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Gavin Ó Sé – Quality Building Professional

To develop these profiles, the QualiBuild project has asked a series of questions to 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.

Gavin Ó Sé with one of his tools of the trade (blower door fan)

Gavin Ó Sé with one of his tools of the trade (blower door fan)

What is your profession/company?

My company is GreenBuild in Co Wexford. These days, my main services are mainly airtightness testing and heat loss testing using infra red thermography.  I’m also registered as a BER assessor and formerly as a Passive House Consultant, although with the amount of airtightness and infrared work both of those calculation-based skills have taken a back seat in recent years.

Who or what most inspired you to seek your current career?

I have always been interested in Buildings, and particularly in the state of the general environment. In 2004 I had the opportunity to begin building in a family business, timber frame homes. Although the homes were, I would like to think, better than average for the time, as we were building I was thinking – “Well the Homebond manual is pretty good, but I am sure we can do better than this for energy standards.” That led me to investigating thermal imaging as a way of improving our own buildings, which quickly brought blower door testing into focus. I did the training (yes, the training first!) then got the gear, and in 2006 started GreenBuild as a separate entity to the building company. It has been a good way to try to help people reduce building energy use, which will help the general environment also, or at least, lessen the damage we do to it.  Next is trying to do something about embodied energy….

How would you describe your typical day?

My two main “typical” days are either on the road or in the office.

Example of a thermal image (or thermogram or infra red image)

Example of a thermal image (or thermogram or infra red image)

  • On the road days normally means rising about 6am, on the road for 6.30ish to be at a site for 8am, and from then to about 3, 4, 5, 6pm, depending, testing buildings for airtightness, or for air leakage, or for heat loss. For some thermal imaging surveys, rising time is earlier, to be at the premises before dawn so that the sun does not confuse the thermal patterns on the outside of the building. Some days mean moving between sites, some days are all on one site. Some days are existing houses where the occupants are cold in their homes, or are considering upgrading. Recently most days are at new build sites, where the buildings are either in a preliminary stage of completion and are tested to make sure they reach their targets, or they are ready for occupation, and the test is to show compliance with the Regulations. Whilst this latter type of test is important, it is usually the least interesting for the tester, as often you are alone in the building and as long as the target is achieved, no one really gets interested in the test.
  • Office days normally start at 8 or 9am, depending on the kids’ situation, and mean writing up the reports or finding out information for clients. As we still do some BER work for existing clients, this can take up a lot of time – any BER assessor will tell you, the BER scheme can be like a black hole when it comes to taking up time, even if one is only doing limited work in the area.

What is the most satisfying aspect of your job?

Two main things – When existing home owners call us in because they are cold in their homes, and following testing and receiving our report, they actually do the works specified, or some of them…and then they let us know that there is great improvement. Very satisfying.

Also, when designers and builders have worked really hard to achieve very good airtightness and the test shows that they are well within their targets. The relief they often have, and us too!

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?

We were building ourselves, and did periodic clean-ups, as you must. But I have noticed over the years, that there is a steady (though not absolute) correlation between neat and tidy sites and good quality work. Now, is the work good, because people who are in tidy sites will try to do better, or is it the good workers that just keep their sites clean? I cannot say, but there is a correlation there.

There is no one thing that has changed my own approach fundamentally, but all workers in the industry should get a chance to spend time in a passive or low energy house that works; you don’t have to spend long in one to know that it just feels right; and I have been to many of these, and each time I just think, ‘yes, this is what it is about.’

Are there any projects that you have worked where you felt the whole construction team really delivered quality?  What were the key ingredients that you believe led to this?

Several projects. It is dangerous to start mentioning names as one might forget someone important, but  there are two teams of people we meet that come to mind, who consistently deliver quality – Shoalwater Timber Frame from Rosslare, and when they partner with them, Bennett Construction in Enniscorthy, as well as Young Design and Build from Dunleer.

I have been a just a tiny part of a number of their projects, in that typically I just do the airtightness testing, or leakage detection, if required, but the quality I see delivered on those sites is normally top class; and tidy sites usually too. The key ingredient is the same in both cases: a buy-in to the whole idea of low energy buildings, and that everyone who is on the sites is responsible to not wreck it. Typically, subbies who come onto the sites who have not been involved before are given an induction not only on safety, but on what not to do to jeopardise the low-energy approach.

