The QualiBuild project has developed a dozen questions for professionals who are committed to delivering Quality Building in design and on site, and who recognise that an informed and upskilled workforce will improve the quality of the Irish building stock.
My role is Building Physics Manager for Gyproc and Isover, which are part of Saint-Gobain Construction Products Ireland. I am an Architectural Technologist, building fabric consultant and Passive House Designer.
Who or what most inspired you to seek your current career?
Honestly, my life took a turn when I recognised the reality and depth of the climate change crisis. In essence, I recognised that it is achievable for us to impact on climate change through our personal decisions and through our work. In the context of the construction industry, these decisions can result in better performing, more sustainable buildings with lower impact on the environment. I undertook a Masters in Architecture, Advanced Environmental and Energy Studies which also spurred me on to think more creatively about how we approach these challenges.
How would you describe your typical day?
I manage the technical department for Gyproc and Isover, a great but small team who provide technical advice to designers and contractors regarding the evidence of performance, installation and wider characteristics of our products and systems. We also run two technical academies that provide free training to the industry to improve knowledge and therefore quality of energy efficiency, fire and acoustic performance in buildings.
What is the most satisfying aspect of your job?
I get a big kick out of helping people. Although I’m no longer consulting privately, our work through the technical department can have a wider impact to improve standards on the ground, and by working within industry associations such as the Irish Green Building Council, to advocate for stronger standards in building regulation and other government policy.
How would you describe your attitude towards quality on site? Is there any one thing in your career that changed your attitude towards quality and low-energy construction?
Joined up thinking! In Ireland we have standards in building regulations that are generally good, however, industry’s approach to meeting these standards can be disjointed and the ‘cracks’ lead to underperforming buildings. The Passive House Standard is impressive in its robustness and not a million miles from our building regulations, but what makes the difference in ‘actual performance’ is the process by which Passive House is delivered. That is alignment between the designers and builders, strong discipline in detailing and construction and a strict auditing regime. The tools also allow for a ‘higher resolution’ energy assessment of the building that consistently delivers a more accurate picture of the finished article.
Are there any projects where you felt the whole team really delivered quality? What were the key ingredients that you believe led to this?
Through the Isover Energy Efficiency Awards, and along with a panel of other experts, we judged a large number of high performing new and retrofit projects, both residential and non-domestic. The characteristics of the buildings that would be genuinely high performing were easy to spot, namely a robust design process and calculation, optimising orientation, compactness, glazing, insulation, minimised thermal bridging, airtightness and ventilation. These ingredients must be fully integrated. If one element is missing, the whole system massively underperforms. Like a balloon with ‘only one hole’, nature will exploit this to bypass the system.
Do you have any materials that you particularly like working with that make it easy to achieve a good result?
The Saint-Gobain group internationally manufactures and/or distributes the greater part of the solutions available for construction. In practice, most materials work well or they wouldn’t exist in the market, however, what is more critical is that they are ‘fit for purpose’ for the specific application. Therefore it is often the design or application that is the weak link. Masonry remains a trusted solution and has delivered some of the best low energy/passive buildings in the country.
Having said that, timber frame has come a long way in Ireland and is an excellent solution for faster construction times and lower environmental impact of lightweight construction while still achieving exceptional fire safety and acoustic performance. It’s been recognised that thermal mass isn’t so useful in domestic buildings in Ireland because of the low heat gains. Furthermore the UK government recognised that timber frame outperformed every other form of construction for design vs as-built energy performance. In essence, mineral wool is easy to friction fit and eliminate gaps. This kind of simple people-centric thinking is important to minimise mistakes on site.
Is there any one tool that you cannot be without when you are designing or on site and why?
Buildings last over 100 years, so best to get them right first time. The Passive House Planning Package (excel based software tool for Passive Houses) or PHPP is worth its weight in gold and something that I would not be without if designing new build, residential construction. It provides a higher resolution assessment of the building and imposes a greater discipline in the design and construction because the implications of poorer design become very clear early on.
Where do you go for new information about the industry, standards, materials, systems, etc?
I’m honestly very proud to say that the Saint-Gobain Technical Academy provides a good level of knowledge in theory, practice, site tips, economics and troubleshooting in a range of free courses in Building Regulations, Renovation solutions, Airtightness, Passive House Construction and more. Longer courses in Passive house design are available through the Passive House Academy and the Dublin Institute of Technology offer a range of Masters level courses in relevant fields.
The Tabula database produced by IHER also provides some excellent information on pathways for low-energy retrofit.
Is there any one thing or things about working on Irish Building sites from a quality perspective that you find disappointing? Have you any suggestions as to how it could be remedied?
My feeling is that the biggest challenge is low expectations. The belief that we can avoid cost by removing the expert designers from the process and still has something that’s ‘good enough’. This really short-changes the project and is sad considering that building something extraordinary and high performing and low impact can be done with proper design for potentially less cost.
Similarly on site, the ‘this is the way we’ve always done it’ attitude can really let down the quality of the result. It’s been shown that with good discipline on site, the project runs smoother, less cost, less mistakes and almost no snagging at the end, simply because of the expectation of the tradesperson being different entering a site that is in good order when they got there.
Is there one thing that you notice is changing on Irish building sites over recent years?
Improving standards and awareness of energy efficiency, but it’s far too slow.
What advice would you give to students/apprentices/workers starting out in the construction industry?
Invest in learning. It makes the job more interesting and it becomes easy to be inspired when you know the difference you can make by small changes in your work.
Fintan Smyth manages the Technical department for Gyproc and Isover Ireland providing advice and training to internal and external customers across Fire, Thermal, Acoustic solutions as well as Sustainability guidance and Building Science matters.
Gyproc is the market leader in plasterboard and plaster, serving the Irish construction industry since 1936. ISOVER has been providing high performance, fire safe, thermal and acoustic glass mineral wool insulation to the Irish market since 1974.