Delivering Kilkenny Limestone to a Global Market

LAURA HALLY discovers how the management at Kilkenny Limestone Quarries Ltd. have promoted and modernised their business to ensure that they continue their success in leading the way both nationally and internationally in the markets they trade in.

Formed some 340 million years ago, Irish Blue Limestone is one of the most beautiful indigenous materials in the country.
It formed the walls of Neolithic burial chambers, ancient monasteries, castles and the homes of chieftains and lords.
For centuries, Irish Blue Limestone has been the elemental medium through which designers have expressed their unique vision. In an age of mass production and expandability, the excellence of Irish Stone endures.

Now, Kilkenny Limestone is the company bringing the product to the world stage of modern architecture. Established in the 1930s, the company directly employs 115 employees across three quarries based in Old Leighlin, Kellymount and Holdensrath. These quarries produce limestone blocks, slabs, tiles and paving for internal and external applications and are supplied to prestigious projects across Ireland, UK, Europe and Worldwide.

Clients are predominantly Building Contractors and Municipal Bodies, (such as the OPW, and Local Councils) They also sell limestone slabs and finished standard products to distribution partners
who sell direct to the end user.

There are three colour variations in the Kilkenny Limestone range; The Classic Blue is bright blue grey in appearance and is suitable for many types of finishes and is used predominantly in cladding.

The Dark Selection is darker than the classic blue and is more suitable to honed or polished applications for internal use. Fossil material is an incomparable variety of Kilkenny Blue Limestone as it is a captivating dark shade which is extracted from special shell or fossil beds and features relics of ancient oysters which are a particular characteristic of this stone.

These large oyster fossils are unique to Kilkenny Limestone and are only found in the Kilkenny/Carlow region of Ireland.

Projects

Kilkenny Limestone enjoys strong working relationships with most of Ireland’s leading construction contractors, and their craftsmanship can be seen in prolific projects across Ireland including The Central Bank, The Lewis Glucksman Gallery, East Point Business Park and Kilmainham Gaol.

In 2001, the company were selected as suppliers to Norman Foster’s flagship More London project on the River Thames. This site is home to London’s iconic City Hall. The public space features 30,000 square meters of flame-textured Irish Blue Limestone paving and a dramatic, sunken limestone Amphitheatre, known as ‘The Scoop’.

International Success

Phillip Maher, General Manager, Kilkenny Limestone, says that it’s their excellent reputation and track record that has propelled them into international markets.
“We’ve built up a strong portfolio of work over the years. Positive client references have allowed us to grow our business from mainly Irish-based work to overseas contracts.

Most notably in Brussels’ city center where Kilkenny Limestone recently secured a contract where they are currently supplying 36,000sq m of paving and 5000 Linear meters of kerbing in a major Urban Regeneration of the City Center and surrounding areas.

Before the contract was awarded, there was a 2-year pre-qualification required to get Kilkenny Limestone selected. The clients visited the quarries with their Designers and Building contractor Viabuild to check on the capabilities of the Quarries in terms of Quarry Extraction and outputs from Factories. Our Limestone had to meet strict Belgian stone specifications and quality standards, therefore as we already held ATG certification, which is a quality standard required in Belgium for Natural Stone, we were already in a strong position.

This standard requires that finished products such as paving and kerbs can be traced back to the beds in the Quarries where they were extracted, and these Products can be followed through our Production and Quality system before delivery to site. In addition to the above testing must be carried out on the material such as compressive strength flexural strength and slip resistance.

The client reserves the right to pick random samples from the delivered pallets and carry out their own independent tests during the Project Duration to ensure we are complying with the standard specified.
All our testing is carried out by an independent company Sandberg who are based in London.

Quality Focus

A corporate member of the Irish Mining and Quarrying Society, quality is of the utmost importance for Kilkenny Limestone and all its quarries are both ATG and ISO 9001 certified. More recently they also now have been accredited with the ISO 14001:2015 Environmental Certification from NSAI assuring clients that the management of the quarries and the systems that support them comply with high standards of environmental management. ATG is the strictest and most respected auditing and assessment system for blue limestone in Belgium.

This guarantees Kilkenny Limestone’s adherence to a technical base specification and operation of a rigorous quality control system. The company’s commitment to continuous improvement, quality and technology has enabled it to thrive and grow into an industry leader.

New Technologies

“Business has changed significantly since our quarries were established,” explains Phillip Maher. “In the last construction boom, there was a massive influx of cheaper materials into the market. We invested significantly in technology to diversify our product, boost productivity and ultimately reduce the cost of processing the limestone for us to offer an Indigenous product at a competitive rate to the markets we trade in.

When I joined the company over 20 years ago, we had employees working in the quarry using hammers and drills to extract the limestone. Technology today has certainly advanced, and computer-driven chain saws and wire saws cut into the quarry faces using diamondedged wires driven by electro-hydraulic systems” New Quarrying equipment including Sandvik drilling rigs and trim drills are used to drill the limestone. Caterpillar loaders which are specifically designed as Block Handlers have a capability to carry blocks up to 40 tons in weight from the quarry floors to the processing plant.

A highly skilled workforce operates a variety of saws including gang saws, wire saws, diamond wire and circular saws for cutting the blocks into slabs and texture lines to apply surface finishes to the slabs
before they are sawn into paving by the Bridge saws.

“Over the years we’ve seen an increased demand from clients for different surface finishes on the stone,” says Phillip. “To meet this, we have purchased industry-leading Textures lines from Italy and can offer finishes in Diamond sawn, Flamed, Bushhammered, chiseled for exterior use, and for internal applications Sanded, Honed and Polished tiles. Kilkenny Limestone’s significant investment in technology has allowed us to compete in Markets where we would not have traditionally served. These investments also have increased efficiency which has resulted in increased output from the Quarries and Factories.

Skills Shortage

Phillip Maher explains, “While new technology has replaced some of the labour-intensive processes we now have other challenges in attracting skilled operatives to run and maintain these machines and production lines. We do on-site training to alleviate this issue, but the interest and passion needs to come from the operative as there are specific machines unique to this industry”.

Brexit

Another obstacle facing the organisation, and almost every other company in Ireland, is Brexit. “The impact on our business is unavoidable and a serious concern,” he comments. “We’re facing increased costs
when selling our material into the UK and currently unknown delays in deliveries due to border checks. We’re working on diversifying and expanding our markets and product range to limit the potential damage.”

These industry-wide issues aside, Kilkenny Limestone is enjoying continued growth. “The company is going from strength to strength, and we’re in a strong position to face any economic shifts.
We’re noticing an increased appreciation and interest in native Irish material and the craftsmanship that goes with them,”
says Philip Maher. “Architects and Specifiers now visit the quarries in person. They want to personally see the Quarrying and Production process from start to finish and understand how a finished Product ends up on a pallet from a Block on the Quarry floor . It reflects the value that is now placed on sourcing the best material, not the cheapest. When you choose Kilkenny Limestone, you choose tradition, quality, longevity and ultimately, value for money.”

Reference: this article appeared in IMQS Magazine Annual Review 2019

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