Monday 23 September 2019

Barnstormer Byrne is thinking big

An Olympics experience led to the Big Red Barn shipping modular homes to the US but the door remains shut here, writes Ailish O'Hora

Donal Byrne, founder of Big Red Barn, says more flexibility is needed to solve the housing crisis Photo: Keith Heneghan
Donal Byrne, founder of Big Red Barn, says more flexibility is needed to solve the housing crisis Photo: Keith Heneghan

Donal Byrne (31), founder and owner of the Big Red Barn, a designer and manufacturer of modular homes and special event structures, is a man in a hurry.

Before he was 30, he had both turned down the offer of an investment on Dragons' Den and worked as a manager at the 300-acre common area at the London Olympics.

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But it was in his role as a manager at the Olympics that the idea of the Big Red Barn was born ­- a portable modular structure that is now used by corporates at events like The Ploughing Championships and Balmoral.

Chances are if you have been at the Longitude Festival you have also been in one, while the company also has a corporate contract with Lidl both here and in the UK as well as with Top Gear for its carfest events.

"There were more than 2,000 marquee structures in the Olympic Park and we encountered lots of structural problems with them getting wet, trying to move them, etc, I knew there had to be a better way," he says.

Before heading to London, Byrne, who is from Aghamore in Co Mayo, had worked in construction but always had an eye on design, and got involved in gig organisation with friends when the recession hit.

There was also a short stint in GMIT Castlebar studying construction where he learned that academic life wasn't for him. "There was no money in it," he says.

But the marquee situation at the London Olympics was his eureka moment and he came home in 2013 with a plan.

He designed and built the first Big Red Barn, which is 20m x 20m and can be extended, and the company now has a number of them in operation - two single-storey and one two-storey.

The barn is delivered to a site on a 45ft trailer and can be erected by a team of professionals in a day ­- it can accommodate up to 2,000 people depending on the event and a design patent has also been secured, Byrne adds.

The latest addition to the family is 'The Little White Chapel' - a portable church - while the company is also building modular homes, a move inspired by opportunities that arose in the US and, closer to home, the housing crisis.

The company is planning to double the size of its 30,000 sq ft warehouse and Byrne is hopeful of planning permission approval early next year.

This year, turnover at the Big Red Barn, where there are just under 40 full-time and part-time staff, will be just short of €2m - up from €700,000 last year.

"Business is brisk," says Byrne, who operates from a three-acre site just outside the Mayo town of Swinford. "But there are frustrations when you are running your own business."

One of them is finding staff. So much so that many of his workers are returned emigrants that he found through a Facebook ad campaign and through an interview with local radio.

"As a country we are not doing enough to bring them home. There should be incentives, for example, for shipping stuff home. There is a big appetite out there for staff and there is also a skills shortage when it comes to tradespeople like carpenters, for example."

He adds that small businesses are being hampered by huge insurance costs, rates and other bills.

"When we moved to this site, which had lain vacant for nine years, I was slapped with a €12,000 rates bill within weeks. I am paying €5,000 for insurance on a truck that is not worth much more than that. There should be more incentives for the self-employed, it would be beneficial for the economy as a whole."

While the housing crisis was one of the incentives for the latest stage of the business, modular homes, it was also an opportunity in the US that prompted the company to start building them.

It was through the Local Enterprise Office in Castlebar that the US opportunity arose and they are looking to expand there next year, probably through a business partner, he says.

"Our first house in the US will be up-and-running in Warwick, Rhode Island by February," he says. The Big Red Barn modular homes, are all CE-certified, timber-clad, steel-framed structures.

They start at €36,000 ex-Vat for a one-bedroom home and there is a €7,000 cost per additional bedroom, but the houses can also be tailor-made.

Apart from the timber, which is Scandinavian, the houses are constructed from products sourced in the west of Ireland.

For example, the floors are from Walsh Timber Floors in Kiltimagh, and the kitchens are made by Gurteen, in Ballyhaunis.

