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Ailbhe Cunningham

Present Tense

TEST SITE is an initiative blending art, architecture, and ecology to foster public engagement in urban regeneration in Cork city. Highlighting the gap between policy and participatory practice, it showcases how co-designed projects can integrate community knowledge into sustainable urban development, offering a model for inclusive planning in shaping the cities of the future.

Site plan overview highlighting the participatory and found site interventions. Image credit: TEST SITE

While socially engaged architectural practice is evident in Ireland, formal structures for community participation in built environment regeneration projects remain inadequate.

Throughout Europe, contemporary best practice approaches to urban development strive to balance complex and urgent social demands with heightened requirements for climate mitigation and ecological repair. Initiatives such as the European Urban Initiative exist to lead in the definition, funding, and guidance of such practices [1]. Although evidenced in emerging policies and strategies at both EU and national levels, processes of urban development largely preclude the meaningful participation of urban inhabitants and lead to arduous disputes during regeneration projects. While socially engaged architectural practice is evident in Ireland [2], formal structures for community participation in built environment regeneration projects remain inadequate [3].

TEST SITE is a socially engaged architecture project responding to a derelict site earmarked for urban regeneration on Kyrl’s Quay, Cork city centre [4]. Located on the central island of Cork city centre, the Kyrl’s Quay site is home to a wealth of natural and industrial heritage, neither of which are protected under current development standards. Combining art, architecture, and ecology, the TEST SITE project acts as a temporary agora to encourage public collaboration with the city, in particular this vacant site. Co-created with artist Aoife Desmond, the project encompasses a practice that is person-centred and co-designed. The project is dedicated to the examination, and promotion, of diverse and sustained social engagement within the built environment. It functions as a curated public meeting space facilitating discussions, workshops, and social activities that bring people together centred around themes such as heritage, identity, and the concept of belonging to a specific space. TEST SITE recognises the value of situated knowledge in the delivery of equitable urban development; the value of both expert-by-experience and expert-by-specialism knowledge.

Emergent Ecology Herbal Tincture Making Workshop with Jo Goodyear. Image credit: TEST SITE

Expert-by-specialism knowledge is primarily leveraged in making decisions concerning long-term urban development strategies in the built environment. Decisions are predominantly informed by quantitative data sets such as that gathered by sensors and monitors. Expert-by-experience knowledge, also referred to as lay or community knowledge [5], can exhibit heterogeneity when acquired through collective explorations such as living labs. Within urban neighbourhoods, living labs are projects that occur amid communities, incorporating collaborative and participatory processes. These processes involve a spectrum of diverse and underrepresented spatial experiences, providing essential insights for achieving urban development that is both equitable and resilient.

In her novel Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer, a Potawatomi botanist, describes the shifting responses and actions of students to scientific instruments during academic botanical field trips – how they recurrently shy away from their own senses and become heavily reliant on the readings of scientific instruments [6]. Through a series of grounding and landing activities, Kimmerer guides students to return focus to understanding and trusting their lived sense of place and not just the measurements and readings of the scientific equipment employed.

The intention behind activities undertaken at TEST SITE could be considered as an urban equivalent to Kimmerer’s field trip grounding activities, moving from a reliance on policy and quantitative data alone towards knowledge building that includes engagement with complex and varied hands-on comprehension of the urban built environment. The project works from the position that the human experience of urban inhabitants is a valid and crucial source of data in need of robust and formal consideration in relation to the long-term strategies for sustainable and equitable urban development.

Ecology Mapping Participatory Knowledge Mapping Workshop with Niamh Ní Dhuill. Image credit: TEST SITE

Lived experiences are fleeting and ephemeral. In order to be drawn upon in a formal capacity, it is crucial to capture and translate the lived experience of the protagonist of the built environment into spatial knowledge [7]. TEST SITE is undertaken from the informed position that a socially engaged practice of architecture can capture ephemeral and complex socio-spatial qualities of the built environment, as experienced by urban dwellers. With this comes the need to develop processes that capture the situated learnings that emerge through hands-on experience of a place.

One such means is to co-produce socio-spatial representations [8]. Tangible and lasting lessons emerge from temporary spatial activations once a structured process of reflection and representation is instigated to complement ongoing activations.

Through TEST SITE we continue to test methods that encompass the contributions of wide and varied voices; be they regular contributors, collaborators or once-off visitors from extended civil society. Ultimately intending to expand the complex web of knowledge that can shape long term strategies and approaches to sustainably developing our local built environment.

