THERE are some disturbing echoes of Priory Hall in Longboat Quay, but there are also some crucial differences.
Both apartment developments were built during the frantic building boom that typified the so-called Celtic Tiger. Both were rendered fire traps as a result of major deficiencies. The developer in both cases had gone into receivership by the time the full extent of the damage was uncovered. The principle figure in both development companies, Tom McFeeley and Bernard McNamara respectively, are high profile individuals who had amassed great wealth during the building boom.
Both men subsequently applied in the UK for bankruptcy, McNamara successfully, McFeely not so. McFeely was then made bankrupt in this jurisdiction.
In 2011, Dublin Fire Brigade had Priory Hall’s 256 residents evacuated on foot of a fire safety notice after a failure to have remedial work done despite engagement with the developer over an extended period. The High Court ordered Dublin City Council to rehouse the residents, and all of the mostly owner-occupiers lost their homes and endured major hardship.
On August 14 last, Dublin City Council wrote to the fire consultant acting for Longboat Quay, Michael Slattery and Associates, threatening to apply for a fire safety notice if a commencement date for remedial works was not notified by August 31. This would have involved seeking a court order to have the 298 apartments evacuated, putting over 600 residents out on the street.
Slattery responded, assuring the fire brigade that work would commence “not later than October 31”.
The major deficiencies in Longboat Quay were discovered first by an engineer doing a routine survey in May last year. He notified the fire brigade. The deficiencies included a completely inadequate fire alarm system and major problems with smoke vents and fire walls and fire safety in ceiling construction. The deficiencies were such that apart from the immediate danger to the residents, firefighters would have been put in peril in the event of a fire.
After initially considering the evacuation of most of the residents, the fire brigade agreed to shelve any such order to see if the work required would be done.
For over six months thereafter the building was patrolled 24/7 by fire marshalls whose job it was to alert residents and evacuate the building if there was any instance of fire. This continued until the fire alarm – the least complicated of the safety issues – was properly installed.
Once this work was completed, a schedule of works was agreed last February to rectify the structural problems that continued to render the building a firetrap.
That culminated in August 14 with the threat of applying for a fire safety notice in apparent frustration at a lack of progress.
“The fire authority requires that the proposed commencement date and timescale for the fire safety works and a formal commitment to adhere to the schedule to be submitted no later than August 31,” the letter read.
A response was received within a week with assurances. However, apart from the detail of the works, the major stumbling block now is who is going to pay.
Unlike Priory Hall, there is a public body with an interest in Longboat Quay. The latter development was built in the Dublin Docklands and came under the auspices of the Dublin Dockland Development Authority (DDDA). This effectively meant that the DDDA had nominal ownership of all the common areas, while the apartments were privately owned.
Ordinarily, the DDDA would have conveyed ownership of the common areas to the development’s management company within a few years of completion. However, problems unrelated to fire safety arose a few years after Longboat Quay was finished in 2006, and the management company refused to accept conveyance.
The upshot of that was the DDDA was on the hook to fund some of the remedial work with public money. Thus, the upgrade of the fire alarm system – for which one contract alone was worth €250,000 – was paid out of public funds.
Now, funds for the major works have to be sourced. While exact figures are not yet available, the cost is understood to run “into quite a few million”, according to one source. To complicate matters, the DDDA is in the process of being wound up.
Despite that, more public money may be sourced. There is also the possibility that the receiver of McNamara’s development vehicle Gendsong, may be in a position to contribute. But even allowing for those contributions, it now seems inevitable that apartment owners are going to be left with at least an element of the cost.
Some of the owners bought under a shared ownership scheme with the DDDA. Others are owner occupiers who paid up to €600,000 for homes that are now worth a fraction of that. Whether they will be in a position to find the money to save their homes remains to be seen.
If the money is found, then a Priory Hall outcome can be avoided. The principle issue in Priory Hall was that there was no possibility of sourcing the considerable funds required to render the apartment blocks safe.
Meanwhile, Dublin City Council (DCC) also has skin in the game. In 2011, the High Court ordered the local authority to rehouse the residents of Priory Hall on a temporary basis, which incurred considerable costs. The DDDA is being subsumed into DCC and it is quite possible, if not probable, that a similar order could be forthcoming if Longboat Quay had to be evacuated.
One outcome from the Priory Hall debacle — which included major human suffering — was that new building regulations were introduced in 2014 by then environment minister Phil Hogan. The SI9 system was supposed to ensure that no building could be thrown up again with such glaring and dangerous deficiencies.
Yet, many construction professionals continue to be convinced that the new regulations are little more than window dressing on a self-regulation regime. Despite all that has happened, and the continuing discovery of other deficient and dangerous buildings from the building boom, there is little confidence in some quarters that the problems have now been addressed.