How did Covid-19 affect the practice? Did you have any projects on site?
Conor: No, fortunately we didn’t. One small landscaping job had finished in January and everything else was in pre-planning. Just before Covid hit, we had arranged a new project but hadn’t met either the client or any of the design team in person. Zoom is fine with people you know but when you’re meeting a client for the first time and you’re doing that virtually, it can be a bit daunting. We found that people were slow to change their minds; convincing people to do things differently was difficult as there was no previous relationship there. In the end we were happy with where we got to with that project but it took a lot longer than it normally would.

Ailish: Our projects are very much based on developing trust relationships with clients. It’s hard to develop that with a client if you’re not meeting them in person as you don’t have the same opportunity for camaraderie etc.

C: Every project is about taking risks and sometimes the client has very specific ideas about what they want to do. If you try and change it, they feel like they’re taking a big leap. On Zoom, it’s very difficult to convince someone to take that leap.

Can you tell me more about your process of developing relationships with clients?
A: Over the past few years, we’ve been making a concerted effort to meaningfully engage with stakeholders which is important as 90% of our work is public work. I think Moyross Park is a good example. On that project, we held a consultation process where we met with the local residents. We spoke to the different groups that use the park and their feedback fed into the whole design process. That’s something we’ve carried through to other projects. It’s something that local authorities can be slow to do as they’re almost afraid of over-promising. Moyross Park didn’t have a big budget so over-promising was something we tried to avoid; instead we asked for a wishlist and then said, this is the budget so let’s pare back that wishlist to your priorities. An approach like that made the process much more collaborative.

C: It’s all about understanding people’s priorities so when you begin the design process, you’re taking into account the things that are going to make a difference to those people. On Moyross Park, we brought community groups around to various parks in Limerick and asked them to pick out elements they liked and parts they felt didn’t work so well. There was a real buy-in once the design was complete as stakeholders had helped create the scope and brief of the project.

Small practices often find it nearly impossible to break into public work. How did you manage it?
C: We started with a low bar when it came to public work. The first thing I ever did on a school was a disabled toilet and the next was a roof refurbishment. We did very small stuff for very little money for a while and gradually we built it up.

A: With public work and especially schools, clients tends to need a lot of work so in that way you build up relationships. It’s all about building trust so when the next project comes up, they’re more disposed to go with you. For us, the projects naturally started to get bigger. What we try and do with our practice is give quite a holistic service in that we have the building conservation side, the architecture side and we also do landscape design. That keeps it interesting for us because we’re doing lots of different types of projects but it also perhaps sets us apart from other practices that might only offer one type of service.

C: The conservation element certainly helps. An example of that would be the Lough Gur Interpretative Centre that we designed a few years ago. Another architect would have had to bring in a conservation consultant but we were able to offer the full package, plus we would have been cheaper which was important as this was back in the recession. Public procurement is definitely difficult though, it’s very much a lottery.

A: I’ve done a huge amount of work in terms of tendering for projects and it is very difficult. Over the years, I’ve made a concerted effort to understand what the public procurement process is all about. It’s worth putting in the effort because as you go along, it becomes easier when you have a bigger database of projects to dip into.

Do you think being in Limerick makes a difference?
C: I think so. Most architecture in Ireland is based in Dublin and it’s a real hothouse in terms of competing for work. Smaller practices get squeezed out. In Limerick, the fees are lower and there isn’t the draw for practices from Dublin to come to Limerick. I’d say if we were in Dublin we’d be having the same experiences as small practices there.

A: I think it partly comes down to luck but we also focused on doing a good job instead of worrying about what we got paid. We’re a small office so we could work for less and make do. We felt that getting work built was the most important thing. Moyross Community Centre started off as a half a million euro project eight years ago but it just happened that it kept growing. The brief got bigger but we were still retained as architects. That’s a good example of a community-based project that has education, training, offices and cafes and one which has helped us secure more public work. A project like that isn’t about making money, it’s about doing good work.

C: We’ve been lucky but we’ve also been in that situation where turnover has excluded us from tendering for projects that we thought we were capable of.

How do you think Covid-19 will affect architecture?
C: I think we’ll know more next year. If it does continue and if there’s no short-term solution, I can see it changing architecture. We’ll see a lot more buildings with covered outdoor spaces and external access. I think there are some building types, like shopping malls, that might suffer more than others. Thankfully so far, funding seems to be continuing for public works.

A: Stimulus packages are helping and there seems to be a lot of funding coming from a lot of different directions. We have quite a lot of work on right now but it’s in a year or two years’ time when the stimulus packages run out that we could have something to worry about. The last recession was extremely tough and it lasted a lot longer in Limerick and in the West than it did in Dublin. It’s only in the past three years that things have gone back to a reliable level of work. That’s why we’ve stayed so small. We talk about expanding our office into the city and taking people on all the time, but Covid has put another slant on that. We were hit so badly by the recession that it has made us very risk averse.

