Council leaves residents languishing in a fire trap

Michael Clifford sought answers from Meath County Council in relation to construction and fire safety issues at Riverwalk Court in Ratoath but, like the residents, he is still waiting.

Council leaves residents languishing in a fire trap

By July of last year, Mark Fitzmaurice was at the end of his tether. He and the other owners and residents of Riverwalk Court had been living in a worsening nightmare for the previous five years.

Their homes in the Co Meath town of Ratoath were literally falling apart. With each new investigation of what lay behind the walls, new construction flaws were uncovered.

Water ingress was the most enduring problem, but it was quickly becoming apparent that the safety of residents and their families could no longer be assured.

The residents had employed an engineering firm to do a survey of the block of 26 units. Conspect Engineers had over the course of a year conducted a number of surveys, each one unearthing further structural problems.

In an overview dated July 14, the firm had enumerated nine separate deficiencies that contravened fire safety standards and rendered the block dangerous. The author, Michael Fleming, then added: “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.”

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The local authority was Meath County Council fire office and building control.

“The chief fire officer has been furnished with the report and taken meetings on site to discuss said findings. To date no decision has been taken to revoke the current fire safety certificate.”

Mr Fitzmaurice says that the report came as a hammer blow to residents. “We were terrified,” he says. “We didn’t know what to do, who to turn to. We felt totally abandoned.”

The fire certificate had been issued to the developer Saltan Properties in December 2002 during construction. Certificates are required before work can begin in any multi-occupancy building, such as apartments or nursing homes. Now the council was faced with an unenviable task. A damning report had concluded that the building was a fire trap and did not comply with the provisions of a fire safety cert.

If the building is deemed unsafe, the local authority is obliged to act under Section 20 of the Fire Services Act which empowers it to “serve notice on the owner or occupier if a building which appears to the authority to be a potentially dangerous building”. This can include notice to undertake remedial work immediately, or to evacuate the building.

The first obligation on the local authority is to conduct its own inspection, draw up a report based on that and inform both residents and the developer of its findings. If the inspection’s findings mirrored those of the engineer’s report, the council would be obliged to act on Section 20.

Instead, the council acted in a manner that could be deemed mystifying. On September 22, three months after receiving the damning report, two council officials attended on site with the residents.

By then, the residents’ management body had also submitted a copy of the report to the council. Despite the seriousness of the situation, the chief fire officer was not present at the meeting with residents.

One of the residents who was at the meeting, Yvonne Ennis, informed others by email of what transpired.

“Meath County Council fire safety representatives were onsite yesterday for around an hour with Mark, Rachel, and I,” she wrote.

“The two persons explained that they did not have prior visibility of any of the reports. We therefore handed them a hard copy so they could review it.

“They explained that their jurisdiction/remit is only common areas. They will create a report for their superiors but they did indicate that communication with senior exec team in Meath County Council would be desirable.”

If the officials did indicate, as Ms Ennis alleged in the email, that the council was only responsible for common areas, this is completely inaccurate. In terms of fire safety, the local authority is responsible for the building. If they did attend without prior viewing of the engineer’s report, it is quite staggering.

Nothing was heard after that meeting. The residents were not informed whether an inspection report was compiled. If one was, the council would have been obliged to act on it.

A number of residents individually wrote to the council seeking answers. One example was a letter from resident Charlotte Quinn, who received a response, which effectively said all was under control and resolution was at hand.

“A further meeting is scheduled with the developer and his engineers in week beginning 13th October 2014, at which time the council envisage having a clearer picture on compliance with fire safety issues,” the reply from a planning official read.

Since then, nine months on, there has been no official contact from the council in relation to an apparent major fire hazard.

“We’re living in a death trap,” Mark Fitzmaurice says. “We’re relying on the local authority to help us out and not only are they ignoring us, but they have become part of the problem.”

Over the last few years, a number of instances have arisen where work done at the height of the building boom has been found to be dangerous in terms of fire safety.

This was the issue in Priory Hall in Dublin in 2011. The outcome there was an evacuation of the 190 apartments on foot of an application by the fire officer in Dublin City. That controversy mushroomed, and was a major financial imposition on the council, particularly as the developer — Tom McFeeley — was bankrupt.

Despite all that, the fire authority could not be faulted for acting as it did to ensure the safety of residents.

Another issue arose in Dublin last year in relation to a development on the city’s Sir John Rogerson’s Quay called Longboat Quay. In that instance, remedial works were undertaken and fire marshals installed to patrol the building 24/7 until the building was brought up to a safe standard seven months later. That work was largely paid for by the Dublin Docklands Development Authority, which was involved in the development.

In Ratoath, no action was taken. It is not even known whether an inspection report was compiled. The residents were never informed of an outcome.

The residents include a number of children and some parents now say they wouldn’t invite friends over on playdates because of the responsibility of having somebody else’s child in what is effectively a fire trap.

Last Monday, the Irish Examiner emailed a series of questions to Meath County Council about the fire issues in Riverwalk Court, including a request of an acknowledgement of receipt of the mail. Only after further mails and telephone messages was the receipt acknowledged at 10.30pm on Tuesday, with a note that a response would be issued in time.

On Tuesday, officials from the council contacted a solicitor for Premier Insurance, which along with the residents is suing the developer. This was the first official correspondence since the visit by the council personnel last September. Despite repeated attempts to get answers all week, Meath County Council has refused to furnish any replies to questions on these matters of grave public interest.

