Niall Byrne: ‘A contractor will only tender a price based on the information you give them.’ Picture: Maura Hickey
THE BIG INTERVIEW
‘If the government started talking to us, we could save a lot of money for the state’ – Niall Byrne, NMB Architects The specialised firm has more than 30 years’ experience designing industrial and commercial projects for pharmaceutical, medical device and high-tech clients
LORCAN ALLEN, SEPTEMBER 24, 2023
Niall Byrne is a man with the expertise and experience to help save the government hundreds of millions of euro every year. There’s only one small problem – the state isn’t listening to what he has to say.
A registered architect with his own firm, NMB Architects, Byrne specialises in industrial and commercial projects and has over 30 years’ experience in designing complex offices and manufacturing facilities, particularly for pharmaceutical, medical device and high-tech clients.
He’s worked on large-scale projects in LA, New York, and all across Europe and Asia. One of his most recent projects was the design of a €220 million vaccine plasma facility in Brisbane for an Australian pharma company.
So when he looks at large capital projects the state is investing in – such as the new National Children’s Hospital, which is now projected to cost more than double its original budget at over €2 billion – the Wexford native understands exactly why the cost inflation on these developments is so severe.
Name and role: Niall Byrne MRIAI, managing director of NMB Architects Ltd
Lives: Castlebridge, Co Wexford
Family: Married with three children
My working day: Usually I start at 6am. When possible, I try to arrange one or two days a week to drop my sons to school. My schedule varies, but each week begins with an internal office meeting to review plans for the coming week and a lookahead to upcoming projects. A typical day includes meetings and presentations with existing and future clients (both Irish and international), mostly via teams but sometimes in person
My perfect weekend: Knowing the NMBA team have completed another successful week, I am able to relax spending time with my family, maybe a dinner out and hopefully fitting in a game of golf on the Sunday
Early bird or night owl: An early bird
“One of the biggest problems with all of these large capital projects is that the state is going out and seeking prices from contractors using very weak tender documents. And a contractor will only tender a price based on the information you give them,” Byrne says.
“When you sign contracts with a developer on the back of a weak tender document, it’s almost inevitable the costs will soar over the life of the project. Because from that moment on, every change or variation made to the project is going to cost you.”
In a bid to prevent a repeat of the delays and cost overruns in the National Children’s Hospital project, the government introduced new spending rules that add more checks and balances.
However, Byrne says the government needs to change its approach and should invest in more “robust” tender processes at the very early stages of a project. He says this approach will shield the taxpayer from the sort of eye-watering cost inflation we’re currently seeing on many state-backed infrastructure projects.
“It doesn’t have to be that way where the state overpays. If the government invested in the early stages of a project and compiled a more detailed design document for tenders, it would create more cost certainty and a more realistic delivery schedule. And the savings from that early investment would be exponential,” Byrne adds.
“If there’s more information in the document, it will create greater competition in the tender pricing process. And if you have a more realistic delivery schedule, it avoids the disappointment of time delays and the knock-on impacts associated with that.”
A native of Co Wexford, Byrne studied architecture at Oxford Brookes University in Britain before qualifying from the prestigious Architectural Association school of architecture in Bedford Square in London.
His first exposure to industrial architecture came when he spent seven years in the late 1990s and early 2000s working for Jacobs, the US engineering and construction management firm. During his time with the firm, Byrne helped design industrial manufacturing sites for large pharma and high-tech clients in the US, Europe and Asia, which he says opened his eyes to the need for “beautiful and joyful” spaces in these facilities.
“Most people don’t see an industrial building as being architecture at all. But if you think about people working in a big metal shed for a pharmaceutical company, you have to try and make their experience enjoyable. And that means allowing them to engage with the environment outside, creating spaces where they can feel part of something and interact with their colleagues in a relaxed manner,” he says.
To achieve this, Byrne says architects began introducing simple features in industrial buildings like windows and the use of bright, primary colours.
