Michael Hynes, Joint Managing Director, Quintain Ireland, tells ROBBIE COUSINS that despite several strong headwinds, the Irish housebuilding market remains an attractive proposition for capital investment and Ireland an ideal location for construction professionals and workers to seek long-term employment, but that reform of the planning system and changes to housing policy are needed to support the sector’s future health
Quintain Ireland was set up in 2019 by joint managing directors Michael Hynes and Eddie Byrne, with the backing of US private equity firm Lone Star, to deliver homes on several large landbanks compiled by Lone Star’s Irish arm Hudson Advisors between 2013 and 2019.
As directors of Hudson Advisors, Michael Hynes and Eddie Byrne played a pivotal role in the acquisition of these large landbanks in Adamstown, Clonburris, Portmarnock and later Cherrywood under Quintain. Hynes and Byrne are now driving the development of these sites into what Michael Hynes describes as 15-minute sustainable communities and new modern Irish towns.
A chartered surveyor, Hynes has over 20 years of experience at the highest level of asset management and property development in Ireland. He sees Quintain Ireland as unique in the Irish property development market because of the scale of the schemes it is planning and constructing.
“The key difference between Quintain and other developers is one of scale,” Michael Hynes explains. “Quintain has a small number of large sites, whereas other developers tend to have a large number of small sites. We view our sites as new towns rather than developments, and to this end, we plan them to be diverse, inclusive and resilient with a combination of housing types and a good social mix. We are following the design principles for a 15-minute community, where most daily necessities can be accomplished by walking or cycling 15 minutes from residents’ homes.
“Our Adamstown development, for instance, when completed, will comprise 5,000 residential units with all necessary infrastructure and services, including a modern town centre. The site closest to the Adamstown train station will have higher-density housing of four- to 10-storey apartment buildings. In the centre of these, we are developing a new town centre with 100,000-sq feet of retail space and an urban plaza. Further out, we will have smaller apartment blocks, a mix of duplexes and terrace-type housing. And then, we have lower-density two-storey detached, semi-detached and terraced housing at the furthest edge of the town. This will also have a balanced mix of private and public housing and will include rental options.”
Hynes adds that Quintain will be providing roads, schools, community centres and every other facility one might expect in a modern Irish town, all within a 15-minute walk or cycle and that the move to remote working has also been factored into plans for the homes.
“Portmarnock, comprising 1,200 units, Cherrywood with 3,500 units and Clonburris are all being constructed to similar plans.
“This type of development takes a lot of planning, phasing and coordination to ensure it is delivered in a timely manner and complements everything in the surrounding neighbourhoods. We have assembled an amazing team of planners, architects, engineers and project managers that share our vision and will help us achieve our ambitions.”
Digital construction technologies and lean practices are very much part of Quintain’s operations. Michael Hynes explains that the company uses a mix of construction methods, including timber frame, concrete block, and in-situ and precast concrete.
“We build with the most efficient and appropriate material for the particular housing mix and employ BIM and other digital technologies as well as lean practices.
“About 90% of our low-rise housing is timber frame at the moment. For taller duplex buildings, we generally have a structural blockwork ground floor with timber frame above. Once we go above four storeys, we are into precast and in-situ concrete.
“We are open to using any building method, and we are looking at laminated timber and light gauge steel for the future, but these are not viable options for us at this time.”
Housing for All
Michael Hynes comments that when he first saw the Housing for All (HfA) plan, he believed its targets to be very ambitious. He says it now seems even more ambitious in light of the impacts of the Russian war on Ukraine.
“When HfA was announced, it seemed very ambitious, considering the skills gap in the construction sector and the planning system we have to work with. But it had clearly defined goals, which we all welcomed.
“I think the Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien has been doing a good job. He set the 33,000-unit target before we had the current headwind of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But we also have the ongoing substantial skills gap and a planning system that is not in sync with the HfA plan. In light of this, that 33,000-unit target seems exceptionally challenging. The market is turning out about 23,000 units a year at the units to this figure, the government needs to be more hands-on regarding the skills gap and reforming planning.”
He says while it is early days, despite the replacement of the Strategic Housing Development system with the new Large-Scale Residential Development (LSRD) system earlier this year, it is still very difficult to get projects through the planning system.
“No matter how much effort goes into preparing detailed plans and showing the many gains from proposed developments, too many schemes are being delayed for the wrong reasons.
“As things stand, it is challenging to get plans through the system. I think about 40% of planning permissions last year got judicially reviewed. And, over the past five years, up to 30% of all approvals have been judicially reviewed. The percentages of plans getting reviewed are increasing month on month, ultimately delaying projects by up to three or four years.
“The LSRD system may improve things, but it is early days for that to have had an impact.
“One other area that needs addressing is zoning. I do not understand why local authorities are not zoning more land for housing. In light of the housing crisis, this should be a priority for local authorities. There is simply not enough zoned land out there.”
Hynes believes that the Covid-19 shutdowns of 2020 and 2021 have had a profoundly negative impact on the sector’s capacity to deliver new homes.
