Burning issue: What now for homes built with dangerous fire safety deficiencies?

There has been major focus on remediation schemes for homes damaged by mica and pyrite recently, but those whose homes are considered dangerous through fire safety deficiencies are still waiting for any sort of resolution, writes Mick Clifford
Burning issue: What now for homes built with dangerous fire safety deficiencies?

The scene of a fire which destroyed six houses in the Millford Manor Estate, Newbridge, Co Kildare in less than half an hour. Picture: Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin

There has been major focus on remediation schemes for homes damaged by mica and pyrite recently, but those whose homes are considered dangerous through fire safety deficiencies are still waiting for any sort of resolution, writes Michael Clifford.

FRANCES McNamara was having a lie down after work when her daughter Morgan woke her to say there was a fire in the estate. It was the afternoon of March 31, 2015. Across the green from the home which mother and daughter shared in Millfield Manor, a development of around 80 timber-frame houses in Newbridge, the blaze was rapidly spreading.

Frances rushed to their front window. “I could see the fire at the gable window at the end of the block,” she recalls. “There was an orange light, and it flew across the eaves of all the houses.” The terrace of six houses was razed within half an hour. 

By design standards, that should have taken three hours, sufficient time to ensure everybody who might be inside could be evacuated. Thankfully, as the fire was in the afternoon, there was a sparse number of residents inside, and they all got out promptly.

The fire in Millfield Manor is the only serious incident to arise so far as a result of fire safety defects in homes built during the Celtic Tiger years. (There was a fatal fire in Blanchardstown, Dublin, in 2002, but at the time the impact of fire safety defects was not fully appreciated.) 

The defects in Millfield Manor were only discovered in the wake of the fire. Kildare County Council conducted an investigation which found “numerous deficiencies”. The homes were, to all intents and purposes, officially rendered as fire traps.

Gardaí at the scene of the fire which destroyed six houses in the Millford Manor Estate. Picture: Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin.
Gardaí at the scene of the fire which destroyed six houses in the Millford Manor Estate. Picture: Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin.

Nothing was done about it. The developer, who built the estate in 2006, had gone into receivership in 2012 and was working in a company nominally controlled by his sister. 

Kildare County Council, which had responsibility to ensure the homes were built safely, said the primary responsibility lay with the developer. The homeowners were left to swing in the wind, told that remedial work would cost in the order of €15,000, and even then they could only make their homes safe if the immediate neighbours on each side also got the work done.

The homeowners formed a committee, approached politicians, and even tracked down the construction professional responsible for signing off on work that was clearly defective. “He was a local man who had relocated to the Middle East,” Frances says. 

We tried to contact him when he was home for Christmas, but it was no good. Nobody was held responsible for the state of our homes.”

Today, the homes in Millfield Manor remain as dangerous now as they were on the day of the fire, as dangerous as they were the day they were built. Frances McNamara is relieved on one level that Morgan now lives in Galway where her work has taken her.

“That has helped me sleep a little better because at least I’m not worried for her now,” says Frances. 

“I would have taken in students just to make ends meet over the years, but I couldn’t with the risks that were there, I just wouldn’t put that risk onto other young people. 

The thing that makes me really cross is that locally and nationally, the Government and the rest of them all know that this place is a fire risk.”

In recent weeks and months, there has been major focus on the terms of the remediation schemes for homes damaged by mica and pyrite which have wreaked havoc. Meanwhile, those whose homes are considered dangerous through fire safety deficiencies are still waiting for any sort of resolution.

Throughout the country over the last decade, fire marshals have been a common sight on many apartment developments. These men and women in hi-vis jackets are symbolic of the dangers inherent in the deficiencies dating from the years of building boom and light-touch regulation.

Their 24/7 presence is required to evacuate occupiers in the event of a fire because the features in the building designed to slow down the progress of a blaze are either missing or highly deficient.

Since 2014, at least 70 apartment developments have been found to have deficiencies rendering them dangerous. 

An Oireachtas committee was told in December 2019 that there could be 90,000 dwellings requiring remediation, at a total cost of over €1bn. According to the CSO, a total of 131,000 apartments were built in the state between 2000 and 2008.

