Tuesday 23 January 2018

Developers gone East will return


A great many of those involved in the construction industry, from builders and carpenters to architects and engineers, have decided not to hang around hoping for things to improve here at home and have decided instead to try their luck in central Europe, the Middle East, India and China. More than 1,000 are already working on the Olympic Village in London where they will be fully occupied until 2012. Hopefully, like many of our developers they too will return to Ireland, rich with ambitions.

Their emigration is reminiscent of the 1980s, when so many went to England and the US to seek their fortunes, and they brought back new ideas, new ways of doing things.

You only have to look at Dublin city today -- the docklands, the inner city, Gardiner St, Cork St and the Liberties -- and compare it with the Dublin of the 1970s, to grasp just how much developers did for the city. When this recession is over we will be able to look at the buildings that turned what was a scruffy, run-down city, into a proud centre of style. They will still be standing, a tribute to the men, many of whom are now facing difficulties -- if not actual ruin -- who were responsible for helping our city and country to take its place on the world stage.

The first time I met Liam Carroll was on the site of Fisherman's Wharf, down at the East Link Bridge. He was a young man, a mechanical engineer, recently returned from Australia, where he had spent the difficult recession years of the 1980s. His head was full of dreams. He had been mesmerised by the exciting waterfront developments in the Antipodes, and had plans and dreams to recreate such a scene here in Dublin. Fisherman's Wharf was the first of many waterfront developments he built over the next two decades.

Initially his apartments were small and pokey, but with each successive enterprise the standard improved. Rooms got bigger, lifts were installed in buildings of more than three storeys and sound and heat insulation became more sophisticated. His Gas Works development in Dublin's docklands is an indication of how dreams can be turned into reality. It now houses Google's Irish headquarters as well as a stunning reworking of the Gasometer.

The first time I met Sean Dunne was on the site of St Helen's Wood in Booterstown. He was a young man, recently returned from England, where he had spent the recession years of the 1980s. He too came back with dreams.

Part of a consortium that had bought the St Helen's site, with the Christian Brothers' house and surrounding land, he wanted to build residential developments with a difference. And St Helen's Wood was that. Reminiscent of an English village, it was unlike any other development at the time. Subsequently the consortium sold sections of the site to Shannon Homes, and eventually the Cosgraves bought the Christian Brothers' headquarters and turned it into St Helen's Radisson hotel.

The principals of Shannon Homes also spent the bad years of the 1980s abroad. They chose the US. They, too, came back with great plans and enough money to start building a number of good-looking developments in and around Drogheda and also in Dublin.

These are just three examples of how the last recession helped to change the face of building in Ireland. When these men, and countless others like them, returned here, they brought with them ideas, not alone to do with building and design, but also to do with marketing and promotion.

Until the 1980s, the majority of builders did their own selling and often their wives kitted out a showhouse in a modest fashion. But after a stint abroad, things changed. Auctioneers, who, until then, had only dealt with second-hand houses, were suddenly roped in to handle the sales.

Interior design, until then a fairly lightweight career, became a serious profession, and builders and developers were prepared to pay well to have the houses shown off to their best advantage. The public discovered a new hobby -- visiting showhouses at weekends. And by studying the interior designs they developed a sense of style which in turn stimulated the furnishings and homewares industries.

And don't forget the photographers. Where previously adverts for the houses were straightforward, the new idea was to have stylish, coloured photos of interiors as well as exteriors. Photo studios, specialising in the residential area, sprang up everywhere.

The good times lasted for nearly 20 years. We have to thank those builders who spent the last recession abroad in a positive manner, not only earning money for themselves, but also absorbing new ideas which they brought home.

Okay, it might have gone belly-up, but we got some lovely developments during those 20 years. Our taste, as a nation, improved. We lived well. Hopefully those in the construction industry who have gone East will come back with determination to make a difference for the next generation.

Irish Independent

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