“To be able to build well, you have to know how to build.”

7 Oct , 2021  

During a lifetime of service to construction, Dunwoody & Dobson director Michael O’Sullivan has always placed a major emphasis on quality workmanship. Building Ireland spoke to the vastly-experienced Galway native to get his views on the current health of the industry and to assess how things might be improved for the betterment of all.

Few construction companies in Ireland boast a legacy of delivering excellence to rival that of Dunwoody & Dobson Ltd., who have been providing unrivalled building solutions for well in excess of a century. With its genesis dating back to 1905, this peerless Dublin 2 based contractor boasts an exceptional track record, consistently providing a full range of construction services across all sectors including healthcare, education, heritage and public works.

Director Michael O’Sullivan’s passion for construction is infectious and epitomises the ethos of quality that permeates every facet of Dunwoody & Dobson. Michael is not one for tribalism; when he speaks, he provides a voice not just for his own company but for the industry as a whole:

“It’s absolutely imperative that we instil in young people that quality has to be paramount,” he insists. “It’s critical that we always leave good workmanship behind – projects, both large and small that you can be proud of and stand over or revisit with your head held high.

“Unfortunately, this seems to be a dying ethos in the industry and there are a lot of people in it for a short term gain or quick buck, while surveyors, architects and building managers don’t always fully understand how to put everything together on a building site. You have to have a grasp not just of computers but also of the practical reality of what’s happening on site and how this all comes together. People, at all levels of the industry need to be given more practical on-the-ground experience. Computers can take you so far but to be able to build well, you have to know how to build.”

Michael – who is chairman of the Register of Heritage Contractors and holds many other key roles within the industry – has first-hand practical experience of all aspects of construction … from shovelling concrete to working in a joinery and an architect’s office. He joined Dunwoody & Dobson in 1982 and has been on the board since 1987.

“You need to love construction to be involved for so long – to come through recessions and witness so much change,” he concedes. “There has been drastic change in construction in the last 15 years or so. Change in the industry used to be slow and carefully thought through, which was not necessarily a bad thing, but it has accelerated dramatically and it hasn’t always been for the better, unfortunately. People forget that it’s ultimately all about quality building and leaving a legacy behind you that you can be proud of as a builder.”

A specialist in restoration work on historic buildings and a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Building, Michael has had the distinction of overseeing works on some of the most prestigious historical landmarks in the capital, including Dublin City Hall, the National Library, Government Buildings, Leinster House and Trinity College Dublin. He has come a long way since providing labour on construction sites in his native Connemara during his summer holidays from school in the early ‘seventies!

“I started working in a joiner’s shop after completing my Leaving Cert,” he recalls. “I realised I needed to further my education and went to the then RTC in Galway where I received a Certificate in Construction Studies before working as a technician for a firm of architects. I was in that office for a couple of years and then returned to third-level college in Bolton Street, where I got my Diploma in Building Technology before joining Dunwoody & Dobson.”

The personable Dunwoody & Dobson director views construction as an art form. He believes buildings should be meticulously and thoughtfully crafted using due diligence and skilled workmanship. “With so many subcontractors and fragmented trades involved these days on a typical site, people aren’t as diligent and accurate. Everybody has to work together seamlessly and they have to be conscious of the other parties involved in the project. The foundation has to be right for the blockwork and everything follows on from what went before. Consideration is required here and the various trades have to think about one another and be cognisant of finishing their tasks properly, which isn’t always the case.

“That wasn’t the case when I started out. There was more unity of purpose on site. My dad was a perfectionist, a highly skilled joiner, a foreman and a boat builder. When building projects he always had the same teams working with him. I can tell you that the slagging was unreal if something wasn’t right or if somebody did something that would make life more difficult for one of his colleagues in the following trades.”

Privately owned by three generations of the Dunwoody family, Dunwoody & Dobson Ltd is built upon cornerstones of experience, knowledge, commitment and pride. Their enduring success is due to committed and highly qualified management and technical staff, who ensure delivery of projects to the highest standards on time and within budget.

A full range of building services associated with a major construction company are provided, including management contracting, design & build, alliance/partnering and turnkey contracts in addition to traditional building arrangements by whatever procurement methods clients may require. With their own standalone joinery workshop based in the city centre, Dunwoody & Dobson have a decided advantage in completing projects within agreed timeframes.

Having built up an impressive portfolio of repeat clients across the full spectrum of Irish business through their reputation for performance, quality and value for money, the company currently generates direct employment for an experienced, expert crew of 35 and these exceptional personnel are viewed and treated as its greatest asset. Several of their Site Managers / Foremen have been with the company for more than 35 years, many having started their careers with Dunwoody & Dobson.