In reality, the true extent of the problem could be far greater. Unlike mica and pyrite, fire safety deficiencies do not lead to destruction or severe damage to a home. The real problem only manifests itself when a fire occurs. By then it is too late to remediate anything and may well be too late to prevent loss of life.

The first manifestation of problems came into the public domain in October 2011, when High Court judge Nicholas Kearns ordered the evacuation of Priory Hall, a development of 189 apartments in North Dublin, over fire safety defects. 

Priory Hall
Priory Hall

This was on foot of an application from Dublin Fire Brigade. 

Two years earlier, Dublin City Council had removed residents from the 26 apartments it owned in the building.

The evacuation sparked a major controversy. The complex had been built by former IRA hunger striker Tom McFeeley in 2007, but by 2011 his company had gone bust. Ultimately, Dublin City Council footed nearly all the bill for the renovation of the complex and the relocation of residents. The total cost came to €45m, around two thirds of which is expected to be recouped through sales of the renovated homes.

Priory Hall, its cost, and the responsibility that fell on the local authority acted as a warning when future fire safety defects were uncovered. Since then, despite the discovery of major deficiencies, no evacuations have been ordered. The closest to come to that was the case of Longboat Quay on Dublin’s John Rogerson Quay, which had major deficiencies first reported on in the Irish Examiner in February 2015.

Longboat Quay had been built by well-known developer Bernard McNamara in 2006 and consisted of two blocks of apartments, with a total of 298 units, housing around 900 residents.

Longboat Quay apartments on Sir John Rogerson's Quay in Dublin in 2015. Picture: Fergal Phillips
Longboat Quay apartments on Sir John Rogerson's Quay in Dublin in 2015. Picture: Fergal Phillips

What occurred there in 2015 was to be repeated in developments throughout the State over the following five years. The initial problem was uncovered by an engineer who had been employed by a receiver for a company which owned six apartments. 

The engineer noted the defects, considered them serious, and passed the results onto Dublin Fire Brigade. Following the fire brigade’s own inspection, it was decided that residents living on the floors above the first would have to be evacuated if remedial work was not undertaken immediately.

Residents and owners were called to a meeting in September 2015 and told they would have to foot the bill for between €9,000 and €18,000 per apartment for the remedial work, which was estimated to cost €4m. 

By then, the fire marshals were already in situ, patrolling 24/7 in order to be on hand to evacuate everybody in the event of a fire.

“We were absolutely shocked,” says Seamus Pullen, who owns a three-bedroom apartment in the complex. “I live there with my wife and two adult children who can’t afford their own home yet. We got it under the affordable home scheme, but there was no way that we could ever come up with the kind of money that we were told was needed. 

We had trusted that these homes were built properly, and then we find out that we’re all in danger if there is a fire.”

One of the first issues that arose — and was to be repeated in dozens of other developments — was a split between investors and homeowners. Investors, who tended to be better resourced, immediately wanted to pay for the work, get it done, and move on. They were also in a position that they could write off any cost for remedial work against tax.

By contrast, many of the homeowners simply couldn’t afford to pay for the remedial work, and they were also highly agitated that they had bought their homes in good faith from the developer and trusted that the State would ensure that the development was built properly. (Developer Bernard McNamara denied that he had not built according to design, but said he was willing to contribute towards the remedial work).

After much campaigning and political lobbying, the issue was finally resolved with the cost of the fire safety defects being covered between Dublin City Council and the receiver for the developer.

“We got it sorted out in the end,” Seamus Pullen says today. “Well, some of it. The fire safety work has all got done, but there was also problems with a defective roof, and that has not been done yet. But at least we have fire safety clearance and the homes are no longer in a dangerous state. It took a while to get here, though.”

In the same year that Longboat Quay came to the fore, another development threw up another problem that was to feature in relation to fire safety defects.

Riverwalk Court is a block of 26 duplex and townhouses in Ratoath, Co Meath, which was built in 2002 by well-known Waterford-based developer Michael Ryan. 

