– Ireland’s new MMC champion
In the wake of the government reaffirming its commitment to MMC and resourcing academic research and development, Paul Tierney, Interim CEO, MMC Ireland, speaks to SEAN MURPHY about what this means for the sector and the readiness of association members to help deliver Housing for All and Project Ireland 2040 goals.
Interim MMC Ireland CEO Paul Tierney was less than a month in the role when we spoke to him in Croke Park, where he had just played host to Irish and international leaders at the inaugural MMC Ireland National Conference.
While new to the role, Paul Tierney is a familiar face in the Irish offsite and modern methods of construction (MMC) sector. After a Dublin start to his career, he spent much of the past 15 years in the UK, in his role with ESS Modular, working closely with UK government departments on the frameworks enabling MMC adoption. He has now returned to Ireland, determined to share this learning for the benefit of the Irish state and the Irish offsite and MMC industry.
He explains his decision to take on the MMC Ireland position, “When I was asked to take on the role of CEO of MMC Ireland, I knew it was something I really wanted to do. MMC is beyond an interest or even a passion for me. I know I can assist by advising the Irish government and industry in applying lessons learnt over the past 10 years in the UK. My involvement in working with UK MMC frameworks over the past decade has given me greater insight into what works and what doesn’t, and what the industry needs in order to ramp up output,” Tierney says. “My primary role now is to advise on aligning government MMC programmes with the expanding capabilities of Irish MMC manufacturers and contractors. There is no conflict here. We all want the same thing, a sustainable MMC industry for Ireland and a sustainable, buildable pipeline for our members.”
An accidental career in construction
Decades of experience across the UK and Ireland convinces Paul Tierney that MMC is critical to significantly improving construction sector productivity, certainty and sustainability. Coming from an accountancy and financial background, he took up his first role in modular construction when he was 20 years of age while studying at night. The eldest sibling to three sisters, he grew up in Drimnagh, Dublin. His mother worked in the home and as a carer, and his father was a career waiter who spent more than 20 years working in AIB Bank Centre in Ballsbridge. He recalls how his parents emphasised the importance of education and curiosity, creating a library of inspiration through the Encyclopaedia Britannica series and gifting the pre-teen with a Commodore home computer – a rarity at that time – which he credits for his early love of technology and all innovation.
“I’ve had a computer from I was 11 years old, and my school, St James’ Street CBS, was one of the first few schools in the country to have a fully fitted computer room since 1984, so computer language and IT came naturally to me. There was a time in my late 20s when I had the opportunity to leave my then role and move into IT. It was the first and only time I considered leaving construction.”
A sense of responsibility towards others was instilled in the MMC Ireland CEO from an early age.
“In terms of work influences, I learned a lot from watching my dad,” Paul Tierney continues. “He has always had a strong work ethic, and he values trusting relationships. When he retired, AIB hosted a send-off for him in Bank Centre, and it really struck me how well respected he was by the people who turned up to wish him well; people he had worked alongside over the years – peers he had worked with and for, including former CEOs and chairmen. It made me aware of the impact we can have on others. I have always felt responsible to others, probably from my position as eldest sibling to three sisters. And then, of course, when you become senior in a role, you are responsible to your team, the business and the people around you. So, I’ve always held to that. I like being responsible to others, and I get a lot of value from that. It is why I feel so strongly about my MMC advocacy.”
In his second year studying accountancy at the College of Commerce in Rathmines, Paul Tierney was offered a job in the accounts department of a company called the Dublin Futures Exchange. He accepted, believing it, naturally enough, to be a futures derivatives trading company. When he arrived at the office in Dublin Port on his first day, he learned that the company was trading as Euro Cabin Hire, a portacabin rental company serving the construction industry. And here began Tierney’s accidental career in construction.
The product evolved through many economic cycles to steel-frame temporary and steel-frame permanent accommodation, while the business evolved alongside it to become Extraspace, then Extraspace Solutions, and then ESS, a recognised leader in modular construction across Ireland and the UK.
Building a brand
He credits early expansion into the UK market with the survival of the company during the economic crash in 2008.
“As the core of the business was construction, the impact of the crash was keenly and immediately felt. As part of its expansion strategy into the UK, we were appointed to a couple of government frameworks in the UK in the previous 12 months, and, in hindsight, the support from the owners and the new market opportunities from these frameworks in the UK secured the future of the business. The company went on to become a key framework supplier to the UK government, focusing primarily on education, which more than compensated for the lack of business in Ireland at that time.”
