The project that made CMYA history

1 October 2017 | By James Kenny

Her first project management role on a Belfast block won Margaret Conway the CMYA office category – and the accolade of being the first female Construction Manager of the Year. James Kenny reports.

Margaret Conway has made history by being crowned the first female winner of the Construction Manager of the Year Awards, at a ceremony at London’s Grosvenor House hotel at the end of September.

  • Project: Clarendon House, 9-21 Adelaide Street, Belfast: construction of 9,300 sq m nine-storey office block, completed in 80 weeks
  • Value: £22m
  • Contract: NEC option A

Although there have been a handful of female winners in various categories down through the years, she is the first overall winner, taking the top prize for her work on a £22m nine-storey office block in Belfast city centre.

The McAleer & Rushe project manager triumphed over eight other gold medal winners who all displayed similar levels of professionalism in their categories. 

Conway took the gold in the Offices category for her work on Clarendon House, a 9,300 sq m turnkey office on behalf of Belfast City Council. The works included demolishing a full building, contract-signing holdups and late design changes.

What marked Conway out was that this was her first project management role on the contractor’s first Level 2 BIM scheme. Her hard work and organised, methodical approach ensured that the project not only stuck to its very tight budget, but was also delivered two months early.

Planning consent was first gained for a larger 11,150 sq m block with ten storeys but Conway worked to lose a storey on the new-build, taking out a further mezzanine level to hold down costs. Her removal of rooftop plant reduced the building height to below 30m, saving the client £500,000 by eliminating the need for a sprinkler system.

Instead of piling through the existing raft foundation, she instructed further site investigation to establish the ground’s bearing capacity. The survey told her enough to be able to supplement the existing raft instead, as a spread foundation for the new superstructure, exploiting the large subfloor voids that had been found. The reward was a £750,000 saving.

Clarendon House is a 9,300 sq m turnkey office

Conway analysed the use of mast climbers versus scaffold, and concluded the latter was undoubtedly more economic. She then captured the cost gains by coming up with a workable fully boarded design across 16 lifts rather than the maximum seven envisaged by the scaffold contractor.

When the structural engineer flagged up a possible 40mm of movement at the slab edge from the live load deflection and concrete shortening, it shot down the traditional means of supporting large spans of curtain walling at alternating floors.

Undaunted, Conway led the solution of suspending the entire curtain wall from the top of the building, with movement accommodated at the bottom of the screen.

By breaking each floorplate into two zones, Conway completed much of the fit-out in advance of the elevation-based facade installation. The central core and the meeting rooms were then fitted out independently of the facade and the rest of the open-plan floorplate.

Speaking about the toughest technical challenges in her awards submission, she said: “Due to the location of the site and the issues with demolition we had to restrict major demolition work to Sundays only. I had to liaise regularly with Transport Northern Ireland to organise road closures and update local residents and businesses regularly.

Martin Doherty, project manager for Belfast City Council, worked closely with Conway throughout. He said: “Margaret was intuitive to Belfast City Council’s needs, always focused on delivering the scheme on time, while never losing sight of the importance of safety, maintained neighbourly relations with the local community and business as well as ensuring that a quality output was delivered for our staff.”

He added: “There were late design changes and Margaret was able to accommodate these without having an effect on the completion date. Her adaptability to resequence design and works on site meant that the project was able to be completed within the agreed programme.”

As the project represented McAleer & Rushe’s first public-sector contract for 10 years, there was even more pressure to bring the project both on time and budget. To speed delivery time, Conway decided to put muscle into the quality management.

She simplified the snagging process and introduced Aconex Field software that allowed the professional team to snag onsite and send out contractor-specific snagging lists online. Dovetailing with the project’s document management system, it proved so successful it is being rolled out across all McAleer & Rushe projects.

Late design changes also came along.

A requirement for 950 workstations rather than 730 set the design programme back by nearly four months. Conway’s immediate response of design workshops amended the MEP drawings fast and efficiently.

Her methodical approach was key to success – and the client’s award of another large joint-venture contract.

There will be a full interview with Margaret Conway and coverage of her winning project in the November edition of Construction Manager.


As a former CMYA finalist (twice), I know you have to deliver something quite special to even make it to the finals. But you have to be truly exceptional to win it. Reading this resume - delivery of the project significantly early, on a budget achieved by intelligent and ingenious VE, and to high quality standards on a seriously constrained site - it is hard to think of anything she could have done better. To do this on one's first attempt at project lead is truly amazing. M&R and the wider Construction Industry are lucky to have someone of this calibre in our midst. It is great for the reputation of Construction Project Managers, and must also be validating and inspiring for women in the industry. It is great that the industry, at least certain construction businesses within it, is beginning to allow women to achieve their full potential in a male-dominated environment.

Adam Dowling MCIOB ret'd, 2 October 2017


sean morgan, 2 October 2017

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