The Riverwalk Court development, Fairyhouse Road in Ratoath, Co Meath. Picture: Nick Bradshaw
The Riverwalk Court development, Fairyhouse Road in Ratoath, Co Meath. Picture: Nick Bradshaw

By 2014, it had become obvious that there were a number of structural and fire safety deficiencies. The owners retained an engineer to do a survey and the results were such that he felt obliged to report on it in July 2014.

“In keeping with a duty of care and in the interests of safety to the occupants, we have made our current findings a matter of record to the local authority,” the report author Michael Fleming of Conspect Engineers wrote.

Yet, for another nine months, until the Irish Examiner reported on the deficiencies, the fire authority, Meath County Council, did nothing to ensure that the development was rendered safe. 

One of the owners in Riverside Court, Mark Fitzmaurice, told the Irish Examiner at the time that the report had come as a hammer blow.

“We were terrified,” he said. “We didn’t know what to do, who to turn to. We felt totally abandoned.”

Eventually, the council did step in, and plans were put in place to have the fire safety defects remediated. Other issues, however, turned out to be much more protracted.

Today, Mark Fitzmaurice says that it is an ongoing headache. “The last time we had a conference call on the whole thing there were six sets of solicitors on the call,” he says.

“Michael Ryan did pay for the fire safety defects, but there are a number of other issues, and various parties are involving legal people in it, including with the insurers and some of the professionals who were involved in the construction. 

For our part, we the owners still owe around €300,000 in professional fees and I don’t know where that is going to come from.”

The experiences of Longboat Quay and Riverwalk Court were to be replicated up and down the country as the secrets behind the walls of Celtic Tiger building began to seep out into the public domain.

An owner-occupier family at Riverwalk Court development. Picture: Nick Bradshaw
An owner-occupier family at Riverwalk Court development. Picture: Nick Bradshaw

“In all of the cases where this has happened, it is the householder who is the one getting caught,” says Tom English, a fire safety engineer who has examined dozens of defective developments in the last five years.

"The State has got rid of all responsibility and kept all of the authority. They can’t be sued for anything. 

"The insurers say that they survey buildings for insurance purposes but not for regulation purposes, so they manage to get off the hook. And the developer has often gone out of business.

“That leaves the people who bought the homes and meanwhile, the Government has been kicking for touch, hoping that somehow the problem might just go away.”

Torturous road to reparation for homeowners

The road to reparation for homeowners who have been burned with fire safety defects has been torturous, and they are yet to end.

By 2017, with a constant trickle of stories about dangerous developments, the body politic kicked into action. The Oireachtas housing committee began hearings in fire safety and structural defects in 2017 and by the following January, it had produced a report, authored by the Sinn Féin housing spokesperson, Eoin Ó Broin.

Sinn Féin spokesperson on housing Eoin Ó Broin.
Sinn Féin spokesperson on housing Eoin Ó Broin.

The report, Safe As Houses?, made a number of recommendations including that a building standards and consumer protection agency be created “along the lines of the Food Safety Authority and Environmental Protection Agency” and that “the Government should establish a redress scheme to assist homeowners with latent defects”.

Safe As Houses? was the first official acknowledgement that a redress scheme was required.

However, that the recommendation emerged from an Oireachtas committee rather than the Government meant there was not much chance of it ever being established.

This was apparent in May 2019 when then housing minister Eoghan Murphy was asked about more and more stories of defective apartments coming into the public domain. He emphasised that it was nothing to do with the Government.

“It is not possible for the State to take on responsibility/liability for all legacy issues of defective building materials or workmanship, nor would it send the right message to the industry regarding their responsibility for compliance,” he said.

This, despite the reality that the lack of compliance was, to the greatest extent, down to a failure of inspections and regulation. Self-assessment was supposed to be reinforced with a strict and stringent inspection regime during the years of the building boom. That simply did not happen. At one point during those years, there were more dog licence inspectors than building inspectors active in the State.

The head-in-the-sand attitude from on high could not be sustained. 

