Ireland has a boom in infrastructure work but a shortage of staff to do it. On a road project in Cork, co-operation across the Irish Sea has been vital to getting the job done, says Diarmaid Fleming.
It may seem like any other road project, but the upgrade of Ireland's N8 national route from Glanmire to Watergrasshill near Cork City shows how the huge volume of construction work generated by the country's IRú6bn ($6.5bn) National Development Plan (NDP) has changed the way the industry works on major infrastructure projects. The dual carriageway road has been jointly designed by Irish and British engineers, while a joint venture between a UK and an Irish firm will build it.
The road is almost the last leg of the main route linking the capital Dublin with Cork, the Republic's second largest city. The existing single carriageway meanders through the lush countryside, providing a pleasant view but a less than pleasing journey for those in a hurry. Coupled with safety concerns due to the road's alignment, this led to a decision to include a new realigned 10km stretch in the country's shopping list for new roads under the NDP.
Major road projects under the programme are co-ordinated by the country's National Roads Authority (NRA). The active client role is fulfilled by the relevant local authority, which staffs seven National Roads Offices responsible for executing the work for the NRA.
But the massive surge in construction work has led to severe capacity problems and staff shortages, affecting local authorities, contractors and consultants alike.
With the urgency of completing the NDP by 2006 a major plank of government policy, delaying projects due to lack of resources would represent a serious setback. Cork County Council, however, is responsible for the largest county area in Ireland with a raft of construction projects.
The Cork office of consultant McCarthy was initially appointed in December 1998 to work on the major structures on the scheme. This involved the design of four post-tensioned road overbridges, three road underbridges and a 55m span cable stayed pedestrian footbridge. Cork County Council engineers had intended to carry out the detailed road design and preparation of tender documents.
But all was soon to change. By February 1999 UK consultant WS Atkins had bought the firm, which became Atkins McCarthy.
The new firm is another manifestation of the changed face of Irish engineering, with many established practices bought up or establishing partnerships with UK megaconsultants. These combine familiarity and knowledge of the local market with the firepower of an international name, adding significant capacity to the Irish consultancy sector.
Cork County Council meanwhile was experiencing the difficulties of staff shortages combined with a surge in workload. Concerned about meeting the tender deadline, it decided to engage the consultant directly to complete the design and prepare the contract documents, working alongside its own staff.
'We had made great efforts to recruit staff but had been unsuccessful, and we have a very ambitious programme of work, ' says Cork County Council National Roads Office projects manager Tony Mullane.
'There was a very tight timetable to design the job, which was due to go out to tender in May 2000, ' says Atkins McCarthy project director Martin Jennings. 'The council asked us to help with the overall design. It was a first for us. A joint team was set up, working both in our offices and at the council's, with staff working together.'
'It was unusual to have this type of arrangement, but it was a successful collaboration and partnership, ' Mullane confirms.
'With the shortage of our resources and volume of workload it would have been very difficult to have completed the work on time.'
The Atkins link was to prove of major benefit. 'The accelerated programme to complete the design meant that it was a major asset to have all the expertise in house, ' says Jennings.
Staff in WS Atkins' Cambridge office were soon roped in to provide assistance. 'We brought over key staff such as Moss designers, technicians and project reviewers to Cork. People could be here during the week and home for the weekend, ' explains Atkins McCarthy project engineer Daragh Quill.
While some work such as landscaping and ecology was done from the UK, doing everything remotely was not an option for a fast-track engineering design.
'With the timescales involved on a project like this you need the interaction of people working together to solve problems, says Quill.' Design and preparation of tender documents was complete within four months.
The tender was won by a joint venture of Mowlem and Cork firm Bowen for ú32M. But hopes that the project could get an early start were dashed by the foot and mouth crisis, which struck in February.
'We were in the process of letting the contract when the epidemic broke out, ' Jennings reports. 'There were more than 60 landowners around the site and we had to enter into detailed discussions with all of them about proceeding.'
While the Republic had only one outbreak in County Louth, at the other end of the country, the importance of agriculture to the Irish economy placed the country on a near war footing. All events involving significant movement of people were cancelled.
A detailed 'protocol' was developed by the Irish Department of the Environment & Local Government, setting out strict rules for construction work in open country and farmland during the crisis.
Unfenced construction activity was deemed 'high risk', requiring the contractor to observe a range of precautions, including fencing off the land and disinfecting vehicles, even to the extent of making special arrangements for staff coming from countries infected with the disease such as the UK.
The measures could range from banning staff who come from within 10km of an infected area to keeping the clothes of people from an infected country separate from those worn on site.
'While the protocol is very detailed, it was seen as reasonable and practical given the seriousness of the situation, ' says Jennings. Local concern was raised about a UK contractor being involved, but as all earthworks staff employed were Irish subcontractors, any fears were allayed. Relaxation of the protocol allowed work to get under way in May.
The route takes the works through soil primarily made up of glacial till on sandstone. The overburden material is highly moisture susceptible.
'It's a balanced cut and fill design, but the amount of material you can take is highly dependent on the time of year, ' says Jennings. On a mild summer's day, material being muckshifted out produces a swirl of dust, but would soon turn to mud in a downpour.
The project involves around 1.7M. m 3of excavation and 1.6M. m 3of fill, so weather is likely to prove a key factor on the delivery of the project in its 33 month timescale.
The heritage trail
Among the giant muckshifters ambling up and down the gentle inclines through the Cork countryside, small clusters of archaeologists beaver away with trowels on tiny excavations in taped-off areas. Discovering what archaeological lessons can be learned from ground undisturbed for thousands of years is considered an important exercise before the civil engineering starts.
A 6m wide run of topsoil is stripped through the route corridor to identify potential sites of interest. 'This gives us a keyhole view of what's to be found before the work starts.
On a long site like this you get a wide range of material, ' says site archaeological director Rory Sherlock. Aerial photos and field walking also help identify relevant sites.
Once something is identified through, for example, changes in soil colour, a site is marked.
But under strict Irish laws, permission to dig further has to be obtained from the statutory body Dachas which grants licences.
One interesting group of finds on the site so far has dated back to 2000BC.
'We have found what are known as fulacht fiadh or burnt mounds, which are Bronze Age cooking places.
Fulacht fiadh are evidence of an unusual way of cooking and are always in areas of marshy ground or near streams with water, ' says Sherlock.
Rocks were heated to high temperature, before being rolled into water until it boiled, with a rate of around 400 litres being boiled in half an hour. Meat joints wrapped in straw were then cooked in the boiling water.
Evidence of these mounds can be seen today by the burned soil colour.
A team of around 20 archaeologists will trowel their way through the sites of interest before roadworks close the land off for good.