As increasing numbers of Irish engineering firms take on projects in Europe, Pieter Koning outlines how to overcome localisation challenges during the different steps of the design and construction process
Civil

 

 Author: Pieter Konings Msc MIEI CEng, project engineer, RKD Architects

Architecture and engineering (AE) practices are increasingly looking to available projects all over Europe. The main reason for this is the increased integration of Europe as a continent, with better, more affordable travel connections constantly being developed. In addition, increased IT cloud services and better broadband connections have significantly improved communication methods such as teleconferencing, online meetings and file sharing.

In Ireland, it is particularly common to look abroad. IT and pharmaceutical multinationals that are headquartered in this country can spread their wings across the EMEA (Europe, the Middle East and Africa) region, but still stick with their trusted local designers and consultants closer to home. In addition, the economic downturn has fostered the entrepreneurial spirit of Irish businesses and spurred them to develop and sell their skills abroad.

It is clear that opportunities are out there. However, in the end, the architect and the engineer still develop the design (for the most part) in Ireland, even if the actual project will be developed outside the island. This is where true engineering and architectural skills become important because the designer, consultant or contractor needs to fully understand the local situation. How does this localisation work and what challenges can teams expect during the different steps in the design and construction process?

This article is written from a construction point of view and most of the article is focused on issues specifically relating to this industry. However, because some parts of the article apply to engineering in general, this article can be of interest to engineers of all disciplines who wish to take their skills abroad.

LOCAL DESIGN INTERPRETATION

As a base rule, the Irish design team has to fit into the local situation, with its unique rules and habits. It is essential to fully understand the laws of the land and investigate the code requirements to which a project must comply. Design teams mainly operating in one country tend to rely on automatisms: design solutions are no longer questioned, as they are fixed in regulations or regarded as best practice. In most cases, this is a very safe and appropriate practice, as it allows design teams to fast and efficiently develop schemes in a competitive setting.

However, what happens when bringing skills outside of Ireland? Suddenly, a designer or consultant is in a situation where Irish building regulations have no standing. Acronyms such as TGDs, the NRA and the DMRB are practically meaningless, and virtually every design decision can be questioned.

And every design decision will indeed be questioned, if not by design leads, then by clients or local authorities. When developing business abroad, it is therefore critical that local knowledge is, in some form, added to the design team. This can be by having a native on the team or a subconsultant who performs peer reviews. Recurring design co-ordination reviews are critical for a successful project.

EUROPEAN STANDARDISATION

In an attempt to encourage trading within the European Union, all national standards are gradually being replaced by harmonised European standards (hEN). These standards already cover most of construction products and are the basis for the European product branding: the CE mark. The CE mark is required to be placed by (in principle) the manufacturer on a product and is a guarantee by the manufacturer that the product has been made and tested in accordance with the relevant hEN standards.

This should be accompanied by a performance certificate, which highlights the relevant hENs that apply and the main performance criteria. Where a hEN exists, a CE mark is legally obligated in any EU country.

This European regulation is of vital importance when bringing knowledge abroad. Specifications of products based on experience are now equally applicable in other countries. For design teams, it now becomes possible to set out performance criteria and have them relate back to a European standard, something that will mean exactly the same anywhere in the EU.

It is important to note that not all construction products are covered by a hEN. The difficulties lie within these grey areas. For example, in Ireland, a local IS code sets out requirements but elsewhere, a foreign code may not exist. In those cases, it is of vital importance to liaise with local specialists on the situation.

On top of the hEN or local code, it is always possible for a designer (should a client want this) to specify criteria set out in a standard that is not of the native country, as long as it does not contradict local code. In such cases, AE teams need to be able to give full details on the specifications, as local consultants or contractors will not be familiar with these.

STATUTORY COMPLIANCE

For several reasons, the ability to have team members who speak the local language is critical:

  1. The interpretation of local zoning plans, building regulations and standards;
  2. The application for permits; and
  3. Communication with the local authorities.

In some cases, very flexible and co-operating authorities will be involved, but in order to keep them on board, they need to be approached in their own language.

From personal experience, it is advisable to maintain a very proactive approach to the local authority. It shows engagement, commitment to include them in the process, and a willingness to understand the local situation. This is of course the case when doing project at home, but even more when working abroad.

The types of statutory compliances can differ greatly according to country and situation. In the Netherlands, for example, there is a completely separate layer of authority with the sole purpose of management of the water in the region: the so-called water boards/water authorities. They require a separate permit/notice, even if no significant changes to waterways are made.

In many countries, there is also an aesthetic committee that decides how a design fits in an environment and may have a separate set of requirements. It is critical to be aware of these different permits and their requirements.

Everyone in the world will agree that construction needs to be safe, and that this is the responsibility of all the members in the design and construction team. The fact is, however, that the construction industry in Europe has one of the worst health and safety records. This is mostly due to the physical nature of the labour, the exposure to different hazards and weather types and use of heavy machinery.

The European Directive 92/57/EEC sets out the groundworks for a common health and safety approach. Following this directive, roles such as project supervisor design process, project supervisor construction stage, client, designer and contractor have similar descriptions and responsibilities in member states. However, although on a legislative level there is agreement on responsibilities, local traditions seem to keep the upper hand when it comes to implementation. Both designers and contractors, especially when focusing on a local project, may not be in touch with European directives or best practice and they may fall back to ‘how it has always been done’.

There is a lot to say for using trusted and proven techniques, but the health and safety standards we know today bear no comparison to those from the past. The Irish construction industry, with its well-defined roles and duties and solid follow-up scheme, can serve as example for projects in the European area. Needless to say, there is a challenge for Irish designers and contractors to optimise local health and safety practices based on the Irish model.

CONCLUSION

All in all, it can be concluded that Irish design and construction practises can offer added value for projects within Europe. Irish health and safety standards are of very high compared to most member states, and specifically in this area, the Irish methods can contribute to safer construction projects abroad.

Irish businesses are well used to a thorough statutory compliance process and the fact that English is the main spoken language in Ireland ensures good communication lines generally with local teams. Continued efforts in the development of European standards open up new markets for suppliers, which makes the application and specification of these products in the EU easier.

Doing business abroad is exciting, it allows the engineers and architects to question their core competencies while developing experience and network. Developing business abroad, however, does come with its challenges and pitfalls. However, with proper management, communication, sharing of information and local representation, these can be avoided.

Pieter Konings Msc MIEI CEng works as project engineer for RKD Architects in its Business Critical Facility Team and is involved in the development of several industrial, pharmaceutical and educational developments within the EU. Previously, Pieter worked on the development of different Luas lines in Dublin. Before his move to Ireland, he worked in the Netherlands as an infrastructural engineer on rail and road projects.

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   Author: Pieter Konings Msc MIEI CEng, project engineer, RKD Architects Architecture and engineering (AE) practices are increasingly looking to available projects all over Europe. The main reason for this is the increased integration of Europe as a continent, with better, more affordable travel connections constantly being developed. In addition, increased...