Following the general election in February 2020, protracted negotiations ensued to form a Government. In the end, Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, and the Green Party got together. The Greens delegation in the talks was led by Catherine Martin, who, along with Eoin Ó Broin, had been the most prominent contributor to the Safe As Houses? report.

When the programme for government was published, it included a section dealing with the defects. The programme pledged to: “Examine the issue of defective housing in the first 12 months, having regard to the recommendations of the joint Oireachtas committee on housing report ‘Safe as Houses’.”

The Government was formed in June 2020. The new housing minister Darragh O’Brien met a delegation from the Construction Defects Alliance, a body formed by affected homeowners, the following month, and assured them that he was setting up a group to speedily examine the issue.

Housing minister Darragh O'Brien. Picture: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Housing minister Darragh O'Brien. Picture: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

In October 2020, Mr O’Brien said in an interview that the working group was on the way, and the terms of reference would be “a really important step forward to making a reality of a programme for government commitment”. He also said he hoped to have recommendations from the group available to incorporate into the budget for October 2021.

The chair of the working group, Seamus Neely, former county manager in Donegal, was appointed the following month.

The other members were drawn from construction professional bodies and the public sector, with two places on the group for Ciara Holland from the Construction Defects Alliance and Des McCabe of the Apartment Owners Network.

Ciara Holland
Ciara Holland

The main issue for most of the homeowners was how exactly to fund the job of making their homes safe. In this respect, the draft terms of reference drawn up in October 2020 included “pursue options with stakeholders on possible financial solutions to effect a resolution”. This was in line with the terms of reference for the body set up to deal with the problems over pyrite in homes in the Leinster area.

Through the early months of 2021, the group met three times. The main item on the agenda was the crucial terms of reference. While the department was not officially represented on the group, the Irish Examiner understands a senior official was present at all the meetings. 

The main area of dispute was how exactly the remedial work would be paid for. In the end, terms were drawn up against the wishes of the homeowner representatives.

The crucial term stated: “Pursue options on possible financial solutions to effect a resolution, in line with the Programme for Government commitment to identify options for those impacted by defects to access low-cost, long-term finance.”

This effectively confines the routes to resolution to the issuing of low-cost loans. It is correct that this was included in the programme for government, but so was the Safe As Houses? report, which allowed for the establishment of a redress scheme. It appeared that the department was now moving to tighten the terms of reference in order to avoid any kind of redress scheme.

Ms Holland voiced her opposition to this about-turn. 

In correspondence obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, she wrote to the chair to say she was disappointed at the wording of the crucial term of reference as the drafter term had “been perfectly acceptable for the pyrite panel’s work and having been proposed by the minister and the department last October”.

While I acknowledge your bona fides in saying that the working group can consider all financial options, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating.”

The documents show Ms Holland also forwarded a letter about her concerns to the minister on the same day — May 20. In it, she outlined what she and those she represents have been subjected to. 

“I’m sure you’re well aware of how passionate I am about the innocent home-owner being saddled with the financial burden of remedying fire defects caused by the incompetence of others, of how disappointed and disgusted I am that developers are allowed to build defective homes and walk away.

How my two children slept in their beds in a fire defective home unbeknownst to me and when I did know worrying if I’d be able to reach them in the next room if there was a fire. 

"How we had to dig deep and make sacrifices to pay the €16,250 to remedy the defects, to make the place we thought we were at our safest, safe. How I packed up our belongings, pushed our furniture into a corner, and left our home for two weeks to allow builders to pull it apart to fix it. 

How I had to explain to my then six-year-old when she asked why we had to leave our home that the builders didn’t build it safely and her confused little face looking at me saying they were very bold!

“How I’ve done everything I can to get justice for this and my developer held accountable; objected to his planning application, protested outside the courts, went to the media and finally joined this working group.”

The protracted dispute over the terms of reference now means in all likelihood that Mr O’Brien’s commitment to make provision for the group’s recommendations in October’s budget will not be met. The Construction Defects Alliance has made a pre-budget submission in which it appears to accept the deadline will not be met.

“The programme for government envisaged that the examination of the defects issue would be conducted within 12 months of the government coming to office — that 12 month period has now elapsed,” the submission states.

