The pandemic may prove to be a tipping point in housebuilding as people consider living outside of Ireland’s urban hubs. Alan O’Grady, Managing Director of Galway-based Western Postform Ltd, says a year of Covid lockdowns has led to a shift in mentalities.
“People are going to be more open to moving out of the city centre and living down the country,” he says. “So I think the likes of Ballinasloe, rural towns like Gort and Loughrea in Galway, if they can afford to build houses in those regions, there will be people willing to move out of cities and realise there’s more to Ireland than living in Dublin or big cities.”
As a manufacturer of bespoke fitted furniture and washroom systems, the residential sector forms an important part of Western Postform’s projects, meaning any shift in trends or living patterns is key. “The big challenge of building out in small towns is that the cost of building houses and the cost of buying them doesn’t add up,” O’Grady says. “A builder might say it costs, let’s say €300,000, to build a house but you won’t sell a €300,000 house in Ballinasloe.”
A recent challenge for the company has been the availability and cost of products. “There’s any amount of work out there, the big challenge we have at the moment is getting raw materials. That’s a struggle,” O’Grady says. “Now you’ve got to juggle what you need and what you need fast. Then there’s just price increase after price increase. You don’t know where it’s going to end.”
There have been, however, some big positives to come out of the Covid lockdown period. The company, which employs 60 people in Ballinasloe, moved into a new 40,000 square foot state-of-the-art factory last May. The €6million move, almost three years in the planning and doubling the company’s ground space, also marked 40 years for the business.
“It benefitted us in a lot of ways because we had time, when we did settle in, to develop our new systems and learn about our new machines,” O’Grady says. “The way things are currently, you wouldn’t have had the same time to roll out. Lockdown did help to a certain extent, it was enjoyable that way and kept us busy.”
The new premises is helping to maximise efficiencies and offer a leaner carbon footprint. PIR detection sensors and LED lights have been installed throughout the factory, alongside a biomass burner which consumes 66 per cent of waste material and heats the factory floor. A new Enterprise Recourse Planning system is also allowing the company to monitor inventory and plan purchasing – reducing the need for holding unnecessary stock.
“We’ve no gas or oil in our new factory,” O’Grady says. “We’re not sending much to landfill. Going forward it gives us a lot of credits, a lot of companies are looking at Lean businesses and green certification.”
Western Postform works alongside some of the country’s biggest homebuilders as well as providing for co-living accommodation and student developments. It also collaborates on hotels, schools and hospitals, producing washroom cubicles, vanity units and swimming pool lockers.
The firm has just signed contracts with Bartra for 204 co-iving rooms in Dun Laoghaire and during lockdown worked with JJ Rhatigan and OHL to provide 450 social homes. Other projects include 212 apartments in Cherrywood for Conack, 51 houses in Castletroy for Lincor Construction, 80 homes for O’Malley Construction as well as fitting out Duggan’s 163 bedroom Big Tree Hotel close to Croke Park.
Having joined the family business straight from school and now over 25 years in the industry, O’Grady knows his market well. “They keep up with the times and our products change regularly,” he says. “With social media people can google what they want and then see it in real life. Instagram, Pinterest are all massive. People know what they want, they’ve done the research.”
Looking to the future, he adds, the focus will continue to be on sustainability and growth. “A lot of it is going to be down to efficiencies that we can provide and materials. BREEAM energy efficiency will be big going forward. But every year as it comes.”