In 2016, Paul Tierney, his business partner Ronan Smyth, and the then management team undertook a successful MBO and focused on growing the business in Ireland and the UK, specialising in delivering innovative MMC solutions for clients in the healthcare, commercial and education sectors. Earlier this year, Tierney exited the business after its acquisition by the innovative construction firm ISG in March 2022.
MMC adoption in Ireland
After decades of building the ESS Group across Ireland and the UK and positioning it as a leader in transforming the construction industry, he is now on a mission to translate this hard-fought experience into learnings for the Irish MMC industry.
“I know there is a better way to deliver the vital homes, schools and infrastructure that Ireland needs right now. Our members know it too. But this is a critical time for MMC adoption, and Ireland cannot afford to get it wrong. Our members are already delivering excellent projects faster, safer and more sustainably; the state’s role must be to facilitate this through the right procurement models and frameworks. Frankly, it is difficult to overstate the potential MMC holds to transform project delivery in Ireland – higher quality, programme and cost certainty, and sustainability as standard – this is what modern construction offers by default, and it is what we need as we drive towards a net-zero future.”
MMC Ireland, as a body, acknowledges the huge intent of the government to facilitate offsite and other modern methods of construction. Critically, this intent is backed up by resourcing at a scale never seen before in this country. It is important for the industry to collaborate to fill the technical knowledge gaps that exist.
According to Paul Tierney, many MMC Ireland members have been exporting MMC solutions and expertise for years with the support of Enterprise Ireland. So, while the size of the sector is relatively small, the capacity and capability of the companies within that sector well exceed the current level of demand. More importantly, there is a willingness to build and manufacture for Ireland.
He comments, “It makes much more sense for our members to be building for Ireland first and then going beyond, which our members are happy to do. The experience is there. The willingness is there. The expertise is there. It’s all there waiting to be tapped into by the government. MMC Ireland is acting as a knowledge bridge, ensuring the state gets access to this bank of project experience and expertise.”
The ongoing delivery of modular homes to address the refugee accommodation crisis is just one example of how state agencies can be better supported by collaboration and early engagement with the industry. However, the representative body’s CEO is quick to point out that offsite and other modern methods of construction offer much more than just an emergency response, they are the future of successful project delivery.
The time for MMC is now
There can be no doubt that the tide is turning in favour of offsite and other modern methods of construction, specifically for housing delivery and, most notably, public housing delivery. In an effort to tackle the housing crisis and expedite the construction of social homes, the Department of Housing is set to embrace MMC to deliver approximately 1,800 social homes over the next two years. The department’s latest Housing for All update included a comprehensive ‘Roadmap for increased adoption of MMC in public housing delivery’, signalling a shift towards more efficient and sustainable housing solutions.
“By embracing MMC from the design stage, the department believes it can shrink delivery times for typical social housing projects from 18 to 12 months, resulting in significant cost savings. The long-term goal is to apply these innovative technologies to the majority of the 9,000 to 10,000 social homes to be delivered annually under the Housing for All strategy.
To support this transformative shift, Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage Darragh O’Brien has established a €100m fund to alleviate local authority loans on sites suitable for social housing projects utilising MMC. Currently, local authorities carry a hefty €300m in land legacy debt, accumulated from loans taken to acquire land for housing development. In a ground-breaking move, the department has already refunded land debt totalling €94m on 26 sites. However, these refunds are contingent on local authorities embracing the new technologies and design-built procurement, with construction expected to commence in 2023 or 2024. The department has earmarked 35 sites across 12 local authorities for development using MMC, identifying approximately 10 specific housing types that can be efficiently delivered on these sites.
Paul Tierney adds, “The advantages of employing MMC are evident, with potential reductions of 20% to 60% in delivery time, 70% in on-site labour, significant improvements in working conditions and wellbeing for its workforce, and a substantial reduction in embodied carbon.”
While collaborative work on the standardised layouts is ongoing, Paul Tierney and his MMC Ireland members wholeheartedly welcome the government’s robust commitment to increasing the adoption of all modern methods of construction.
“There is an ongoing collaboration between our members and government to create a sustainable MMC industry in Ireland – all of our combined knowledge, project experience, and technical expertise is at the service of the state right now in tackling Ireland’s housing crisis,” he explains. “We do not underestimate the scale of the challenges ahead, however, working collaboratively with the state and with academia, Ireland’s MMC sector has already stepped up to the challenge. For that, we are proud and grateful. But we are only getting started, there is a lot more to be done,” he concludes.
To learn more about MMC Ireland or for information about membership, visit www.mmcireland.ie