There is no end is sight for the residents. They can no longer avail of home insurance because it has become unaffordable due to the defects uncovered. For those wishing to sell, the prospects are also pretty bleak.

Most pressing of all though, is the fire safety concerns. Mark Fitzmaurice is blunt about the council’s conduct regarding the fire safety concerns.

“The only reason Meath County Council haven’t acted to date is they either don’t understand the seriousness of the situation, which means they’re not fit for purpose,” he says. “Or, they are acting out of some political or financial consideration and if that’s the case, they’re not fit for purpose.”

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Litany of problems

Group 2 building regulation non- compliance/ Workmanship not in keeping with best practice:

Roof

- Secondary roof envelope (breather membrane) not correctly lapped into guttering;

- Bottom course of tile missing tilling fillet.

Acoustics

- Separating walls at stairs fitted with single layer of plasterboard;

- Joists passing over party walls.

Fire

- Single layer of plasterboard in roof zone;

- No fire stopping at purlin/purlin going into separating walls;

- Rafters and valley rafters going into party walls;

- Separating/compartment wall at stairs only one layer plasterboard;

- Floors for second-floor apartment not separated over stairs;

- Joist passing over party walls;

- No vertical cavity barriers;

- No cavity barriers at floors;

- Required fire resistance of compartments has not been achieved.

Unanswered questions

The following questions were submitted to Meath County Council last Monday, June 8,at 11am.

1. Has a fire safety inspection report been compiled in relation to Riverwalk Court?

2. If so, why have the residents not been informed of the report’s conclusions?

3. If no inspection report has been compiled, why not?

4. Why did the chief fire officer not attend the September meeting, considering the seriousness of the report he had been furnished with three months earlier?

5. Residents have stated that the two officials who attended said they had not read the report themselves. Can you confirm this and if so, why hadn’t they?

6. Has any consideration been given to contacting residents under sections 19 and 20 of the Fire Services Act on the basis that the development poses a risk to safety?

7. Is the chief fire officer satisfied there is no case to revoke the fire safety certificate for the development, and that there is no risk to the residents as a result of deficiencies or shortcomings in the construction of the units vis-a-vis fire safety?

8. Has any fire safety inspection been conducted on the commercial units that are part of the development?

9. If so, has a report been compiled, and do any issues arise that might indicate that there should be concern for fire safety as a result?

A man of property

Michael Ryan, the principal in Saltan Properties, is the owner of the El Alle stud in Dungarvan, Co Waterford, and is frequently described as a “millionaire property developer”.

He has made a headline or two in his day. In July 2013, Mr Ryan was found not guilty of corruption following a six-day trial that examined monies received by a former Fine Gael councillor, Fred Forsey. In May 2012, Forsey was sentenced to six years in prison for accepting a bribe in return for attempting to exercise influence in a rezoning decision in Dungarvan.

Despite that verdict, Mr Ryan, who was alleged to have paid Forsey €80,000, was cleared in his separate trial. He had claimed that the money was a loan.

A few months after his acquittal, Mr Ryan hit the jackpot in a Goff’s sale by selling a yearling colt for €2.85m.

On the website page highlighting the company’s work, Riverwalk Court is the first example provided of the excellent work the company claims to do. A linking page to provide more information on the development is no longer in use.

The development, which was built in 2003, includes 26 apartment and duplex units, and commercial space on the first floor for three tenants, one of which is Tesco.

The insurer for structural defect cover, Premier, has engaged a building firm to carry out some remedial work on Riverwalk Court, and this began last March.

Premier and the residents are also involved in litigation with Saltan Properties over the extent of defects that have been uncovered.

Saltan built Riverwalk Court using a timber frame construction method that is somewhat controversial. Timber frame construction was popularised during the years of the construction boom in this country, principally because it is easy to assemble and involves installed prefabricated frames.

Saltan sourced its timber frames from a company named Elk Ireland, which appears to have been the local branch of an Austrian firm. Elk Ireland has since gone out of business.

The loose regulatory regime that typified the construction industry during the building boom also applied to timber frame manufacturing, even though the method was relatively new to the country. The method requires a high degree of precision in installation.

A failure to install the frames to a high degree of precision can have major consequences throughout the building.

One report, compiled by timber frame consultants Timber Design Services, highlighted some of the issues, such as water ingress, that have become major problems in Riverwalk Court, and concluded that the Elk timber frame system used was not certified by any recognised body.

“The system has failed and is failing for various reasons,” the report concluded.

Mr Ryan furnished the Irish Examiner with responses to a number of questions, but he claims that he is constrained in what he can say because of pending legal action pitting him against Premier and the residents. Mr Ryan says he accepts no responsibility for the water ingress or that the work on the complex was not up to the proper standards.

“Saltan does not accept that the standard of work in Riverwalk falls far short of acceptable,” his response said.

“A breach in the waterproof of the structure was discovered in 2007 and Saltan reported it to Premier Guarantee at the time and asked for the defect to be remedied immediately.”

This response does not address why there should be water ingress if the building was constructed properly.

Mr Ryan goes on to make allegations that certain people held up the repair work. He says he can’t remember whether Elk Ireland was certified with any recognised body. He would not comment on matters relating to fire safety without being provided with specific reports, even though the Irish Examiner has seen correspondence which shows Meath County Council was in contact with his company about the matter last year.

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