“That seems very simple, but it brings on conversation with your colleagues, whereas if you’re in an enclosed space it’s much more restricted. The use of colour to create warmer, happier environments was also a simple improvement on cold whites and greys, which do have a negative impact on people. If there’s joyful colours in a building, people will feel joyful,” Byrne says.
“This is crucial because the environment sets the tone for the working ethos that people hold in a company. What we discovered was that if you invest in better industrial spaces, not only does it improve the quality of life for the people working there, but in the long run it improves the profits for the company because the employees are more productive.”
The €220 million vaccine plasma facility in Brisbane designed by Niall Byrne for Aegros, an Australian pharma start-up
After working more than 20 years in the industry, Byrne decided to set up his own firm in 2018 as he believed there was a gap in the market for a design firm that offered clients more robust and detailed project designs.
“Back in the early days, the large firms were design companies that managed construction. But over time, construction became their main focus. They became the constructor rather than the designer because there was more money in the construction of a project,” he says.
“The gap that I saw was for a firm that offered more detailed early studies, which capture more of what will fall out of a project once it commences.
“If you can identify variations early in a project plan, it can be more cost effective because you design around the variation or with it. Whereas if the variation emerges during construction, the extra costs can be exponential.”
The core areas of focus for NMB Architects are the medical device and pharmaceutical sectors, where the company has done work across a number of international projects.
Byrne says the firm is also moving into the high-tech space, aiming to design facilities for semiconductor manufacturers, as well as the food and beverage sector. The Irish firm has recently won a contract to design a manufacturing facility in South America for one of the world’s best known soft drinks companies, according to Byrne.
NMB Architects currently employs 15 architects across two offices in Dublin and Wexford, while the firm opened a third office in Paris earlier this year that has three staff. Byrne says he established an office in the French capital to be closer to the corporate headquarters of most European pharmaceutical firms, which he expects will deliver project wins from large clients.
Right from the start, Byrne says NMB Architects has been an internationally focused firm, with 75 per cent of its current project pipeline based overseas. One recent project that the firm completed work on was the detailed design of a €220 million (A$350 million) vaccine plasma facility in Brisbane, Australia for Aegros, an Australian pharma start-up company that has pioneered plasma fractionation technology.
Byrne says the main trends in industrial architecture today centre on sustainability, biodiversity and flexibility.
“Believe it or not, pharmaceutical plants are near replicas of an airport in terms of their design. It’s all about the flow of people, product and materials, and ensuring there’s no crossover or bottlenecks. And the site also needs to have expandability,” he says.
“But now companies want more flexibility in their manufacturing sites, which is why we’re using modular construction in the clean rooms. In theory, those rooms can be taken down and put up again in a different formation.
“The sustainability of a pharmaceutical plant is really all down to how we design the spaces. If we can make clean rooms smaller and more efficient, it means there are huge energy savings on filtered clean air in those spaces.”
So where does he see the growth opportunities for his firm heading in the coming years?
“We’re planning to move into the US market very soon. We’re currently exploring an opportunity with some partners to work on a pharma project in South Carolina. Outside of our core business, I also see us working across more government projects in the future,” Byrne says.
“If the government started talking to us in the early stages of projects and allowed us to prepare early site master plans and concept design for their tender document, I believe we can minimise the variations and save a lot of money for the state.”
IN HIS OWN WORDS: WHY IRELAND PRODUCES WORLD CLASS-CONSTRUCTION PROFESSIONALS
The standard of education in this country means the quality of architects, architectural technologists and other construction professionals we’re producing is superior in so many ways to other countries. It’s way beyond what I’ve seen in other parts of the world. I think it’s just something we’re very good at in this country.
The construction professionals we’re producing in Ireland, their in-depth knowledge of specific fields, and their ability to collaborate with other disciplines to be able to give a cohesive, strong response to any project, really is second to none. It’s not just about the architecture but also the mechanical, civil, structural and electrical engineering. It’s always a cohesive design approach to large industrial projects and I find that people in Ireland genuinely can provide a really strong solution to any problem.