The right moves: Engineering adapts to a new property market
The engineering profession suffered badly in the recession with some large multinational practices closing their Irish offices and others downsizing to survive.
Now however construction is increasing, technology is advancing and Irish engineers are designing a diverse range of developments from office towers to tunnels, worldwide. I met with Fergus Monaghan, director with Arup, for his views on the profession today:
Arup, a global firm for almost 70 years, learned that it was vital to continue recruiting graduates in recessions, to avoid creating skills gaps in later years. Thus, in Ireland they maintained recruitment and as a sign of the upturn in business, overall staff numbers are up by 100 over the last couple of years. Some engineering degree courses have recently moved to a five year programme incorporating a 10 month internship and Monaghan says that this is better for students and employers. Whilst numbers in the degree courses are lower, Arup is still seeing plenty of job applications and 40pc of last year's intake was women.
The busiest areas for Arup at the moment include "Infrastructure" e.g. airports, pipelines, energy generation and highways. "Science and Industry" includes work arising from foreign direct investment such as pharma plants and "Commercial" which involves office buildings and hotels etc. The firm is also involved in several healthcare projects. "Legacy work" and relationships remained a strong source of business throughout the recession.
As common in all sectors of the industry, most major projects must be competed for by tender. Monaghan says that "fee bidding was totally unbalanced through the recession. It is hard to think of another profession where fees were cut by 50pc and have not yet recovered. The public sector procurement process struggled to get the balance between price and quality." He feels that that balance has been reached now and that many of the public procurement policies are laudable although there are some "accidental rigidities" which can detract from the process. "Procurement needs to be aligned with market capacity and have greater flexibility."
For the next phase of development, Mr. Monaghan feels that the Building Control (Amendment) Regulations will have a huge influence on design although "it remains to be seen if this will lead to better quality and more sustainable buildings".
Another trend is an increased focus on the environmental efficiency of a building and how that affects the people working in it. More attention is now directed to issues such as desk layouts, breakout areas, lighting and acoustic levels, ceiling heights, façades and flexible working hours.
Technology is changing how engineers operate and Monaghan says that the big change is the "move from a 2D to 3D, to a 4D world etc."
This leads into the whole area of "Building Information Modelling." Whilst most staff work at computers, break out areas incorporate tables and tracing paper where designers can bounce concepts off each other before moving to computerised design.
An interesting example he gives me is Roma Football Club's proposed new stadium where Arup's Irish team is involved. They are currently modelling the performance of the stadium in fire conditions using 3D fire and smoke modelling tools and can also run 3D fire evacuation simulations using computer models.
Working abroad has become routine for the Irish staff as internationally Arup work in teams which incorporate the best expertise for each project. Irish staff are currently working on an underwater tube tunnel in Gothenburg, Sweden. In Bangladesh an Irish led team has inspected over 750 factories there and advised on whether they are safe, what work needs to be done, or whether they should be shut down. In total, over 2,500 factories in Bangladesh have been inspected using the methodology developed by Arup.
Looking to the future, Fergus Monaghan still feels that "across the construction sector, balance sheets need to be rebuilt, including both contractors and professional firms. A more sustainable market is required and we need to restart and maintain investment in critical infrastructure to underpin growth in the economy".