New fire safety regulations for apartments have been changed following lobbying from a major international development company.
The move has been criticised by architects and observers who say the regulations are now too lax and will transfer responsibility for fire safety from developers to apartment owners.
The new regulations, published earlier this month, were introduced to cater for “open plan” apartments now being developed in this country.
One of the main safety concerns is that there is no separation wall between the kitchen and the living area, which would act as a retardant in a fire.
The other feature is that a sprinkler system is used in the absence of a fire door.
Last June, the Department of Housing issued a consultation document on new fire safety regulations in which it proposed a distance of three metres between a cooker and the escape route in the event of fire.
International property firm Hines — which is developing more than 4,000 apartments in the country — lobbied to have this distance reduced to 1.5m. The new regulation put the required distance at 1.8m.
A spokesperson for the department said it had not been lobbied for changes to its proposals other than in two recorded meetings between fire consultants, construction industry representatives and the housing minister Eoghan Murphy in one instant and junior minister Damien English in a second.
A spokesperson for Hines said the company’s open plan developments have been “designed and approved based on internationally recognised British Standard codes — which are fully recognised under the Irish technical guidance”.
He said that an analysis of the sprinkler system “indicated that fire safety in apartments is improved by a factor of almost 10”.
This is disputed by other industry sources.
Eoin O Cofaigh, a former president of the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland, was a member of the Building Regulations Advisory Body (BRAB), an external group established in law to advise on new regulations.
The group was disbanded by the department in 2012.
“If this new guidance had come before the BRAB in draft format for comment, I would have opposed it, on the grounds that it does not deliver a level of safety equivalent to what has been replaced,” he says.
Mel Reynolds, architect and housing policy analyst, is also critical of the new regulations: “What you are doing with the sprinkler system is transferring responsibility for fire safety from the developer to the owners who will have to ensure the sprinklers are maintained.”
“We know from research that a lot of management companies are underfunded and have inadequate sinking funds.
"That’s apart from whether it is wise to take out the fire lobbies that these sprinkler systems are effectively replacing,” he said.