The US opportunity involves a public-private partnership with the City of Warwick Housing Authority which is funding a pilot building on a site there.

The modular home will be provided to the low-income family and it is expected that the pilot will demonstrate the potential that modular homes have to provide a cost-effective way to deal with housing shortages.

The deal came about following the arrival of a trade delegation from Rhode Island to Ireland at the end of 2017 and part of the group, led by the Mayor of Warwick, Scott Avedisian, visited Mayo.

"The whole experience with the US has been really positive," says Byrne. "Part of the agreement is that we can use that house as a show house which should be really helpful when growing the business."

However, the positive US opportunity has also highlighted the difference Byrne has experienced with his modular plans in Ireland where he hasn't been as successful - at least not just yet.

"This country is obsessed with bricks and mortar. In the US the approach is much more flexible.

"Here at home, people who can't get a mortgage and have a plot of land are our target market," he says, adding that the company always advises potential buyers to talk to their local planner, depending on what kind home they are looking at.

But there's no reason the modular homes couldn't be used, at least temporarily, to address the housing crisis, he adds.

A spokesperson for the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government says that social housing projects are progressed by individual Local Authorities and compliance with the various codes is a matter for them, adding that generally modular homes should comply with the building regulations.

Byrne adds that, despite a number of approaches, he has failed to secure a meeting with Dublin City Council after he offered to provide Big Red Barn modular homes for a pilot scheme to help solve the housing crisis.

He believes that the approach from Government should be more flexible while he highlighted the fact that the State is spending €40m a year to house families in unsuitable hotels.

"All it takes is one local authority to use this as a pilot scheme. This could be a temporary solution - everyone is obsessed with permanency," he adds.

He also cited the growth of the Accessible Dwelling Unit concept in the US and in other countries when housing crises are problems.

Essentially, it's a self-contained home on the same property as a standard single-family house.

"We don't have to reinvent the wheel here, we just have to replicate what they are doing elsewhere," he says.

There may be a chink of light, though.

While Byrne was keen to highlight that the Big Red Barn modular homes are not log cabins, he welcomed the recent move by Kildare councillors to look at building the latter as a cheaper alternative to building traditional homes in a bid to tackle the housing crisis.

Fianna Fail councillor Martin Miley, who submitted the proposal, says the cabins were considered "undesirable" under the county development plan.

However, they would be a cheaper solution to tackling rising rents and housing supplies if the option was given to build them, he says.

The view may provide some opportunity for Big Red Barn. With the housing crisis showing no sign of abating anytime soon, Byrne will be ready to jump in if there is some flexibility shown.



Name: Donal Byrne

Age: 31

Position: Owner/Director

Lives: Aghamore, Co Mayo

Education: Secondary level

Family: Wife Marion and Jack (3), Mia (1 week)

Pastimes: Farming pedigree cattle, rugby, a few quiet pints that sometime turns into a sing-song 

Business inspiration: Jimmy McGee of Athlone Extrusions 

Favourite book: The Subtle Art of not giving a f**k by Mark Manson - the seven habits of highly effective people 

Favourite film: Has to be true life stories like Erin Brockovich, The Social Network, Joy, Wolf of Wall Street 

Business motto: We don't do problems, we only do solutions 

Recent boxsets/Netflix: Power, Peaky Blinders 



Best advice you’ve received?

Never count your chickens till they are half-reared, f**k the begrudgers. 

Who has inspired you during your career?

Steve Redmond, long-distance swimmer from Cork, David McGowan of Quirky Nights Glamping in Enniscrone, Tim Kelly of Kelly Communications.  

If you weren’t running Red Barn, what would you be doing?

Farming hundreds of pedigree cattle during the week, at my box in the Aviva for the rugby at the weekend and in Mijas Spain every few weeks. 

What is your management style?

Let’s get on with it and not be talking about it.

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