Construction Technology Centre

Construction Technology Centre

Deputy Marc Ó Cathasaigh

The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment is working with Enterprise Ireland to establish a construction technology centre this year to bring together research, expertise and industry to look at innovation in the built environment. The urgency of this cannot be overstated. We very much need to move towards sustainable materials and construction practices. I wish to ask the Minister the position regarding the construction technology centre, the timeline for its establishment and the role it will play as part of the wider Housing for All strategy.

Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment (Deputy Damien English)

I thank the Deputy for the question. I agree with him about the urgency in this area. It is something we have been working on for a number of years. I am glad it is coming to the stage that it will be up and running very soon. The question concerns the important issue of the adoption and use of new technologies in the construction sector in the context of delivering the Government’s ambitions in Housing for All as well as in energy efficiency and decarbonisation of the built environment.

As the Deputy is aware, Housing for All is our plan to turn the aspiration of home ownership into a reality, to ensure everybody has access to sustainable, good quality housing, to give stability for renters and protection for people at risk of homelessness and to build on the work of Rebuilding Ireland. Addressing the high cost of residential construction, along with relatively low construction sector productivity and innovation is a key element in Housing for All and will be crucial for the plan to succeed. There are a range of actions in Housing for All which target the cost of construction and improving productivity and innovation levels in the sector to make sure we have a sustainable system over the next 20 or 30 years where we know we need to build over 300,000 homes.

The establishment of a construction technology centre is one of these key actions, and my Department is currently working on this with Enterprise Ireland. This initiative also supports Project Ireland 2040 and the work of the construction sector group’s innovation and digital adoption sub-group. Work on the new construction technology centre is on schedule to be delivered at the end of this year. Enterprise Ireland’s process to select a host organisation is now at an advanced stage.

Once established, the centre will serve as an innovation hub which will bring researchers and industry together to drive innovation and technology adoption. As a reflection of the crucial importance of improving the affordability of homes, the centre will have an initial focus on residential construction and innovation in housing. To further promote innovation in the residential construction sector, Enterprise Ireland is now offering a range of supports to these businesses, including innovation vouchers, digitalisation vouchers, innovation partnerships, lean business offers and others. The new construction technology centre, together with these schemes, will stimulate the development and adoption of new and innovative technologies, enabling builders to build better houses at a lower cost and higher speed and with greater energy efficiency.

Taken together, these initiatives will help make good on the ambition set out in the Housing for All plan to ensure that everybody has access to sustainable, good quality, well located housing to purchase or rent at an affordable price. They are very much in line with our climate targets as well. To give the Deputy an update, the call for proposals ended in March just gone.

Deputy Marc Ó Cathasaigh

I thank the Minister of State. On the timeline for establishment, at the outset of his contribution the Minister of State used the term “very soon” and midway through it he referred to the end of this year. He might be able to give me some additional, hard and fast timelines on that.

It strikes me that a suite of Government measures to do with housing hangs together on this. One is clearly Housing for All. Another is the climate Act, which is of central importance. The Circular Economy Bill 2021, which acknowledges and values the embodied carbon within all objects in our society but buildings in particular, is also important. There is also the town centres first initiative which is seeking to bring life back into our town centres.

This will require not only new construction skills but also the revitalisation of old ones and some of those lacking in the sector. We will need the full range of skills available in order to bring properties, particularly heritage and vacant properties, back into use in our town centres.

Deputy Damien English

Absolutely. The Deputy has raised matters I did not have a chance to cover, but they are exactly what the construction technology centre will deal with. The overall aim of the centre is to identify the optimal consortium of research-performing organisations in the Irish ecosystem that will deliver productivity and sustainability for the Irish construction and built-environment sector through research, development and innovation, with a focus on skills and everything else the Deputy touched on.

The Deputy asked about the timeline for the proposal. Thankfully, the money has been set aside through Enterprise Ireland. A €5 million budget is set aside to drive this over the next couple of years. The call for proposals opened in February and closed on 4 March. It was open to all in the research community to lead on this and collaborate. On 7 March, eligibility checks and clarifications got under way. The evaluation was scheduled for March. By 25 March, it was hoped there would be presentations by the various consortia to the evaluation planning teams. The selection of the winning consortium was scheduled for early April. This could be slightly behind, but that was the plan. The preparation of documents for presentation to the Enterprise Ireland committees is scheduled for May and the proposal is to be approved sometime in June by the board of Enterprise Ireland. That means the centre should be well up and running by the end of the year.

Deputy Marc Ó Cathasaigh

I very much welcome that additional detail. Everybody in this House acknowledges the need to begin delivering housing at speed and scale but also in a manner that is sustainable. The three have to go together. The construction technology centre should be considering things like next-generation easy assembly and, in respect of housing units, research supporting modular construction. We should be considering new materials and the evaluation of their performance.

I referred to the town centre first policy to unlock town-centre units, particularly those above shops. In this regard, we need to consider technology associated with fire safety, acoustics and structure. There will be a need for new skills, but also a renaissance of old skills, as we try to unlock the vacant and derelict properties, particularly in town centres.

Deputy Damien English

The Deputy covered most of the five key industry challenges set out: productivity, affordability and cost; quality and safety; collaboration within the sector; labour shortages, skills and training; and sustainability. The Deputy referred to the town centre first initiative. I totally agree with him in this regard. There was a lot of effort on the part of several Departments to achieve a commitment to putting town centres first, following on much of the advice and guidance associated with the Scottish model, but also building on initiatives that various Departments have been trying over the past couple of years. It was a matter of bringing everybody together to really focus on town centres. There is much opportunity to develop town centres sustainably for the future.

As the Deputy mentioned, there is an option to bring vacant and over-the-shop properties back into use. Several schemes have been launched to encourage this over the past couple of years. Funding under the rent-and-repair scheme has not been drawn down to the level it should have been. In my view, it has not been promoted. However, we are considering new initiatives to encourage people to do the work required through the tax system and grants but also to remove some of the complications and clarify the regulations. A guide to putting vacant properties back into use was printed by the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage a couple of years ago. It is a very useful step-by-step guide for anybody with such a property. I encourage everybody to read it. We are trying to make it as easy as possible to bring the vacant properties back into use because they should be in use. In most cases, as in Tipperary and everywhere else, they are in private ownership. We are trying to unlock them in different ways.

Deputy Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire

The Deputy was more interested in Waterford than Tipperary, I would suggest.