Saturday 3 December 2016

Building standards from ground level

Eoin Leonard became disillusioned by falling standards in the construction sector. This, he tells Sean Gallagher, was the motivation he needed.

Published 27/03/2016 | 02:30

Eoin Leonard and Sean Gallagher. Photo: David Conachy
Eoin Leonard and Sean Gallagher. Photo: David Conachy

During the early to mid-2000s, the boom in the construction sector brought many welcome benefits - particularly to the thousands of people seeking houses for themselves and their families. Similarly, the explosion in the availability of new office, production and retail space helped support the growth in the number of indigenous and foreign owned companies setting up around the country.

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However, hand in hand with these developments came a disappointing drop in the quality of building - and the failure to maintain standards within a sector where mounting pressure for output began to take precedence over the quality of what was being built. Sadly, some people - those who became entangled in the scandals of Priory Hall and Longboat Quay - would experience these shortcomings in standards at first hand.

Spurred on by these failings, one company emerged whose mission was to change both the standards and the culture of the construction sector. That company is i3PT Certification.

Set up in 2011, it currently employs 25 staff and has an annual turnover of €2.5m. Last week, I met its co-founder and CEO, Eoin Leonard, to learn more about what his company does and what motivated him to set it up in the first place.

"Well, i3PT stands for Independent Third-Party Tested and, in essence, what we do is audit and certify buildings to ensure that they are constructed in line with the Irish building regulations," explains Eoin, as he shows me around one of the projects they are currently working on - the new Airbnb offices on Hanover Quay in Dublin's Docklands.

The type of items inspected by the company includes everything from the concrete and steel used to form structures, to the environmental performance and energy efficiency of buildings, as well as the mix of complex and contemporary glazing systems that adorn the facade of modern buildings. In addition, the company also inspects the mechanical and electrical make-up of buildings, such as lighting, power, fire alarms, sprinkler systems and heating and cooling systems.

"We really do look at every aspect of a building from roof to foundation," insists Eoin.

Targeting the top 15pc-20pc of the construction sector in terms of scale, budget and quality, its growing client base consists of many of the world's top tech and pharma FDI firms, as well as REITs, PLCs and other major property development funds. Today, i3PT Certification is widely recognised by the leading design and project management firms as being the best in its field.

Having undertaken work in places as far away as the Middle East, Eoin has decided, at least for now, to concentrate on Ireland and the UK.

Eoin Leonard grew up in Caheragh, just outside Skibbereen in west Cork. From a very young age, he was involved in construction, helping out his father Mick, who ran a local building firm.

After school, Eoin studied business at Cork Institute of Technology, before joining the telecoms sector. However, a year later and driven by his desire to drive his own career, he became part-owner in a specialist contracting firm designing and installing building technologies for data centres and large commercial buildings.

The company was so successful at the time that it was recognised at the Deloitte Technology Fast 50 awards. During that time too, he became a qualified project manager - a role he loved.

"This was right in the middle of the Celtic Tiger," explains Eoin. "And I began to witness a major dip in the quality of work being delivered on sites across the country. There were many factors contributing to this - the number of new buildings, the lack of skilled labour and the absence of independent oversight - all of which led to the lack of compliance with regulations on an increasing number of sites.

"Seeing these failings motivated me to research the area and that confirmed my view that developing a third-party-certification process was the best way of engineering the risk of defects out of buildings and mitigating the risk of future recurrences."

In 2009 and with the help of Frank Judge (a leading light in the field of compliance), he began to develop a new certification body for the construction sector.

"While there were regulations in place, they were not well understood by many in the sector and not very effectively enforced. Up to then, compliance primarily involved the lead architect or engineer on the project issuing what is called 'an Opinion of Compliance'," explains Eoin.

"The problem with that is that it usually only involves a high-level visual inspection, as opposed to carrying out a rigorous and detailed inspection plan, which is what we do today."

Launching his new certification body was not without its challenges. The process of developing the model took almost three years, during which time he was not in a position to generate revenues. During this time too, he was back studying part-time for an MBA at UCC, while he and his wife, Avril had just had their first child.

"Time management became an essential but elusive requirement during this period. I found myself constantly running on fumes during these early years, both personally and professionally," admits Eoin. "However, we were lucky that there were enough conscientious leaders in the industry, such as Scott Tallon Walker Architects, who were committed to doing things the right way - and soon our business began to flourish."

To date, the company has been appointed on a total of 127 projects, with a total construction cost of over €2.6bn. However, he still remembers the response some had when he told them of his plans to set up his own business in the construction sector during what was still seen as the downturn.

"People would often look at me with a mixture of pity and confusion, thinking I was crazy. But I draw inspiration from Canadian ice hockey player Wayne Gretzky, who said, 'I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.' If we hadn't started in 2010, we wouldn't have been ready for the growth that came in 2014."

Finding the right staff was always critical and Eoin was fortunate with his first hire, Conall Finn - an experienced chartered mechanical engineer who left a secure well-paid job to join the start-up.

"Everyone will tell you this, but our team is everything to us. Our culture is one of accountability, high-performance, integrity and excellence.

"We start with getting recruitment right, carrying out extensive psychometric analysis of potential staff members' strengths and then using these to design their working life to suit their strengths."

It's a staff-centric approach that has seen the company introduce innovative staff solutions, such as optional home-working days each week, two weeks' paid paternity leave for new parents, access to personal and professional coaching, as well as regular access to health professionals including a nutritionist and personal trainer.

"We want our team to know we genuinely care about them and their lives and we believe this helps them love their jobs more and become more productive as a result," he adds.

So what is next for the company?

"We plan to double our Irish business over the next 18 months and also ramp up our UK operation," responds Eoin. "We are in a fantastic position in Ireland because we have many of the top companies in the world here and we hope to be able to increase our global reach through partnering with them, now that they've had experience of the value we add to projects."

They are soon to introduce Latent Defects Insurance (LDI) to the Irish market. Once taken out by developers, this insurance passes to the purchaser and provides consumer protection against potential building defects.

"We want to become the best in the world at what we do," insists Eoin. "We want to change the culture of the construction sector for the better through collaboration, consultation and process management. Above all we want to ensure the safety and comfort of future generations of occupiers, who will live and work in these buildings.

"In particular, we want to help ensure that the failures of our industry are consigned to history and that the Irish construction industry regains the trust of the public by demonstrating that the culture has changed. To ensure this, we will keep learning, keep innovating and keep recruiting the best people we can find."

For further information: www.i3pt.ie

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