Business View: London seems to be only area of growth
There are many signs pointing to a recovery in the construction market in Northern Ireland – but sometimes a conversation with a member of the industry can dull even the most optimistic of outlooks.
McMullen Facades in Moira managed to shatter illusions of a pick-up at home. Scanning its portfolio, and speaking to its managing director, it becomes clear that all its recent successes have been in England.
Since it was taken over by the English firm Lakesmere in 2012, it has been able to compete more effectively for big contracts in England, and take advantage of the building boom which continues there.
That has meant many big plaudits for the 43-year-old business, which employs around 140 people – but none of those relate to construction on home soil.
Mr McMullen points out that the manufacturing of its impressive glass facades takes place in its plant in Moira, but the actual physical work of mounting them is all in England.
He is thankful that the company his father founded is continuing to thrive, albeit no longer under full family control.
But he would like to see some projects springing up at home – though in a signal of just how much the market has slowed, it's only in recent months that its last local project, The Soloist office building in Lanyon Place, has secured a business tenant. That building and its developers had required a push from Nama to get finished.
A few years back, developers were mulling over the impact which Nama would have on the market.
Now people are considering the impact that the major new American investors like Marathon Asset Management and Cerberus will have.
As Mr McMullen points out, they are unlikely to lead to a building boom of a kind that his firm would be able to take advantage of, as the assets they have targeted are complete blocks – including The Obel, the facade of which was the handiwork of McMullen.
There are upcoming building projects which could present an opportunity for McMullen Facades, such as the new University of Ulster building.
But in the meantime, it is able to continue to secure work in England with the support of its parent group. It had worked on the acclaimed Evelyn Grace Academy in Brixton, London, which won the Stirling Prize for architecture in 2011.
Another local construction firm, Gilbert-Ash, is now also in the running for a claim to this year's Stirling Prize. It carried out work on the new Everyman Theatre in Liverpool, a replacement for the decaying theatre where greats like Julie Walters and Pete Postlethwaite once trod the boards.
Gilbert-Ash followed in distinguished footsteps – but let's hope some footsteps can lead to home for our high-achieving building firms.