“For the past five years, we have known about the huge skills gap in construction. When Covid-19 happened, construction sectors in other countries did not experience anything like the level of shutdowns we had here. During these shutdowns, many foreign workers went home and have not returned.
“We will need a renewed focus on attracting workers to the sector if we want to hit that 33,000-unit target.
“Solas estimates that we will need another 60,000 workers to meet HfA targets. We have to find new ways to attract talent from across the world, including bringing diaspora home. Irish governments have always been great at attracting foreign direct investment to the country. Our current government now needs to turn its attention to attracting labour in a similar way. I should say that we as a sector must play a greater role in selling Ireland as a destination for skilled construction professionals and workers.”
Michael Hynes believes inflation is impacting investor confidence in the Irish market.
“Inflation in the sector has reached, at minimum, 15% in the past 12 months. If you take it that developers’ margins are somewhere between 12.5% and 20% depending on the complexity of their projects, and banks will only fund projects that have a margin of 10% or more, we now have a real problem.
“I am concerned about investor confidence, particularly for larger, more complex developments. Low-rise housing is not as challenging as apartment blocks as it is easier to turn off the tap if there is a problem. But with apartments, the planning and development process takes too many years, and I am concerned about how this will affect investor confidence. I would also like to see house price increases stabilise. The estimated 10% increase in the price of homes in the past year is not sustainable.”
Michael Hynes sees sustainability and the wider area of environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria as the hottest topics in any industry.
“Quintain’s ethos puts ESG at the top of our agenda. Because of the scale of our developments, we need them to be sustainable, have a balanced mix of private and social housing, and follow planning and design principles that foster community development. From a health and safety perspective, we expect all contractors that we work with to have rigid health and safety plans in place to protect and support their workers.
“When it comes to sustainability, it should first be acknowledged that Ireland has some of the most advanced and sustainable building regulations in the world. We build to the A-rated nZEB standard. By comparison, Germany and the UK are building to the B-rated standard, and in the US, much of the housing is being constructed to B and C standards.
“There is a huge opportunity for Ireland to attract more investment by showing the world how advanced our new housing stock is. We need to get the message out to banks and the international capital that supports development that we are global leaders in sustainable building.”
Quintain expects all the construction companies they partner with to be a member of the Considerate Constructors Scheme, which means it has signed up to ‘Respect the Community, Care for the Environment and Value its Workforce’.
Michael Hynes says that every contractor that works with Quintain must share these values and principles.
“We want anyone who works with us to proudly wear the Considerate Constructor badge, respect the people who live in the neighbourhoods around our sites and engage with them so our developments have minimal or no negative impact on their day-to-day lives. We particularly want our sites to have rigid health and safety plans in place and the absolute least possible level of noise, dust and to keep reasonable hours of work.”
The WELL Community benchmark is a standard for communities that are designed to protect the well-being of those who live and work within them. The vision for a WELL community is one that is inclusive, integrated and resilient, fostering high levels of social engagement.
Michael Hynes says that the design and layout of Quintain towns are carried out with this in mind.
“We are seeking WELL Community certification for all of the towns and communities we are building’ he comments. “We achieve this by applying the 15-minute town concept in our designs.
“We also incorporate a lot of social housing into our developments and work closely with Approved Housing Bodies to this end.
He adds that Quintain is in the Irish market for the long term, and he wants people who work for the company to develop their careers within the organisation.
“Culture, diversity and inclusion are at the heart of all that we do as a corporate body. We will be a long-term player in the Irish housebuilding industry. We want anybody who works for Quintain Ireland to be comfortable and confident in their abilities and get the opportunities and training they need to develop as people and become leaders in the sector.”
Quintain Ireland outlook
Despite the many challenges of the moment, Michael Hynes’ and Eddie Byrne’s ambitions for Quintain Ireland have not been dampened.
“We are working towards our initial five-year plan of becoming a leading house builder and achieving completion of up to 1,500 housing units a year,” Michael Hynes comments. “This year, we expect to complete 700 units, with about 800 next year. We are a little behind schedule, mainly due to Covid-19 and planning delays, But we expect to get back on track by 2024.
“We want to have a reputation for product and operational excellence. I think we have achieved this already, as we are recognised as being amongst the top housebuilders in the country. Now we are looking to be seen as innovative in terms of how we go about reducing the embodied carbon in our buildings and towns.”
He continues, “From a market perspective, I am confident but cautious about the short to medium-term future of the housing development market in Ireland. I believe that all industry stakeholders need to get real about the challenges we are facing and box clever to ensure that the required finance, resources and labour are in place so we can pick up momentum.
“There is an onus on the government to ensure it is doing all that it can to make Ireland an attractive proposition for investors and a destination country for construction workers, but we as a sector also need to be doing more to attract the best talent.
“Finally, our planning system needs to be reformed urgently. There is no getting around this. If this is fixed, I am confident all the other pieces will fall into place. We have shown with our Covid-19 response that we are a resilient sector that can adapt and lead the way. With this in mind, I look forward to being part of addressing the challenges we face in the coming years.” Michael Hynes concludes.