When you’ve been involved in the industry as long as Denis Canavan you’ve pretty much seen, and overcome, just about every conceivable construction challenge. So when the boss man of award-winning company Canavan Construction Ltd tells you something is a ‘first’, you know it must be out of the ordinary.
Back in September 2018, work began on a new flagship building for Irish-medium education. Developed by Iontaobhas na Gaelscolaíochta (InaG), the trust fund for Irish language schools, the £2m Áras na bhFál project was the latest addition to West Belfast’s burgeoning Gaeltacht Quarter.
The irony will not be lost on Denis, and particularly Project Manager Brendan Canavan, that the name Falls Road means ‘territory of the enclosures’. For it was space, or rather the lack of it, that created many of the project’s greatest challenges.
Situated at the junction of the Falls Road and Broadway, the proposed four-storey structure left little room for manoeuvre and required some serious brainstorming to find a workable alternative to the customary heavy mobile crane.
“The building was the exact footprint of the site,” Denis explained. “That resulted in the daily challenge of getting men and materials onto a site with little or no storage area when you’re working on the busiest road in West Belfast that has a constant flow of traffic to places like the Royal Victoria Hospital.
“You try and plan for every eventuality at the tender stage, but it can be difficult to predict completely what will work until you try it. It didn’t take long to realise that using a mobile crane parked on the street was never going to be a long-term option, so we had to take a more unconventional approach. In the end, we came up with the idea of constructing a crane inside the lift shaft area, something I’ve never had to do before.”
Client: Iontaobhas na Gaelscolaíochta
Main Contractor: Canavan Construction Ltd
Architect: ARdMackel Architects/Paul McAlister Architects
Quantity Surveyor: Griffin Hughes
Structural Engineer: George Dawson Ltd
Project Manager: Brendan Canavan
Mechanical Contractor: Cuillinn Group
Doffing a cap to the Big Apple’s Broadway district, the distinctive design of Áras na bhFál displays the same creative energy that characterises Manhattan. It may be a new home and focal point for the continued resurgence of an ancient Irish medium, but the building itself is very much of this time.
Modernity takes centre stage with an eye-catching angular aesthetic. The steel frame may have been traditional, but the design’s numerous splays and turns meant bringing the architect’s vision to life was a complex process.
“This was a very unique design,” added Denis. “There were many bespoke elements, like the brickwork outer skin. The upper storeys were clad in zinc. From our point of view it required more specialist tradesmen than most projects.”
Perhaps the most complicated element of the works centred around the third and fourth floor, the latter housing a conference room, external balcony with full height glazed curtain walling, and stunning views of the Belfast Hills. It’s a room that somehow manages to convey simplicity when the architecture is anything but.
Once the site of three small interconnecting properties, this visually striking new building now boasts three floors of Irish language workspace and a ground floor with its own street access level.
“Áras na bhFál is a fabulous addition to Belfast’s growing Gaeltacht Quarter,” enthused Iontaobhas na Gaelscolaíochta Chief Executive, Pilib Ó Ruanaí. “The building provides state-of-the-art workspace for a number of companies that deliver services in Irish to the community and educational sectors throughout the north. It replaces a site that was derelict for a long time and makes a statement about the ambition of the Irish language, as a tool for economic, educational and cultural regeneration.”
Denis Canavan admits to breathing a sigh of relief on completion of the Áras na bhFál building. Not that he wasn’t confident in his workforce delivering, it was more the realisation that this was a special project.
“It’s a landmark site. It’s also a very important building for the local community. Add into the equation the tight site, at times complex design, and a series of challenges that had to be overcome, and this is a building that wasn’t easy to construct, and one Canavan Construction takes great pride in.”
The use of 3D modelling helped the design team visualise how the details would integrate with the structural steelwork. It was then a case of ensuring what was viewed on the computer screen could be translated into something tangible. Denis is adamant that one of the major contributing factors to the venture’s success was collaboration.
“It was a really good team, with a really good vibe. The meetings between the client, design team and ourselves were open and honest, with a willingness on all sides to understand and be sympathetic to any issues that arose. Aside from the completed building, that working relationship with all parties was a real highlight of this project.”
Áras na bhFál now takes its place alongside a refurbished Cultúrlann McAdam Ó Fiaich, St Mary’s College, Raidió Fáilte’s new studios, and a re-development of Coláiste Feirste in a vibrant Gaeltacht Quarter. It also takes its place in Canavan Construction Ltd’s extensive portfolio of work and long list of satisfied customers.
“The construction project was completed on time to an excellent standard, on budget, and with minimum disruption to our neighbours,” added Pilib Ó Ruanaí. “The site was extremely constrained, bordering a bus lane on a busy main road. However, Canavan Construction made light of the challenges to complete the job and we have a lot to thank them for as we carry out our daily work in this bright, ultra-modern building.”