theart data centres or life-sciences facilities in Ireland or mainland Europe or fabricating and installing complex M&E assets in 30-storey office blocks in the centre of London, Dornan is constantly evolving to meet and exceed its clients’ needs.

With over 1,000 people directly employed and 4,000-plus people across its sites on any one day, Dornan’s primary markets include data centre, life sciences, pharma and commercial/institutional building sectors, with a client base comprising many of the world’s leading blue-chip companies.

Dornan offers the full range of mechanical, electrical, instrumentation and commissioning services, enabling it to take any project from early engagement and drawings to final handover and commissioning. Its investment in technology and modern off-site fabrication facilities has enabled it to achieve unprecedented quality, efficiency and safety levels on its projects. Dornan’s investment in in-house technologies enables all its project stakeholders to remotely collaborate with access to three-dimensional designs and documentation shared in real-time as projects progress.

Its proprietary cloud-based project management software facilitates remote working and project progression. It measures progress on a site and incorporates tools for QC and testing, providing accuracy for ordering, preventing human error and bringing greater cost certainty and control of components into the projects.

Augmented reality technologies are also used to show what will be fabricated, and then on project completion, photographic records are used to compare installations to their digital twins.

Dornan’s investment in modern off-site manufacturing facilities enables modules to be fabricated in controlled environments before being shipped to sites, reducing construction workforce requirements and improving overall quality and safety.

Dornan’s UK off-site fabrication and assembly facility in Coventry has proven to be particularly effective in meeting clients’ needs in London’s high-rise office market. The Coventry plant has the capacity to carry out fabrication and preconstruction assembly of modules using the design for manufacture and assembly (DFMA) concept. From there, assets can be transferred to the tightest of sites in London’s city centre for insertion into position.

Delivering quality is also a core driver of the company’s teams. Handover documents, records and drawings are digitised, with all tests, inspections and checks recorded digitally.

Exceeding clients’ evolving needs

Heading up Dornan’s operations, managing Director Micheál O’Connor says the fundamental ethos of Dornan is to achieve excellence in quality, innovation and delivery on every project.

“We at Dornan are all about achieving client satisfaction by safely delivering quality projects,” Micheál O’Connor explains. “We have taken huge strides in recent years, particularly since the start of Covid, in maximising the potential of digital technologies to help us help our clients realise their project ambitions.”

Micheál O’Connor took up the managing director role in the middle of the Covid pandemic in 2021, and he has since been overseeing change in how the Cork-headquartered contractor has been delivering its services. He highlights the need for any organisation, no matter how big it is, to be agile and able to move to meet the changing needs of the dynamic market it operates in.

Dornan’s performance

O’Connor explains that while the market was slow to recover following the Covid pandemic, it is now on a steady growth curve, creating opportunities for those who can take them on.

“After a drop in activity in 2021, Dornan got back into growth territory in 2022, and we’re expecting that growth to continue over the next 12 months and beyond, he comments. “This reflects some of the changes that have taken place in Dornan and the broader industry since Covid. For instance, there have been changes in the level of responsibility our clients are looking for us to take on, and Dornan has responded well to this.

“Our business breaks down geographically as Ireland, 25%; mainland Europe, 50%, and the UK, 25%.”

Micheál O’Connor
Office space for London client.
  • “We see ourselves expanding further into Europe in the next few years. We took on our first contract in Switzerland – a life sciences project – in 2022``

Dornan in Europe

He says that Europe presents a huge growth opportunity for the firm as it moves with its existing client base.

“We see ourselves expanding further into Europe in the next few years. We took on our first contract in Switzerland – a life sciences project – in 2022.

“By sector, data centres represent about 50% to 60% of our business, with life sciences about 35% of our business. The balance of work is in shell and core office space and science-based buildings in London and the surrounding region.”

Like several other Irish M&E contractors that have been successful in developing overseas markets, Dornan first moved with clients that had contracted the company in Ireland.

“We first moved into northern Europe with a number of our data centre clients. Some of these clients are now expanding into southern Europe, and we would expect to move with them and expand our terrain as a consequence.

“A new trend we have noticed with a number of our clients, particularly data centre ones, is that they are looking to specialist contractors like ourselves to provide an even larger service package. Some clients are retaining general contractors to carry out the shell and core structure and site infrastructure only, and they are then looking to M&E contractors to complete the full fit-out of their facilities’ spaces In accordance with this, we’ve expanded our offering to encompass whole fit-outs. This is a small departure from our traditional core services, but the new services include project management of all services. Life sciences clients are also looking for similar services now. In the past, clients typically retained a design engineering service to represent their needs; now, they’re looking to include more pre-engineering works in the M&E contractor package. This is a good thing because it gets us involved at an earlier stage, which is hugely beneficial to the project efficiency and gives better value for money.”