Returning to and concluding with the writings of Robin Wall Kimmerer, she describes the importance that the Potawatomi elders place on ceremonies as a means of “remembering to remember” [9]. Perhaps temporary activations of vacant, derelict, and public land can act as a form of ceremony and learning in the built environment; a means of remembering to remember and value the lived experiences of a city's residents when formulating plans and strategies for its future.

Tangible and lasting lessons emerge from temporary spatial activations once a structured process of reflection and representation is instigated to complement ongoing activations.

Present Tense is an article series aimed at uncovering perspectives and opinions from experts in their respective fields on the key issues/opportunities facing Ireland's built environment. For all enquiries and potential contributors, please contact

Present Tense is supported by the Arts Council through the Arts Grant Funding Award 2024.


1. European Commission, ‘Description of the Action: the European Urban Initiative (EUI)’, [website], 2022,, (accessed 23 February 2024).

2. N. Deeley, Prospects Paper #2: People Powered Places, [website], 2021,, (accessed 23 February 2024).

3. J. Bissett, Regeneration: Public Good or Private Profit?, Dublin, Tasc/New Island, 2009.

4. For further information about the project visit

5. D. Petrescu et al., ‘Sharing and Space-Commoning Knowledge Through Urban Living Labs Across Different European Cities’, Urban Planning, vol. 7, no. 3, 2022, (accessed 23 February 2024).

6. R. Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants, London, Penguin Books, 2020, p. 224.

7. C. Courage, Arts in Practice, Routledge, 2017.

8. L. Natarajan, ‘Socio-spatial Learning: A Case Study of Community Knowledge in Participatory Spatial Planning’, Progress in Planning, vol. 111, 2017, (accessed 23 February 2024).

9. R. Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants, London, Penguin Books, 2020, p. 5.


Ailbhe Cunningham

Ailbhe Cunningham is an architect and educator with a particular focus on the intersection between researching and doing – actively situating and applying theoretical research within the live context of urban built environments. She recognises the necessity to nurture cross disciplinary collaboration in order to envision resilient, future urban landscapes.

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The Tallaght District-Heating Scheme

Eddie Conroy
Present Tense
Eddie Conroy
Ciarán Brady

Space-heating accounts for 35% of total energy-related emissions in Ireland today. As one key component of its response to the National Climate Action Plan, South Dublin County Council (SDCC) committed to the decarbonisation of its county-town, Tallaght. Nationally, decarbonisation will rely on increasing renewable generation assets – wind and solar – on the grid to a target of 85% by 2030. This will enable significant carbon-savings through the widespread electrification of the heat and transport sectors.

The Tallaght District-Heating (DH) Scheme was identified as a pilot project to promote this switch to low-carbon, renewable heating. 70% of the Dublin region is suitable for adaptation to DH (increasing to 86% in the city centre). There are sufficient waste heat sources in Dublin to service the equivalent of 1.6 million homes; DH can recycle and harness this waste heat as a low-carbon resource for space-heating.

In 2016, as part of a five-city EU Inter-Reg programme to foster DH technology in northern Europe, €950,000 was made available (including €347,000 from SDCC resources) to underwrite initial work on the Tallaght DH network. This seed-funding allowed the formation of South Dublin District-Heating Company – Ireland’s first not-for-profit, publicly-owned heat utility, now trading as ‘Heat Works’.

The DH network was envisioned, championed, and project managed by the SDCC Architects Department, building on experience installing CHP, solar arrays, heat pumps, and bio-mass boilers in public buildings over a twenty-year period. The DH scheme was a collaboration between SDCC, Amazon, Fortum (the contractor), and the Dublin energy agency Codema, which has provided a low-carbon solution, optimising the potential of recyclable heat combined with innovative heat-pump technology. Heat Works is set up to act as an exemplar heat-network business in Ireland, delivering economic, environmental, and social benefits for residents and businesses while supporting the local and national climate action plans by reducing our carbon footprint.

Heat Source

At this time, Amazon Web Services (AWS) were planning a large data centre in Tallaght. As part of pre-planning discussions with SDCC, AWS agreed to collect and make available waste-heat from the data-centre’s cooling-system to the DH network. As part of this agreement, waste-heat collection equipment and ongoing heat delivery to Heat Works will be at the expense of AWS in line with their company commitment to global carbon-reduction. The Tallaght DH network is the first scheme in Ireland to capture and efficiently re-use waste heat from a large-scale data centre using bespoke 4G district-heating technology. 10MW of waste-heat is available for use in the Tallaght network on this basis.

