Gerard Donnelly, Contracts Manager at The McAvoy Group, has been awarded Project Manager of the Year 2017 at the Offsite Construction Awards. In this interview, he reflects on his career to date and looks at some of the challenges and achievements in offsite construction from a project management perspective.
Is your career what you envisaged when you were at school?
I have always had a keen interest in construction as far back as I can remember and this seemed to be the career path best suited to me. I took an academic route into the industry, first achieving an NVQ in construction and the built environment, followed by a degree in construction engineering and management at the University of Ulster Jordanstown.
What was your first role, and what did this – and other previous positions – contribute to where you are today?
My first role following completion of my degree was for the Patton Group, starting as a site engineer. My very first project was the construction of an underground carpark for a multi-storey development in Belfast city centre. I progressed to senior engineer and my final role there was as a site manager.
I then joined Lagan Construction as a site manager working on the construction of a £185m energy from waste plant in Cardiff. I learnt a huge amount on that project, particularly about contracts, commercial and project management and during its two and a half year construction I was promoted to project manager. I am delighted to say the project was handed over on time.
In 2015 I moved to offsite specialists, The McAvoy Group, as Contracts Manager, where I am responsible for 2-3 projects at any one time. This role includes co-ordination of the design process, management of planning through to on-site installation, interior and exterior finishes, and final handover to the client.
What do you find different about offsite construction to other sectors you have been involved in?
By far the biggest difference is the work that has to be completed before the project starts on site. The design has to be completed and signed off at a much earlier stage. Once work starts on site, the building is being manufactured in the factory so there is more upfront design work. On a traditional project, the design evolves as work progresses on site.
What is the main challenge you face in work?
The biggest challenge is getting stakeholders to appreciate the need for earlier engagement and sign off of design detailing at a much earlier stage. Without that there will be design changes and additional site works which are not time or cost efficient for offsite building techniques.
Offsite construction is much faster than traditional building methods – which is what I love. The process is much more intense from a management perspective and I enjoy the challenge of working at such a fast pace.
What do you consider to be your greatest achievements both personally and professionally?
Professionally, it has to be the Lynch Hill Enterprise Academy – a £20m state-of-the-art academy in Slough. McAvoy handed this project over 17 weeks ahead of programme and six months earlier than a typical secondary school built traditionally, giving the academy the benefit of earlier occupation. To achieve this, we developed a number of innovations including larger modules and 65 per cent of the building was finished offsite.
The pinnacle of my career so far is being awarded Project Manager of the Year at the Offsite Construction Awards in recognition of the success of Lynch Hill.
On a personal level, my biggest achievement has to be my family – my wife and wonderful one-year old daughter Aoife.
Do you think offsite construction has advantages or disadvantages over other construction sectors at this moment?
I can only see advantages of offsite solutions. We just need more clients to appreciate the benefits and understand the potential of modular construction. The construction industry has to move with the times to meet clients’ aspirations for better quality and shorter programmes. Offsite construction is already achieving this.
Offsite is now most definitely on a par with site-based construction. The materials are typically the same, but the systems and processes are more efficient and quality control in a factory is far superior in my view.
What advice would you give to those wishing to follow in your career footsteps?
Absolutely go for it! Construction is a fantastic sector to work in. It is a highly competitive industry but you do reap what you put in. You have to be prepared to work extremely hard and the hours can be long, but if you have a passion for what you are delivering, you will succeed.
Given the opportunity to take up to six months paid leave, what would you do?
I would love to see more of the world and take my family travelling, particularly to the US and Far East. And build my own house – with the latest offsite technology this should be possible to achieve in six months!