Dornan in the UK

In the UK, Dornan primarily focuses on high-rise office, medical, educational and science-based buildings in London and the surrounding areas.

“In the UK, we also experienced a small dip in activity after Covid,” he explains. “A substantial part of our UK business is in commercial office space in London. As you can imagine, post-Covid, if you were an office developer, you would have been reflecting on the need for office space in to the future. So, there was a bit of a hiatus at first. But, we are now seeing growth with a considerable amount of investment and development in the UK. Thankfully, we are also seeing a level of foreign investment coming back into the UK.

“There is also growing interest in investing in UK hyperscale data centres and life sciences projects. Even though the latter investment is not on the ground as of yet, there are positive signs.”

Dornan’s UK operations set-up is a good example of how the company incorporates off-site manufacturing into its operations. The company’s off-site plant in Coventry fabricates and assembles modules, or “assets”, for high-rise office space in the centre of London.

Micheál O’Connor explains, “Our goal is to take as many hours off the city sites as possible because of the logistical issues of those sites. We fabricate all horizontal and vertical service distributions in Coventry. When a building ranges anywhere from 20 and 30-plus storeys, we assemble the vertical distribution of services off site in Coventry. We then bring it to site and drop it down from above into the vertical risers. The off-site assembly is delivered with floor plates and all ancillary elements. The on-site team connect it in to the building. We also assemble basement plant off site. Some of the buildings we work on can be served by up to four storeys of basement plant. We fabricate the horizontal distribution of services for these areas in Coventry and transfer to site for installation in London. We also fabricate and deliver complete rooms, such as fully fitted out plant rooms.”

Client asset being prepared for distribution from Dornan’s Coventry offsite facility.
  • “I think not enough is made of the fact that we’ve developed a unique skill set in Ireland around how large-scale facilities are designed and built.”
Early contractor involvement

O’Connor says that as the contractor has developed long-term relationships with clients, projects have benefitted from early contractor involvement, particularly in planning for offsite elements.

“As a result of being brought on earlier on contracts and clients asking Dornan to take responsibility for a greater amount of the project work, we have brought in greater efficiencies, time and cost savings,” Micheál O’Connor explains. “For instance, by being brought on board early, we can set out space for plant rather than sizing the plant to fit the space.”

DfMA platform

Dornan’s DFMA platform facilitates integrated design, manufacture assembly, installation and commissioning. The platform sits on top of the whole project process, even if work goes to a third party who might be commissioned to assemble skids for an asset. Client engineering teams can interface with the platform to monitor the progress of assets.

“DFMA is a repository for all the design information and hosts all work in progress, photographs and videos of the scale and development. The platform is also a repository for all quality documentation and so forth associated with an asset. And the platform sits on top of the assembly items we bring to site, be they assembly items that we do ourselves or assembled through a third party.”

The DFMA platform was developed inhouse by the Dornan apps team. The apps team has developed a range of bespoke apps and software, such as in-house progress measurement tools. D’Prism is an app that tracks snagging and punch items. The company also uses apps for the training of staff and subcontractors.

“We can put a particular focus on the training and skills required for an upcoming project,” Micheál O’Connor adds, “By doing this, we have been able to eliminate many snags at source.”

Data centre debate

Micheál O’Connor comments that criticism of data centre energy consumption in the media is misplaced, and he believes that the wrong questions are being asked.

“The negative narrative in Ireland about data centres is completely wrong,” he explains. “Those questioning data centre energy consumption are getting things the wrong way around. They should be asking about how we can generate more energy from renewable resources in Ireland to support data-centre clients. Most hyperscale data centre clients in Ireland are blue-chip companies with global operations. They offer so much more to the Irish economy than just data centres. They bring a huge amount of new technology. They offer huge employment opportunities directly and indirectly in industries that support them. So, these companies must be supported and encouraged to set up here. Globally, there is still a huge demand for data, and how technology is evolving, be it smart technology for cars or other modern products, it’s all driving demand for data, and that demand has to be met. If we can’t meet the demand in Ireland, there are plenty of countries across Europe that are prepared to step in. So, it’s incumbent on us as a nation to look for solutions rather than problems. For instance, facilitating the generation of more clean energy and the utilisation of heating generated by data centres for residential communal heating schemes would be a major development in this field.”

