We’ve much to learn about building safety

We’ve much to learn about building safety
St Colman’s Boys National School, Macroom, was one of the buildings that underwent permanent structural remediation over the summer after issues were identified last October. Picture: John Delea

Remediation work required on 39 schools, for which the Department of Education is suing the builder, suggests regulation is not what it should be, writes Michael Clifford.

Last week we learned that the Government cherishes some of the children but not others. 

We also learned that the bad old days of free-for-all building are alive and well and not with the Celtic Tiger in the grave.

On Thursday RTÉ reported that structural work is required in 17 schools in order to make them safe for children by the time they return next month. 

This is in addition to work required in 22 other schools identified last October.

All of the schools were built by Co Tyrone-based Western Building Systems (WBS). The Department of Education is suing WBS, which denies any liability for shoddy work.

Education Minister Joe McHugh has confirmed that some of the schools have reported they will not be in a position to open in September.

On Friday last WBS issued a statement calling for an independent investigation of its building work.

The company has queried “how schools previously certified for completion as being free from defects by the Department, and described less than twelve months ago by the then Minister as being built to the highest standards, are now being deemed to require remedial works”.

The most revealing element to the story is that two of the 17 schools were built last year and several others in 2016 and 2017. 

These specific examples of alleged shoddy work do not date from the time when regulation and inspection of building work was little more than a joke.

No, they can be traced to recent days when standards and compliance were being policed diligently, we were told, in a foolproof system.

This is a vital distinction. Dozens of examples of shoddy and dangerous work in home building have been exposed since 2011 when Priory Hall in North Dublin was evacuated on foot of a court order.

Practically all of the defective work dated from between 2000 and 2010, years that bookended manic construction. 

A major factor in this negligent practice was the lack of regulation.

At one point during the building boom there were more dog inspectors than building inspectors at work in the state. 

The system relied heavily on self-certification, which was effectively developers policing themselves.

Priory Hall changed all that. By 2014 a new system was in place. The Building Control Amendment Regulation (BCAR) came into being that year. 

Priory Hall in October 2013
Priory Hall in October 2013

It required a detailed paper trail of every stage of construction to ensure that things were being done according to plans. 

Corners would no longer be cut, due care would be applied to the safety of future owners and tenants.

Each stage had to be certified by an “assigned certifier”. This ensured that responsibility for all aspects could be traced to a single individual.

As far as the government was concerned the bad old days of Fianna Fáil buttering up their builder pals with light regulation were at an end.

Every time another example of fire trap homes came to light, a government figure would point out that we’re doing things differently today under Fine Gael.

Last October, for instance, when an audit found that 22 of the schools built by WBS required to be made safe, the Taoiseach expressed his outrage.

“It does certainly appear to be that corners were cut back in the Celtic Tiger period when it comes to the building of some of these schools which is truly disgraceful,” he told the Dáil.

Now it appears that the corners have continued to be cut under Mr Varadkar’s government and the much-lauded BCAR regime. How could this be after all we have learned?

Since BCAR’S introduction, a number of academics, engineers and architects have pointed out shortcomings. And repeatedly their concerns were dismissed by the construction lobby and the government.

So how is it that schools built under this allegedly foolproof regime now appear to fall short of required standards, particularly of safety?

Are the same mistakes being repeated again in the name of expediency?

A report last June from Owners’ Management Companies referenced this dilemma.

“Building defects are a huge issue and they are inflicting significant reputational damage on apartments as a housing solution,” the report, authored by chartered surveyor Paul Mooney, stated.

“The failings of self-certification in Ireland’s longest period of apartment construction have resulted in a large number of apartment buildings and owners having to fund defects.

“The question of whether new building regulation reforms introduced in 2014 are enough to deliver confidence to the purchaser of apartments and eliminate building defects from our new developments remains.”

Whatever about apartments, we are now being presented with reports that some schools continue to have defects under this new regulation regime. 

If that’s the case for schools, how likely is it that apartments are being built to the proper standards under the allegedly watchful eye of BCAR?

The discovery of problems in school buildings came about as a result of an audit. 

This was conducted last year following pressure from parents and patron bodies, whose own concerns were first raised after viewing a Fiachra Ó Cionnaith article about the matter in the Irish Examiner.

We’ve much to learn about building safety

Quite obviously the remote yet real possibility that a child could get injured or worse prompted the government to attempt to find out the extent of the problem. 

Unfortunately the same concern for children does not extend to those who live with parents or guardians in apartment blocks that may have fire safety defects.

Despite the uncovering of dozens of developments with such problems the government has consistently refused to conduct a national audit of homes built in the Celtic Tiger years in order to find out what’s safe and what isn’t.

The driving ethic in uncovering the excesses and dangerous deficiencies of the building boom prioritises politics over the safety of citizens. 

Audits or redress schemes are matters that are only considered if there is likely to be political fall out in failing to do so.

As of yet, there has not been concerted political pressure to force the government to examine how many citizens are living in danger because the state failed to ensure their homes were built properly.

That may change someday. In the worst-case scenario it will take fatalities to ensure change. 

Wouldn’t it be a refreshing departure if the state was to act ahead of a crisis or disaster rather than wait for one?

More on this topic

Plans to tell parents about fire and structural flaws at schools delayedPlans to tell parents about fire and structural flaws at schools delayed

Latest: Western Building Systems 'remains available to meet Education Minister'Latest: Western Building Systems 'remains available to meet Education Minister'

Structural problems found at two more schoolsStructural problems found at two more schools

Builders: Blame inspectors for school crisisBuilders: Blame inspectors for school crisis

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