Colin Dalton, Director at Gray Design, talks to Plan about nurturing relationships with developers and breaking into public sector work

When did you set up Gray Design?
Myself and the other director in the practice, Barry Gray, set up in 2006. We were both working for other architects in Newry at the time and before that, I had worked at JNP Architects in Dublin for six years. Setting up on our own came about due to circumstances rather than anything else. I was taking on my own work outside office hours and it got to the point where I could either continue working evenings and weekends or set up with Barry. So that’s what we did.

In 2006, you would have had only a couple of years before the recession kicked in
Yes, it was unfortunate timing! Initially, our work was focused on extensions and one-off houses which worked out well for us, as those jobs kept us going throughout the recessionary years. Commercial work had stopped so it was those smaller jobs that allowed us to scrape through.

When did you set up the Dublin office?
About six years ago. We were securing enough work in and around Dublin to go ahead and open the office. We’re based in Trinity Street in Dublin 2. We opened our Belfast office before that, in 2013.

You’re a relatively small practice with three offices around the country. What do you attribute that success to?
I’d say it’s word of mouth. We have a track record of completing projects on time and on budget and potential new clients were hearing about it. Ireland is a small place, developers know each other and that word of mouth and recommendation led on to bigger brands. Although it’s initially difficult to develop a relationship with some of those bigger brands, once you’re in with them and you deliver a quality project, you’re generally retained.

What kind of work are you doing at the moment?
Currently, we’ve got a £2.5 million DIY shop on site in Bray and a sports centre in Leixlip, which is due to go to site this year. Dobbies, a UK chain of garden centres, is opening a branch in Antrim and we’ve been taken on to design it; that’s a 110,000 sq ft £5 million project. We’re also working on a McDonald’s in Larne, which will be our second restaurant for the chain. In the UK, McDonald’s will actually come along and pop up a modular build for each of its restaurants, but it’s not cost-effective to send those modular builds to Northern Ireland. Instead, McDonald’s give us the specification for their restaurants and instruct us on exactly how the building is to look. We almost have to backward engineer in order to build a traditional construction, which is then inspected by McDonald’s to ensure it meets their specifications. The first one was difficult but it worked out well and has led to the second restaurant in Larne, which is due to finish on site in February.

Do you still do residential work?
Yes, we’ve retained the residential side of the practice and still take on larger extensions and one-off houses. Right now, we’ve got a private 60-house residential scheme in Co Down that’s just finishing up on site and we also have an 80-house scheme that’s going into planning in Newry.

How much of an effect has Covid had on the practice?
We were able to transition to working from home fairly smoothly. Communicating with each other was something of an issue though; when someone comes up with a drawing, you print it out, sit around a table and start making notes on top of it. That’s not something you can do over Zoom, so there was definitely a challenging six-month period in 2020 when we were all trying to work from home. Thankfully, that phase is behind us now.

What challenges do you face as an architect?
Delays of materials to site are certainly creating difficulties. For example, the McDonald’s project that’s due to finish in February was actually due to complete at the end of December last year. The wall cladding specified for the building is made in a factory in Germany, which actually closed down due to Covid. McDonald’s had to accept an alternative cladding, which meant sourcing it from a different factory, which takes time. Covid and Brexit have also led to an increase in the price of materials, which has led to builders’ prices going through the roof. Contractors who maybe tendered a job 18 months ago and who have started on site are now realising they can’t actually finish the whole job for the initial tender price. It’s happened on a few jobs where I’ve just had to walk away. It’s also happened where I’ve sat down with the client to see if they can increase their budget to try and cover the costs of materials or labour.

How do clients react to that kind of request?
Some are easier to deal with than others. We’ve had two jobs where the contractor has said to the client, look, I’ll get the building watertight but then I’ll have to walk away. We also have clients that are aware of the market and have agreed increased prices on certain materials.

Do you find clients are open to ideas? Are they willing to be creative?
Absolutely. They’re very aware of climate change and so are interested in new technologies like renewables and ideas around heating homes in a more energy efficient way. We find that clients are open to using materials that they maybe wouldn’t have considered previously. There’s plenty of work out there; I’d say that we’re busier today than we’ve ever been in all the years we’ve been practicing.

What do you enjoy about architecture?
I like the design element and seeing projects go from the design process to actually getting built. I’m not so great when it comes to running the business; luckily Barry is good on that end.

How many members of staff do you have?
We’re about to go from nine to 10 staff members shortly. That number is spread across the three offices. We try and move staff around the three locations so they get experience across all projects. The last architect we took on was recently qualified but had no experience; due to Covid, he didn’t get a chance to do his year out in an office. It’s difficult to find experienced staff. I think that in order to retain staff, you have to look after them. A positive, comfortable working environment is essential these days, particularly in such a competitive marketplace.

Any plans to open a fourth office?
No, not at the minute. Between Newry, Dublin and Belfast, we’re as spread out as we’d like to be. Having the Dublin office means we can potentially take on projects anywhere in the country. We’re actually looking at jobs in Cork and Portlaoise at the moment.

What’s the ethos of the practice?
If we can provide our clients with a good service and complete jobs on time and on budget, then we’re happy. We seem to be on the right track at the moment; we’re getting plenty of repeat work from the bigger developers, which is always a good thing. We’d like to push for more work in Dublin and that’s what we’re focusing on at the moment, but building new relationships with developers takes time. We’d also like to expand further into healthcare and education. We’ve just taken on a new senior architect who has a background in the public sector; he’s going to spend some time trying to get into public work, which is a difficult area to break into. You can’t do public work unless you’ve got previous experience, but you can’t get experience without doing the work! It’s a real chicken and egg scenario but we’ll persevere with it. It’s about getting your foot in the door and that’s something we know all about.


Denise Maguire   Editor of Irish Construction Industry Magazine & Plan Magazine