Paul McNally: 'Building industry gets an F for sustainability'

Having established his practice in 2004, Paul McNally has witnessed first-hand the growing environmental awareness and ongoing demand for more sustainable building.
Paul McNally: 'Building industry gets an F for sustainability'
Paul McNally

Having established his practice in 2004, Paul McNally has witnessed first-hand the growing environmental awareness and ongoing demand for more sustainable building.

“I think we can all see a general trend to increasing levels of environmental awareness across the board,” he says.

“Aspects of the building industry are improving, such as energy efficiency in the use of buildings. Others environmental impact factors are static, like the carbon emissions of materials used in the construction stage of buildings. This is not yet regulated by the state in any real way. Voluntary standards are emerging, as they always do when the State fails to act. This is a good indicator of where regulation will move over the next decade.”

Having graduated with honours in architecture from Bolton Street DIT in 1998, he practiced in Ireland and Australia and became a member of the RIAI in 2002. He set up his private practice in 2004 with a view to specialising in PassivHaus architecture and in 2009 earned a Masters degree in architecture with Merit in Advanced Environment and Energy studies.

“We are all becoming a little more self-reliant for some products than before, growing our own food, and wasting less, which can be done with a little effort and not much energy cost. We have all been cycling and not using the car at all. Oil production has fallen through the floor. The planet is breathing a sign of relief as mankind falters,” he adds, but cautions this reprieve is not likely to last long.

“I expect the longer term environmental impacts will see a deterioration as we introduce measures to cope with the disease until a vaccine is introduced. The root cause of the pandemic, our mis-treating of animals, our mis-use of natural resources and the atmosphere as our toilet, is in sharp focus, and perhaps mankind will continue to come to terms with the fact that business-as-usual has a cost that industries do not pay for, we pay for it.”

The decline of aviation might present an unintended shift towards more sustainable domestic recreation from now on, he believes.

While the lockdown has been a benefit for clients who are in the design stage of projects, the phone has been quiet.

“I have not been spending time on site and dealing with contractors. My focus and productivity has been excellent, when I have been able to work. My wife is a nurse, and our child care is no longer available so I am minding the children part-time, putting pressure on family finances and time available to work, so being busy is not a problem,” he explains, noting that building sites are opening again, in advance of a general pick up.

“New clients are still in the pipeline. Also the ‘unemployment’ numbers are based on applicants for the support scheme, which actually refers to people on reduced hours. Those people are still working and will fall off that scheme in the next quarter. So I am expecting a sharp return to the economy in many sectors.”

Dealing with a variety of projects, both commercial and domestic, his current workload is mostly homes: “As a passivhaus specialist, this building science can be applied to a wide range of building-types. I have designed low-energy retail, offices, apartments and homes. The depth of the climate challenge means everything we do needs to be done differently in future. I help clients manage that change, as best they can.”

Costs related to sustainable passivhaus construction have reduced over the years, with building regulations improving the legal minimum of energy allowed to waste in buildings, thus the gap between doing nothing and best-practice is closing.

“The supply-chain of materials and equipment has matured, rationalised and become competitive, helping to reduce costs compared to 15 years ago. Of course, we should be looking at the costs related to non-sustainable construction, which are going up faster than the costs of acting. We could have addressed this issue 20 years ago, at a fraction of the cost.

“Now we have to do the same work, in 20% of the time. The reality is we are digging ourselves into a deeper hole every day if we do not radically address our environmental impacts,” he adds.

“I would give our building industry as a whole an F in terms of sustainability. Of course there are individual examples of great ambition and quality, we have real leaders in terms of publications, designers, builders and material supply in isolated cases. But there are too many gaps in the system to enforce quality and performance generally.”

The State has been atrocious in leading by example, he believes: “What is really worrying is that they think they are doing a great job, so we cannot expect any change where we really need it. The next time you enter a public building, take a look at the BER rating on display at the front entrance. It usually tells you the real picture of what the state thinks its obligations are.”

A radical answer would look something like a state agency charged to manage the growth of a vast industry of mixed forests trees, producing carbon sequestering indigenous timber and manufacture all housing from that. “A 10-year plan to turn the building of housing into a national carbon sink while throwing a lifeline to farmers whose current model is in conflict with climate requirements.”

Acknowledging that as the public is financially and psychologically at the end of its tether from the pandemic, asking them to make sacrifices to address climate change now is not going to go down well.

But that doesn’t mean we don’t do it anyway. General public aside, my services are in demand more than ever to those who are lucky enough to be able to act responsibly and build something that will bring joy to their lives, perform incredibly and not abuse the environment to achieve it.

Having lived through the economic cycles of Cork over the past two decades, he believes “there is huge potential for the city to develop a radical cycling-first attitude to transport.

Relegate cars, two-way streets and street parking to where it should be. Increase public spaces, footpaths, street trees and on-street public amenities and create the city that we all have in our heads rather than the misery and myopia we settle for now.” He adds that it may be necessary to “bite the bullet on some of the failed older buildings of limited quality in our city, and sacrifice some history for exciting contemporary green architecture.”

Despite the fear and uncertainty around Covid-19 and its possible aftermath, Paul McNally admits to being blessed with an optimism that is completely divorced from the evidence he sees before him. “Perhaps because I like to think at the scale of lifetimes rather than the immediate future, I have great pride and trust in the Irish people to thrive in any circumstance.”

As a people, we have avoided the mistakes of our neighbouring countries, on both sides, to embrace meanness and eschew science. “I believe this will stand to us. I hope it will allow us to continue down the path of inventiveness, industry and social coherence to a slightly better place, ever so slowly, with perhaps a few surprising leaps forwards just when we really need it.”

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