Photo of Heat Works Energy Centre Exterior (Image Credit: Joe Laverty & TODD Architects)

It is currently estimated that by 2028 data centres may be using up to 29% of the national grid, and by 2030 will have added 13% to carbon-emissions on the grid. While not eliminating all primary energy use, DH can seriously offset the generation of both heat and carbon for space-heating required by DH customers and greatly reduce carbon emissions discharging energy-intensive waste-heat from cooling systems in data centres.

The Energy Centre and Pipe-Network

To utilise the waste-heat generated by AWS, a distinctive zinc-clad Energy Centre was constructed adjoining the data centre to collect, consolidate, and distribute hot-water to the DH network. The hot air from AWS is collected and run through a heat-pump to raise the temperature of water to 25-27°C. This water is then transferred to the Heat Works Energy Centre building where the temperature is raised again through bespoke centralised large-scale heat pumps to 85°C and sent through the pipe network. In turn, the servers in the data centre are provided with cool air as a by-product from the Energy Centre. The Energy Centre also includes full peak load back-up via a 3MW electric boiler to ensure heat supply to the network can be met at all times. The scheme is fully electric with no on-site combustion resulting in the elimination of particle emissions. In addition, the carbon content of the heat will continue to reduce over time in line with the decarbonisation of the national grid through increased deployment of renewable sources, e.g. onshore / offshore windfarms, solar power, etc [1].

This Tallaght DH scheme is currently providing both space-heating to buildings on the DH network and cooling to the data centre [2]. The scheme currently has planning permission for 400m³ of thermal water-storage. In time, this will enable greater flexibility and utilisation of off-peak electricity, which will increasingly enable the DH network to support the grid by providing greater demand-side response services to regulate large fluctuations associated with wind-power generation. The initial pipe network measures 1.6km in length, utilising different sizes of pre-insulated pipes to ensure minimal thermal losses. Hot water is distributed to customer buildings through the pipe network from the Energy Centre. Heat exchanger substations are located within the customer buildings with an indirect system (the network water crosses and heats the customers’ water, but they do not mix). Energy meters measure the amount of thermal energy used by the customer for heating spaces, HVAC systems, and sanitary hot water.

Network Map (Image Credit: Eddie Conroy)

Overall, the Tallaght DH Scheme produces CO₂ savings of 1500 tonnes per annum in the first phase of the scheme along with a reduction of 528kg in nitrogen oxide emissions. This will increase as the scheme expands and the input of renewably-generated electricity increases. In effect, fossil-fuel usage will be reduced by 100% as the grid is made fully renewable. The lack of combustion onsite eliminates particulates and provides cleaner air for Tallaght town centre.

In addition to road testing DH generation and control technologies in Ireland, the Tallaght scheme was set up to trial the legal, financial, procurement, and governance structures required for a heating network in Ireland. A series of innovative contract types had to be developed for the project carried out under the skilful direction and experience of Philip Lee and Associates Solicitors. The fledgling company required an experienced energy-supply company (ESCO) to design, construct, and operate the DH network. This role was tendered across the whole of the EU using the OJEU process. The tender was arranged as a ‘Competitive Dialogue’ in three stages culminating in the submission of a final design and financial bid. This included the design of the Energy Centre and the distribution pipe network. The preferred bidder was Fortum, a multi-national ESCO based in Finland with extensive experience in DH across the Nordic countries and Eastern Europe.

Procurement Models

A Local Energy-Supply Contract (Design, Build, Operate, & Maintain – DBOM) between the ESCO and Heat Works was agreed. This contract is divided in two phases – Construction Phase (Design & Build), and Operation Phase (Operate & Maintain). Heat Works buys the heat produced from the ESCO based on a fixed operational carbon-efficiency figure. The manner in which this heat is produced, and the risks associated with its production is the responsibility and risk of the ESCO, and the cost of electrical supply is at the risk of Heat Works. A separate new contract had to be developed and agreed to address the transfer of waste heat from AWS to Heat Works, and the return of lower-temperature water from the DH network to AWS to assist in cooling within the data centre.

Organisational Chart (Image Credit: Eddie Conroy)

A customer-contract was also required addressing the sale of heat from Heat Works to each customer. Heat Works are responsible for customer relations and calculation of customer bills. Monthly customer bills include fixed components (two standing charges for administration and network maintenance), and a variable charge for quantity of heat supplied. The initial customers are SDCC (County Hall and Library, the Innovation Centre, and two-hundred affordable apartments) and TUD Tallaght (main campus building, SSRH sports building, and the North Block Catering College). To date, 70,000m² of space are connected to the Tallaght network, and total investment stands at €8 million [3].

The contract for Design, Build, Operate, and Maintenance was signed in October 2020 and works commenced in 2021. Works were directly affected by COVID-19 government-imposed site closures. Testing began on the plant and network during October, November, and December 2022. Heat was delivered to first customers from 19 January 2023 with Substantial Completion achieved in July 2023. Since then, the district-heating scheme has been in its Operation and Maintenance phase.

