Amid the housing crisis, architects’ industry group, the RIAI has raised questions about the best
use of existing housing stock and vacant buildings in our town centres, writes Kyran Fitzgerald.
The pre-budget submissions are rolling in thick and fast.
One of the more interesting set of proposals has come from the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland (RIAI), the group representing around 3,200 registered Irish architects.
Not surprisingly, the ongoing crisis in housing provision features highly in the document, along with the need to reshape tax policy in a manner better suited to the requirements of smaller practices.
The group is seeking an overhaul in the Vat regime governing building professionals, with the introduction of a reduced rate of 13.5% for firms supplying services relating to residential developments.
Those engaged in commercial developments would continue to pay the higher 23% rate.
A lower rate would benefit in particular architects dealing directly with individual households on a business to consumer as distinct from a business to business basis.
Currently, such professionals have the option of either passing on the additional Vat, or absorbing it in the bill charged.
The 23% rate compares with the existing rate of 13.5% which applies to work carried out by builders and developers, a rate which in the view of many is itself too high.
It is an anomaly and it operates to discourage people from availing of professional advice when carrying out work on their residences.
The RIAI is also seeking an increase in the general threshold for registration for Vat from €37,500 to somewhere around the level applying in Britain of £85,000 (€93,220).
It is hard to argue with the proposition that far too many in Ireland are caught up in the onerous Vat registration net.
Of course, boosting the number of housing units being provided is of paramount concern and of course, there is also a crying need to increase considerably the supply of social and affordable housing.
There is a danger, however, that in focusing on such pressing issues, we end up ignoring, or at least putting to one side, matters of long-term relevance such as the planning and design of our towns, cities and countryside and the best interests of the professionals whose work is so critical.
In too many cases, the design work in developments is somewhere between deficient and non-existent.
If developers displayed a bit more forethought and sensitivity, we might be faced with fewer planning objections clogging up the system.
Some builders would have you believe that if we manage to carpet the countryside with row upon row of traditional semi-detached dwellings of largely uniform concrete and brick appearance — interspersed with occasional upmarket estates made up of executive mansions with large garages — everything will be just fine and dandy.
In practice, relying on such scatter-gun, car-dependent and design-on-the hoof has surely had its day.
There is certainly a need to address tax-related issues such as the high levels of Vat on house building, as well as various local authority levies, but the question also has to be posed: Are Irish housebuilders innovative enough when it comes to cost control whether in terms of usage of material, labour, or the deployment of technology?
Could our builders do more to copy our continental European counterparts when it comes to using alternative materials such as wood?
Are they doing enough to assist home owners in adapting to the challenges posed by climate change?
The RIAI document raises pertinent questions about the degree to which we are utilising our existing housing stock.
In particular, many Irish town centres contain old buildings which are vacant and falling into neglect above street level.
A key factor here is the difficulty in securing either property insurance or bank loans for such dwellings at reasonable rates, if at all.
Yet on the continent, traditional city centre spaces continue to be occupied and the buildings continue to be well maintained.
The minister for finance did introduce a City Living Initiative aimed at boosting investment in town and city centres but take up has been slow and limited.
The scheme needs redesigning.
The RIAI is also calling for a Government review aimed at “removing conflicts between Government regulations and technical guidance which
currently prevent derelict buildings from being brought into full use.”
It also points to the “decimation” of many architects’ departments in local authorities over the past 15 years.
Those towns that have held on to such expertise have fared much better.
The RIAI points to the success of towns such as Westport, Clonakilty, Mallow and to councils such as Wexford and Fingal (north Dublin) as counter examples.
However, the task of reconstructing such capacity in local government will not be a simple one, at least while the political class shirk the task of addressing the issue of the underfunding of local authorities.
Most architects run small practices yet the system does not smile on such operations.
Many find themselves squeezed out of contracts that are awarded through public procurement.
The process of applying for contracts involves large amounts of documentation.
The RIAI is calling for a review to be carried out into the impact of such rules on the development of businesses which, given past experience, have the capacity to evolve into international businesses when properly nurtured.
The industry as a whole is still recovering from the shattering impact of the crash. The supply chain is still under repair.
Many professionals have displayed considerable resourcefulness during the crisis, but there is a fragility, a tentativeness to this recovery.
The helicopters may be getting back in the air, but the salad days of the Galway tent still feel a long way away.
The RIAI proposals focus on smaller operators and here lies a message.
Given limits to resources, it may be best to focus on assisting smaller players whether in construction, or for that matter, in hospitality rather than on catch-all solutions aimed at all players regardless of how profitable they are.
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