It also really helps when the design team is fully on board, or better again, driving a low energy/passive agenda, and not just the construction company as the main actors. To this end we have found people like Helena Fitzgerald, Zeno Winkens, Mosart, Ols Architects, Des Crabbe, Joseph Little and Brendan O’Connor to name just a very few (and sorry for any omissions) that can drive the project to be even better than it would be otherwise. It’s a bit like anyone who runs in races will tell you – you can go so fast yourself, but if you are in a group, you can push each other on to do even better.

Do you have any materials that you particularly like working with that make it easy to achieve a good result?

Timber frame, good airtightness layer, such as Intello membrane or the new Coillte boards, with blow in cellulose. If you use the Coillte boards, and the Ecocel cellulose from Cork then a lot of the main build is Irish and renewable, so low embodied energy in the main structure. Unfortunately I don’t know that many timber framers are using structural timbers from Ireland, so there are a few extra transport miles in those timbers. Of course though, it is the approach of the team, more than the materials that will ensure a quality build, and in the end of the day with the right team, from Designer to laborer, ICF, concrete, Strawbale or whatever can deliver a building that is fit for purpose and well built.

Is there any one tool that you cannot be without when you are designing or on site and why?

Thermal anemometer showing leakage above an internal door architrave

Thermal anemometer showing leakage above an internal door architrave

One tool? Nope, it has to be 3 tools!

  1. Thermal anemometer, as it allows a reckoning of the severity of air leakage, even if in a building with only  a wind blowing outside
  2. Thermal imaging camera for finding insulation issues, moisture problems, air tightness weaknesses
  3. Blower door machine, for getting lots of lovely numbers about the building.

Where do you go for new information about the industry, standards, materials, systems, etc?

The main places are:

Publications: Passive House plus magazine, La maison ecologique, Home power; Fraunhofer IRB Verlag, BRE Press for books and notes

Conferences: Every year I try to get to the Energy Show, the Irish Green Building Council’s Conference, and at least one related conference or show abroad, such as Buildair in Germany, Ecobuild in London.

Websites: Attma, Flib, NSAI, SEAI,

And of course, intermittent scouring of the web while procrastinating on a hard report.

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?

One of the biggest disappointments is the ability of anyone on site to wreck good work. This can be from a labourer who hasn’t cleaned up properly and all the trash is thrown into an area that will “never be seen”, to especially plumbers and electricians making holes everywhere and not alerting the foreman or other responsible site personnel.

In fact, the ‘out of sight’ mentality is one that differentiates the really good sites from the others – in the best sites even the areas that will be covered over and never seen again will have the same quality of well built, properly finished work

Remedy? Education seems to be the only way. In some cases though, we come across site workers who have little interest in being educated, and literally just getting them off of sites might be the only way. There is so much paperwork now that I hesitate to say it, but one way may be to insist on a certain qualification, such as a passive house tradesperson qualification, before being allowed on the site.

Is there one thing that you notice is changing on Irish building sites over recent years?

In overview, not much has changed in the last 10 years. In detail, of course more insulation is being delivered, better windows, lots more paperwork, but the general look and feel of sites has not changed much.

What advice would you give to students/apprentices/workers starting out in the construction industry?

Aim high. Aim for building the types of buildings that will be net zero energy, highly comfortable for the occupants, a pleasure to build, to work in, to live in, to look at.

Aim low. Low embodied energy, low impact on the planet, low cost financially and environmentally.

If you can believe that the piece of the construction industry in which you are starting out is important in achieving those things, and it is, because we all play a part in achieving these, then you will be in a better place than just doing something because it has always been done like that.

The more people we have aiming high where needs be, and aiming low where needs be the more chance we have of finding practical and achievable solutions.

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GreenBuild is owner operated by Gavin Ò Sè. contact@greenbuild.ie/087 2521032

GreenBuild has been operating building testing services since 2006 when Gavin saw in his own building work the need for a better way to quantify how well the houses were being built. The air testing equipment used is calibrated and operated by trained professionals.

 

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