Present Tense

At just 6%, Ireland currently has the lowest share of renewable heat generation across the EU and is almost totally reliant on imported fossil fuels to meet its heat demand. This article discusses the benefits of South Dublin County Council’s recently commissioned district-heating scheme, its complex structure and procurement of same, and the role of the architect in such decarbonisation projects.


This is the standard: barriers in practice

Laoise McGrath
Present Tense
Laoise McGrath
Ciarán Brady

Graduates of architecture in the Republic of Ireland are facing a new significant barrier to accreditation, much discussed among affected individuals for the past year. What is a long journey to becoming an architect has, since the beginning of 2023, become implausibly longer again for many students as one of the two universities that offer the Professional Diploma in Architectural Practice in Ireland (PDAP – legally labelled the Professional Practice Exam, or PPE) decided to cease its offering to new applicants for at least three years – up to 2026 at the earliest [1]. This reduced the number of places available from a previous average of roughly 140 per year to the seventy places remaining at the only other university in Ireland which offers the course. In September 2024, this number will reduce again, as the remaining university removes twenty-two places from its offering. With five Irish universities producing roughly 200-250 graduates per year, combined with the number of expatriates working in Ireland in the architectural profession and requiring professional exams – this has resulted in a situation where there are, at the time of writing, around 400 expressions of interest vying for forty-eight places for the single PDAP course. This means that only one in eight to ten applicants will get a place, with the possibility for further growth to these numbers year-on-year.

The Architect. Image credit: Georges Reverdy

In April 2024, while the RIAI issued an updated statement on the dwindling capacity problems, with the welcome proposal of facilitating the PPE themselves from 2025, they did not specify how many graduates this course would accommodate, nor give any indication how much it would cost [2]. The problem is inevitably clogging the system with graduates, who have project and salary expectations that are determined by the timeline within which they complete the PPE. The current delays consequently are affecting their plans of a rational timeframe for career progression. Employers, too, will be directly affected, as they become encumbered with graduates who cannot progress through the system reasonably, and who they thus cannot expect to charge for as registered architects, or whose CVs they may not use to their full potential to win work. What should be even more alarming for the renowned richness of the profession in Ireland is how the backlog is delaying the beginning of the careers of potential sole-practitioners, previously a significant proportion of practising architects. In facing the current delays in starting the PPE, all graduates objectively must contend with a lag before they are provided the opportunity to contribute their ideas, ability, and energy to the industry in Ireland. Professional roadblocks could, and are, becoming repercussive personal reckonings for many, that arguably conclude with emigration to countries with more responsive registration systems as the only viable solution.

While legal protection for the title 'Architect' has been a persistent part of the RIAI’s two-fold aim of protecting and promoting members since 1885 [3], the role of the architect and the associated PPE was only legislatively defined by Part 3 of the Building Control Act 2007, which also bestowed upon the RIAI with the legal responsibility to manage accreditation of that title [4]. Part 3 of the Act was not “intended to exclude anybody, but, rather, to include all those who meet a defined minimum standard” [5]. In the current climate, the backlog in achieving accreditation has become so restrictive that graduates of the industry are potentially being prevented, legally, from working independently in it. This hard-won and necessary tool to protect the profession is now rendered as the means by which its reputation is tarnished – through exclusion of new members.

Architecture students. Image credit: Julio Gonzalez, SLU

The situation reveals a functional issue within the increasingly fragmented structure of the pathway to becoming an architect. The industry’s typically younger members, who have studied as long and as hard as those before them, have danced through the same rules but have reached a surprise stumbling block right at the very end. These members are becoming extremely frustrated with the slow pace of any resolution to a worsening problem. The immediate function and future of an industry cannot and should not subside because of the decision to close one course, and improved access to the profession should be increased in line with demand for university places and PPE courses to secure its future. The welcome development of a new course by the RIAI should be the beginning. Members of the industry at all levels should also galvanise government support for the formation of new courses that maintain sustainable access to the PPE. After all, as noted in the RIAI’s statement, architecture’s importance in the symbiotic development of the built landscape with the abstract social values of the people it shelters exists in governmental policy [6]. High-quality design of the future built environment, and surely by consequence, the place and skills of its future architects, is in its heart.