Health & Safety are top priorities and significant resources are deployed in supervision and training to maintain a safe environment for all workers on site. The exemplary safety record has been hugely important to the business development of the company and vitally important to the sustainability of staff and workers throughout the sites.

With contracts varying in type and size, the core area of activity is the delivery of complex medium-to-large industrial, educational, institutional, medical, commercial and heritage projects – both new build and refurbishment. The company motto – Quality Since 1905 – is not just a slogan but imbues Dunwoody & Dobson from site to boardroom.

“Up until the last recession we had 100 people employed directly but economically we couldn’t keep that up because we had agreed union rates of pay,” Michael reveals. “I am a strong advocate of having trade unions representing staff the company has maintains a very good working relations with them over the years, but new forms of contract and the lack of a legal and enforceable sectorial agreement for the industry, made employing all our own direct trades impossible to maintain unfortunately.

“We found that using subcontractors gave us price certainty and made us more competitive, however for the industry generally this shift across the board by contractors has been to the detriment for the training of apprentices across the trades. We pared it down to a team of 35 in house. Because we carry out a lot of sensitive work in hospitals and within the pharma and high-tech industries, you need that core of experienced and qualified guys. We also have strong relationships with a trusted network of subbies, some of whom are ex-employees of ours. We have a tight-knit team in the office and all five directors have been with the company long-term.”

At the time of writing, Dunwoody & Dobson were busy working on a number of healthcare / hospital projects throughout the capital, including both fit-outs and maintenance works. While healthcare work accounts for around 50% of turnover, they pride themselves on providing solutions across a broad range of sectors. “We have separate departments covering the full gambit,” Michael confirms. “As a medium-sized company, it’s impossible to rely on any one market as you won’t have a continuous flow of work. We tend to go up to €10m projects as we are more competitive within that market and work very steadily, making no mistakes.

“We do a lot of work for the HSE and find them very good to work for. They are very professional and they drive you hard to meet deadlines and to work to a high standard. They know exactly what they want and we know the quality they expect.”

Although healthcare work was deemed essential during the public health emergency restrictions that hit construction over the winter and spring, Dunwoody & Dobson still had to put a number of projects on hold and release some staff temporarily. Michael admits they were feeling the pinch going into Q2 2021:

“When this pandemic issue all started, the industry moved quickly to develop an action plan to reduce the infection risk spreading on building sites. We put measures in place to make sure we were creating a safe workplace that complied with public health guidelines. Implementing those measures cost us a lot of money and some of these are non-recoverable costs. We went as far as we could to make sure our sites were operating safely and healthily, so it was disappointing for construction that much of the work was shut down. I suppose we can’t complain too much as others were hit much harder. While turnover was down, at least we were able to keep going in some capacity.

“A big issue facing the industry is the loss of good trades people and staff. The industry was suffering from a shortage, prior to the pandemic which has exacerbated the shortage. Many of them have left the country or transferred to other industries and it’s not going to be easy to fill that gaps.”

Looking to the future, Michael, who is a member of the Executive Council of the Master Builders and Contractors Association, has some serious reservations about the potentially-detrimental road that Irish construction could be pushed down by the government as industry begins to re-open: “I have a concern going forward in that I fear the government will pump a large amount of money into this industry as it has a quick turnover within the economy and spin-off industries, so will be seen as the ideal way to kickstart the economy again.

“But, as an industry, I don’t believe we have the capacity to suddenly ramp up output levels and carry out the extra work to a high standard due to the trades deficit. Can you spend a twelve-month construction budget in just seven months? Most government departments’ construction budgets, for example, has to be spent inside the calendar year. The general construction industry is only getting back to work, since 4th May.  I can see subcontractors and specialist contractors are going to be very picky and choosy on project selection and prices are going to rise.

“Materials across a range of products are scarcer and more difficult to source also with a lot of them still coming through England post-Brexit and no supply chains opened through Europe as of yet. I fear we are going to witness massive inflation in the industry and difficulty getting projects completed within time. The necessary expertise and quality might not be there and work is going to be rushed.”

Michael believes quality must continue to be the premier driver behind construction: “We have to maintain a major emphasis on quality,” the Galway native concludes. “It’s important to keep the number of projects at a manageable level as – in the push to get the industry going again – we don’t want to lapse back to the levels of defective workmanship witnessed during the boom.

“Builders will always say yes to work, especially after going through lean times, but, if construction takes on a huge increase in volume, will it be at the expense of quality and workmanship? It shouldn’t be. Quality must always come first.”

Dunwoody & Dobson Ltd.

10 Grattan Street,

Dublin 2.

Tel: 01 6765811

Fax: 01 6765966

Email: [email protected]

Web: dunwoody.ie

This article was published in Building Ireland Magazine, August, Vol 7 No 8