What projects are you working on at the moment?
C: We have an innovation hub in Limerick for start-up businesses that’s all about creating a space for them to liaise with more corporate entities. It’s about working in a slightly different way, which is interesting right now considering Covid. I think we’ve moved away from the open plan office model; now, it’s more about small and medium rooms and desk spaces that don’t belong to anyone. I’m not sure if the office is completely gone but the commercial office is definitely going to change.
A: With more and more people wanting to work part-time at home, I think there will be a push for more of these digital hub-type centres around the country. We’re also going to see huge changes in our cities. If large companies no longer want to occupy huge office spaces, cities are going to be quite different. People will have to go back to living and working in the city. This idea that people can commute everywhere is becoming redundant. Covid has forced some of this thinking through, that better design can lead to better cities and better workplaces.

That’s being seen across the country, for example in Malahide with the pedestrianisation of New Street
A: It’s been happening in Limerick as well. We’re heavily involved in a number of campaigns in Limerick and I’m also chair of the Limerick chapter of the Irish Georgian Society. We all came together very early on in Covid and started campaigns around the idea that we need more space. During the lockdown when people stopped going to work, there was less traffic but we found that people were driving a lot faster through the city. In some ways the place was becoming more dangerous for pedestrians. It became quite clear that our walking and cycling infrastructure is not up to scratch at all. Some local authorities have been better than others in terms of addressing those issues. In Dun Laoghaire, we recently met Senior Architect Bob Hannon and we had a cycle around the new cycleways. I think that at times, it takes something like Covid to shows us what we’re not doing well. Here in Limerick, we’ve managed to keep a cycle lane across the Shannon bridge which initially caused a lot of controversy.

You set up in 2006. How did you manage to weather the recession when it hit in 2008?
C: I got a big land when all my clients deserted me! It was a tough few years but we slowly built it back up. I stayed doing architecture, albeit very slowly. We had some jobs and one commission in particular that started just before the recession. That kept going until 2010. The recession hit Limerick pretty hard. There was no communication between any consultants and it only came out afterwards that we all had the same problems but we weren’t talking to each other. We were all fiercely competing for the little bit of work that was out there.

A: I ended up diversifying, starting another small business and becoming a successful garden designer. There just wasn’t enough work for the two of us in the practice. Initially, I started a business called Sow and Grow which was all about teaching kids how to garden. I went into schools and did training programmes for teachers and people in creches and also did some community work through Ballyhoura. I even worked with people with mental health issues in terms of using horticulture as a therapy. It was all really interesting. That brought us up to 2014 and the City of Culture when I had the idea of doing a Bloom garden. Things picked up after that and I came back into the practice.

Is there a project that really got Drake Hourigan noticed?
A: Definitely An Riocht. People say awards don’t matter but in a way they do because when your peers acknowledge that your work is up to a high standard, it gives your clients confidence in you. Even though we’re a year on from the award, ordinary people on the street still mention it to us. In terms of the education sector, it’s been a big boost. The Department of Education is actually amending their guidelines at the moment and will be using An Riocht as an exemplar project, which is great.

Were you able to deviate much from the Department’s guidelines when it came to the design for An Riocht?
C: We were given quite a specific plan with not a huge amount of wiggle room. We took a bit of licence with it and emphasised some spaces over others. Ailish employed her garden expertise and refocused the department’s plan a little onto the sensory garden. We felt that the interior space didn’t really relate to it in the department’s plans so we tried to reorientate the classrooms to the sensory garden in a very active way. Now, the classrooms open right out to the gardens. That has worked much better than we could ever have imagined.

A: We worked closely with the principal and teachers and tried to get a good overall sense of how the school worked. We created spontaneous social spaces with seating and benches that weren’t specifically on the brief. They may seem like a basic addition but when they’re not put into a building, their absence is felt.
C: Parents of special needs children were really pleased that they were entering the school through the same entrance as the mainstream kids. They weren’t bringing their kids around the back of the school into a separate standalone building. Children with special needs aren’t being singled out in any way. That also proved more important to people than we would have thought.

What’s your experience with BCAR?
C: BCAR is just another layer of work we need to get through. We take it very seriously and it has become a big part of the job on site now. A lot of it can depend on the contractor; if you have one that’s well organised they can make your experience with it much easier. I think BCAR is a good step but I’d prefer to see building control play a more active role in the construction industry. In the UK, when you’re on site you get visited and inspected by building control; I think that’s a much better system.

BCAR sometimes feels like we’re just collecting information so if something goes wrong, you can ascribe blame to the right place. it would work better if it was more specific and if you had a building inspector coming to site. That would obviously be much more expensive and local authorities would need to more than quadruple their staffing levels in building control. I don’t see that happening any time soon but it would be interesting if they could get to that point. In terms of really improving construction standards, that’s what needs to happen.

What other challenges are affecting the sector at the moment?
A: I think there’s a huge challenge around climate change for architects. What’s becoming clear is that we have a huge building stock that needs to be retrofitted and reused. Some of it is heritage, some is protected structures and some is more recent. The embodied energy in those buildings isn’t really being taken seriously at the moment. I think that needs to be measured and built into processes like NZEB. There’s a significant building stock in Ireland that needs to be kept because there’s a huge stock of embodied energy in it and we can’t afford to keep knocking buildings and rebuilding. Sometimes I think we might have overstepped with NZEB a little bit. If you make the standards too high it makes it expensive whereas if you make the standards not lower but maybe broader, you could refurbish more buildings and maybe focus more on insulation and ventilation.


Denise Maguire   Editor of Irish Construction Industry Magazine & Plan Magazine