“Based on the progress made by the Working Group to date and the fact that it is only beginning to undertake the detailed process of assessing the nature and scale of the defects issue, it will clearly not have completed its mandate in time for its recommendations to be taken into account in the forthcoming budget.

"However, it is vitally important that Budget 2022 does contain measures to assist owner occupiers and social housing providers who have paid or are paying levies for remediating defects.”

Specifically, the group is looking for interim relief through tax credits for owner-occupiers who are paying or have already paid for remediation work. It also wants a Vat rebate for social housing providers, some of which have already had to divert large sums from the provision of new housing in order to undertake remedial work on apartments with defects. The total cost of the two measures is estimated at €7.3m in the financial year.

For homeowners living in dangerous dwellings through no fault of their own, the attempts to have their homes made safe continues to be a long, drawn-out process in which all those who bear responsibility for the scandal keep looking the other way.

A small sample of the developments with major fire safety defects

Scaffolders erect scaffolding at Priory Hall as the final deadline for residents to leave their apartments passes. Picture: Colin Keegan, Collins, Dublin.
Scaffolders erect scaffolding at Priory Hall as the final deadline for residents to leave their apartments passes. Picture: Colin Keegan, Collins, Dublin.

  • Priory Hall, north Dublin: This was the first and most infamous case of fire safety defects in Celtic Tiger developments.
    Built in 2007, the High Court ordered that it be evacuated over fire safety concerns in 2011. The development was rebuilt at a cost of €45m.

  • Longboat Quay, Sir John Rogerson Quay, Dublin: Built by developer Bernard McNamara in 2006, the defects were first discovered in 2014 and first came into the public domain in February 2015 when reported on by the Irish Examiner.
    An agreement to remediate the defects was arrived at in 2016, in which the cost was shared by Dublin City Council and the receiver for McNamara’s company at a cost of €3.1m.

  • Riverwalk Court, Ratoath Co Meath: Built in 2002 by developer Michael Ryan’s Saltan Properties, the fire authority, Meath County Council, was first informed of problems in 2011 with fire stopping and the failure to build according to design for fire safety in the common areas.
    It wasn’t until 2015 that efforts were made to have the issues addressed. The final cost of the defects and associated structural problems is understood to be over €1.5m.

  • Bru Na Sionna, Shannon, Co Clare: The development of 12 blocks of apartments and townhouses was built between 2005 and 2007. By 2017, major defects were uncovered and fire marshalls installed to patrol the area. The owners were told that the cost for the remedial work would be on the order of €2.25m and they would have to pay for it on a pro rata basis.
    Some of the owners are still in dispute with the management company over the amounts that they are expected to pay.

  • Ath Lethan, Dundalk, Co Louth: Residents were told by the county’s fire officer in 2016 that the development would have to be evacuated if €1.4m in fire safety work was not carried out.
    As with other developments, the issue was uncovered here when an engineer was doing a survey on behalf of a prospective purchaser. The developer, McGreevy Enterprises, engaged with the owners to address the issues.

  • Verdemont, Blanchardstown, west Dublin: In May 2017, a fire took hold from a balcony barbecue that spread quickly and required the temporary evacuation of nearly 100 residents. Investigations showed that there were major fire safety defects in the building, including a lack of fire stopping material. The estimated cost for the 274 homeowners, and investors, was €50,000 each.
    In 2002, a fire also occurred in the complex which was built the previous year. A young couple, Mick Farrell and Louise Wall, died in that fire. Defects were uncovered and commented on by the coroner, and a garda superintendent recommended a prosecution at the time, but the DPP decided there was insufficient evidence. The outcome did not lead to a proper survey of the development and the real issues remained hidden for another 15 years.

  • Beacon South Quarter, south Dublin: Built in 2005 by developer Paddy Shovlin, the owners in the development of more than 800 apartments were told in 2017 that a bill of €10m would have to be paid to undertake fire safety works. Dublin Fire Brigade had been alerted to the deficiencies and following inspections warned the owners that they could face legal action and possible evacuation if the remedial work was not undertaken.

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