Why foundations of our building regulations are as weak as ever

The case of Larkfield House exposed current building rules as little better than useless, writes Michael Clifford

The Larkfield House Apartment complex on Coldcut Rd, Clondalkin, Dublin. Picture Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin
The Larkfield House Apartment complex on Coldcut Rd, Clondalkin, Dublin. Picture Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin

The gym bunnies received no notice. In August 2016, customers of the Liffey Valley Gym in west Dublin found out that it had closed down. There was criticism of the lack of communication about the suddenness.

The gym had been open since 2004, in a building known as Larkfield House.

Larkfield House is owned by a company called Cavvies Ltd, controlled by local businessman, Vincent Cosgrave, and his daughter Jackie. The family also owns three hotels in west Dublin, as well as other business interests.

Almost immediately after the closure of the gym, a planning application was lodged with South Dublin County Council to convert the building into apartments.

What happened thereafter, in terms of building control, was shocking. The law was not so much broken, as completely trampled on. Regulations that were supposed to be watertight were exposed as little better than useless. And despite what has now emerged, there is, as of yet, no sign that any prosecution will take place.

For the last five years, any time another example of shoddy and dangerous building practices from the Celtic Tiger era has been exposed, the stock response from government has been that the past is a different country. Today, they point out, time and again, we have new regulations. We have sorted the problem.

The story of the redevelopment of Larkfield House suggests that very little has changed and that developers are still in charge of the law.

On September 7, 2016, South Dublin County Council granted planning permission for 27 apartments on the site. Construction work did not begin. Instead, the following year, the owner submitted a revised application, for 48 units. This was turned down by the planning authority.

The owner appealed the decision to An Bord Pleanala. The board’s inspector recommended that the appeal be rejected.

The board’s inspector wrote:

The proposed development, by reason of its poor quality design and configuration, would result in substandard accommodation and inadequate residential amenity for future occupants

The most offending features of the application were “the inadequate floor-to-ceiling heights at ground- and first-floor level; the high percentage of single-aspect units and the poor internal layout and, in particular, the substandard widths of the living rooms serving the two-bed units.”

The board agreed with its inspector. Yet while that appeal was in train, the owners went ahead and redeveloped the building into 44 apartments, without any planning permission.

Later, in a hearing at the Residential Tenancies Board, Vincent Cosgrave made no bones about his decision to build without planning permission. The official report from the hearing noted that the adjudicator clarified with Mr Cosgrave whether he just decided how many units should be built at Larkfield House, irrespective of planning permission. The adjudicator asked “if he (Cosgrave) meant that he had deliberately decided to disregard the planning permission and Mr Cosgrave stated that, yes, he personally had decided that the property was more suited to 44 apartments and that was why 44 apartments were built and not 27 apartments.”

That move eventually prompted South Dublin County Council to issue instructions to remove some of the units. The council is engaged in a planning enforcement investigation to determine what action should now be taken.

Ignoring the planning laws is one thing, but Mr Cosgrave has also ignored the bright, new, shining building regulations, which were supposed to be watertight.

New building regulations were brought into force in 2014. These regulations, known as BCAR (Building Control Amendment Regulations), were designed to firmly tighten up the existing laws. BCAR was in response to the Priory Hall debacle, in which the north county Dublin development was evacuated, on foot of fire-safety concerns, in 2011.

Priory Hall cost Dublin City Council €50m. In the same year that BCAR came into being, a succession of developments with fire-safety and structural defects began coming to public attention. At the last count, more than 40 developments now require major work, as a result of these defects.

The total number in a dangerous condition is probably far more, as most owners who discover these problems understandably prefer to keep them quiet, as they would affect, and often devastate, the property’s value.

Against that background, BCAR was supposed to present a solution for the future. BCAR would ensure that developers could no longer work to their own rules, rather than the law. An assigned certifier would have to sign off at various stages of any development.

This would leave a paper trail, in the event that defects were discovered at a later date.

Whenever a new development begins, the developer is obliged, by law, to submit a commencement notice to the building control authority, usually the local council. This informs the authority that work is beginning. No commencement notice was submitted for Larkfield House.

Therefore, the building control section of the council was officially unaware that anything was happening at Larkfield House. The current law does not require a developer to publicly display a notice, on-site, as to what works are taking place. So, as far as the local authority, the law, and the public was concerned, nothing was being built at Larkfield House, despite there being obvious signs of major construction works.

As first reported on RTÉ’s Prime Time last year, the architect on the project was not registered with the Royal Institute of Architects register. Presenting oneself as an architect in this manner is a criminal offence.

The Irish Examiner understands that Mr Cosgrave had a long-standing business relationship with the architect, but it is unclear whether he was aware that the architect was not registered during the development of Larkfield House.

Under BCAR, various certificates must be submitted to the local authority as the building progresses. These include the fire certificate, certificate on disability access, and the completion certificate. This leaves the paper trail integral to BCAR and assigns responsibility to those who sign the certs. None were submitted, either during, or on completion of, the works at Larkfield House.

In a bizarre twist, the certs were subsequently furnished, following the intervention of local Sinn Féin TD, Eoin O Broin. Once the irregularities came to the attention of the council, the prospect loomed that the building may have to be evacuated, dispatching more than 40 families into homelessness. A meeting was set up, which Mr O Broin attended, representing the families.

“I asked Mr Cosgrave about the certificates that had not been furnished to the building control authorities,” Mr O Broin says.

He said he had those in the office and I asked could I see them. Later, I was given an envelope with the various certificates in it. I passed it on to South Dublin County Council, in case these became relevant as evidence in any future proceedings.

These certs, central to building control, have absolutely no value. They had not been furnished to the building control authorities at the time of building.

As such, the redevelopment of Larkfield House was conducted under the stewardship of an unregistered architect, the local authority was not in a position to spotcheck the development (because it was officially unaware that it was in train), and the building regulations were ignored. All of this happened at a time when the official line from government was that the shoddy and illegal practices of the past could not reoccur under the 2014 BCAR regulations.

When a development is completed without planning permission, there is usually a possibility that it can receive retention permission. There is no such provision when a development is completed in contravention of the building regulations. The only way that Larkfield House could now comply with the regulations would be for the building to be effectively gutted.

The illegal development resulted in major concerns for the people who had rented apartments. Most of the tenants had either come through local authorities or the Dublin Regional Homeless Executive. Eventually, following major stress, most families have been rehoused.

Deputy O Broin, who is his party’s spokesperson on housing, says this is the first, and most egregious, breach of the 2014 building regulations that he has come across. “If the law is to mean anything, there has to be a prosecution arising out of such flagrant breaches,” he said.

What happened here was not just the breaking of the law, but a cause of enormous stress and hardship for many families, including families that had moved into Larkfield House from homelessness.

Attempts to contact Cavvies Ltd and Mr Cosgrave were unsuccessful.

Questions submitted to South Dublin County Council, about the council’s approach to enforcing laws and Larkfield House, were not answered at the time of going to print.

According to the building control act, penalties for breaking the law, on conviction on indictment, are “a fine not exceeding €50,000 or, at the discretion of the court, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years or to both the fine and the imprisonment.”

It is unclear — and untested — as to whether a defendant could be charged on a number of courts in relation to individual breaches for each apartment within a building.

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