Update 04.05.24: UCD is reopening the Professional Diploma (Architecture) next January (2025) with a limit on forty places. A process of random selection is being applied for these places. Further details are available here.
Present Tense

In this article, Laoise McGrath discusses the barriers facing graduates of architecture in attaining professional accreditation in Ireland. Among the lucky few to have a place in a diploma course, Laoise also discusses the relevant factors at play in enabling colleagues and friends make informed choices about where they may want to live and practice in the near future.


The office is hibernating

Séamus Guidera
Present Tense
Séamus Guidera
Ciarán Brady

The last decade had seen technology companies grow at a rate at which commercial property developers cannot keep up [1]. The majority of office space had been designed on a speculative basis. Build a ‘Grade A’ office, and they will come – but this is changing. Demand no longer exceeds supply, and the way we work has changed, while the way we occupy our offices is changing too. With lower occupancy and flexible working, the role of the ‘HQ’ has arguably become more important in its physical presence for larger companies. An office location, design, and provision of amenities are the bricks-and-mortar branding an organisation often requires. The machismo associated with office buildings of the past is no longer the best means to externalise one's values. Hugh Pearman once described Wilford & Sterling’s No. 1 Poultry as “exuding an astonishing sense of power and purpose” [2]. Kevin Roche, decades earlier, used similar power and purpose to make the workers of the Ford Foundation feel important. In an Irish context, Arthur Gibney strove to make the user feel important in Merrion Hall (1973), introducing his client to the Burolandschaft concept of office interiors, and an "exercise in the geometry of the module" [3] in both building and landscape terms, accentuating the structure of the pre-cast concrete frame. The theory goes that these important workers tended to be happier, more productive, and stay with the company longer. However, the design of these workplaces is changing again, and the changing culture of work is the first reason why.

The second reason is the elephant in the room. According to the UKGBC, 80% of buildings that will be occupied in 2050 have already been built [4]. 85% of Irish office buildings are below a B rating [5] and c. 15% of commercial buildings in Ireland are vacant [6]. We have an increasing amount of low-grade office space, bound for obsolescence – the dreaded stranded asset again. A change of use to residential makes perfect sense for some buildings, but not all. Site values, and potential return on office developments still hold more value than an occupied block of apartments in central locations. The structural design of more recent office buildings also limits the potential change in to residential. The office building of twenty-first-century Dublin, with small atria, deep floor plates, and bulging plot ratios are not well suited to change of use. If we believe in a future for the office, then we need architecture to ensure existing buildings can become offices of the future.

Nos. 4-5 Grand Canal Square, by Daniel Liebskind & MDO. Image credit: MDO Architects

What does this mean in design terms? Simply put, this is about design either side of the facade, while the facade remains. Feature facades have become ubiquitous with high-end new build offices – leading to monikers such as the ‘Cheesegrater’, ‘Gherkin’, etc., which all add to the value a potential tenant puts on their choice of building. These building exude a company’s core perception of itself, and its place in its community. Fit-out design, and place making give tenants a real ability to make staff feel important, and, of course, to be good neighbours. The opportunity for a cloud-based company to drop anchor and show their staff, and indeed their community, that they care is most often done through building. The best building to do this in, is one that already exists.

We need to embrace the large-scale refurbishment of existing office buildings to provide the next wave of ‘new offices’ as and when they come. The way we have designed speculative offices in the recent past, with an unknown future user, has been wasteful. We have provided fit-outs to entice a tenant, which will subsequently be ripped out and replaced. We have designed structures, vertical circulation, and sanitary spaces to allow for maximum occupancy, when this is often not required. The constraints that come with an existing building should, and can, be embraced. Floor-to-ceiling minimums of 2.8m are an arbitrary, agent-led, recommendation without taking in to account the depth of the floor plate. The over-design for floor loadings, mechanical ventilation, WC provision, lifts, etc. all encourage us to build new. As architects, we can strive to prove the workability of retention, and more so prove that future workplaces can change, grow, and adapt as required.

No.4-5 Grand Canal Square, office strip-out. Image credit: Séamus Guidera

The main reason to retain what we have, is not accreditation led – it is common sense. We have an abundance of flexible buildings in Dublin, and few have been designed to be flexible. The houses of Merrion Square were not designed to cater for tenements, nor offices, but they have operated as both throughout theire lifetime. 1970s speculatively built offices were not designed to be converted into apartments, but they are well suited to it. We don’t know what flexibility we are designing into the office buildings of the last decade, but it is our job as architects to make it work, and to lead the conversation in designing the headquarters of the future.

Present Tense

In post-pandemic Dublin, discussion regarding commercial property has centred on vacancy, demand, alternate use, and financing. In this article, Séamus Guidera considers the lesser discussed architectural opportunities of commercial offices downsizing and offers a broader rethink of what purposes a corporate HQ serves.



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