Recruitment at Dornan

Micheál O’Connor says that recruitment is an ongoing challenge across the industry. To meet Dornan’s needs, they have expanded their geographic net and engage closely with local schools and colleges.

“We’re recruiting people from all over Europe, the Middle East and South Africa. One of the beneficial outcomes of Covid is remote working. A small cohort of our employees can work remotely, and we have some team members working remotely in foreign countries.

“We have also introduced a broad inclusion and diversity programme. This is linked to the fact that 75% of our business is outside of Ireland. We place a lot of emphasis on embracing other cultures and the traditions of other nationalities. But we also bring a level of Irishness to those cultures. We had great success recently winning the Nordics GAA Championship with a Dornan team based in Denmark.”

Dornan also places a big emphasis on supporting STEM promotion and engages with local schools where its outreach teams work to encourage young people, particularly females, to consider careers in engineering.

“Traditionally, this sector has been largely male-populated, O’Connor continues. “Through engagement with schools and our bursary programme we are trying to encourage more females into the engineering sector. We have put a lot of work into broadening our horizons across gender and geographies. We want Dornan to be as diverse as possible, and when any new person joins our team, we want them to feel they are an integral part of our broader business.”

Wellbeing at Dornan

Micheál O’Connor says that Dornan takes the wellbeing of its staff very seriously. It would seem, based on some of the awards that Dornan has been picking up recently, that this is having an impact.

In the past year, Dornan has been recognised as a Great Place to Work” in Ireland. It ranked in the top 30 of the Sunday Independent ‘Ireland’s Best Employer’s 2023’, and it achieved IIP Gold Certification with Investors in People (UK) for its relentless pursuit of excellence in people management, leadership, and continuous improvement.

“We have a world-class wellbeing programme,” Micheál O’Connor explains. “It has been recognised in Ireland and more recently in the UK.

“To a large part, our success in supporting staff can be attributed to our focus on wellbeing, and of course, our emphasis on safety, as well as our learning and development programmes. We want all new recruits to feel they are part of something special here. The key is having mutual respect across the business. At the end of the day, we’re all people, irrespective of where we come from, irrespective of our beliefs, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender. And, at Dornan, we look to include everybody and expect everyone to treat each other with mutual respect.”

Dornan outlook

Micheál O’Connor says that Dornan’s core businesses are all robust and will remain so into the coming years.

“Data centres look really strong. The life sciences sector had been developing in cycles of peaks and troughs. But this has changed in the past few years, and it is now very solid, with a good pipeline for the coming couple of years. In fact, we see many more foreign clients targeting Ireland for the development of campuses, which is an incredible testimony to Ireland as a nation.”

When asked what he thinks continues to make Ireland such a popular destination for foreign direct investment, he answers that people often reference the skill sets we have in Ireland and the educated workforce that we have to operate these facilities, but there is another crucial factor.

“I think not enough is made of the fact that we’ve developed a unique skill set in Ireland around how facilities are designed and built. In all of my engagements with clients of this nature, I notice that they place a huge emphasis on Ireland in terms of reliability of delivery when they come here. That is something that we should all be proud of.

“Each new facility requires an investment of anywhere from €500m to €1bn and sometimes even more. When a company invests that level of capital in a facility, they need certainty that they will get the right end product when they need it. So, the ability to deliver is huge. The Irish engineering and construction industries have proven that we can engineer, we can build, and we can deliver the highest quality facilities on time and within budget. That’s a huge thing for these clients and a testament to the fact that Dornan and many other Irish contractors are seeing huge success in Europe. It is incredible to think that we are exporting this unique skill set that we’ve developed over the past 50 years in Ireland.”

Health & safety

In closing, Micheál O’Connor references the one thing in his job that does keep him awake some nights.

“There is a huge emphasis on health and safety in Dornan. We put a huge effort into looking after the safety of our people and our on-site supply chain. I am delighted to say we see improvements year on year. Keeping people safe is the one thing that keeps me awake at night. In our business, at the moment, we have up to 4,000 people on site or at our facilities on any given day. It only takes a second for an incident to occur, and that is a lot of seconds to be managed every working day of the year. And sometimes on sites that is 24/7, because you are including night shifts as well. We would not be able to keep people safe without our health and safety staff’s dedication, the care taken by our project teams, and the consideration they give to other workers. It’s a huge task that is constantly evolving as we work in dynamic environments. It takes a huge effort to keep everyone safe, and I am grateful to everyone who has dedicated themselves to doing this,” Micheál O’Connor concludes.

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