Is the new BCAR system what’s best for the country?

Kya deLongchamps gauges reaction to ‘opting out’ of statutory certification and looks at the future of quality assurance for self-builds.

Is the new BCAR system what’s best for the country?

This week self-builders of single dwellings and those extending their homes escaped the bureaucratic misery and potentially onerous costs of the new BCAR S.I 9 building controls introduced only 18 months ago.

Fighting back the recession or not, we have clung to the one-off residential dream here in Ireland.

When the Building Control Amendment Regulations (BCAR) arrived in March of 2014, it seemed like a bold step forward towards housing guaranteed by competent qualified professionals for safety and meticulous quality, from the ground up.

Yes, the BCAR was an odd alternative to the approach taken in the UK and US, where the local authorities implement building controls with regular inspections on site.

But, by employing a private design certifier (to sign off on the design of the house or extension), and an assigned certifier (to stand over the crucial construction stages), quality was assured from the start.

However, there were worrying new financial implications for a single dwelling or extension to be compliant by law.

I was told by a reputable architect I interviewed that due to the rigours of this new certification process plus the closing in of revenue on non tax-compliant contractors, self build of one-off houses, and most certainly using direct labour — was ‘dead’.

Well, according to the government review of the first working year of the BCAR (March 2014 —March 2015) undertaken by the Department of the Environment Community & Local Government, some certifiers just couldn’t behave themselves when it came to one-off builds.

Examples were reported during a consultation process for the review, of serious over-pricing — 6-8% of the value of the house to ‘project manage’ in one case — something not actually required by the BCAR. Respondents also told of expensive out-sourcing to other professionals by certifiers incompetent to judge various trades and skills.

Based on what reads like a split decision by the stakeholders taking part in the review, and the typical lumps, bumps of a new set of rules, Minister Andrew Kelly TD and Minister for State at the Department of the Environment Community and Local Government Paudie Coffey TD have taken single dwellings and domestic extensions out of the BCAR.

The Department of the Environment will provide information notes for those who want to ‘opt out’ on their website, and a spokesman for the department told the Irish Examiner, that technical guidance documents and a new code of practice forinsperction and certifying of work is being updated to include a Sample Preliminary Inspection Plan for single dwellings.

Large scale developments and therefore, developers, remain under the full auspices of the Section I .9, (which was a response under then Minister Phil Hogan to the Priory Hall debacle), which means that new estate housing including social housing commencing from the 1st of September, must still carry full certification.

However, a one-off house or extension only has to be compliant with the stipulations of its planning permission and the statuary requirements of the building regulations — Part L, 2011, the latest rules on energy efficiency and the use of renewables in all buildings.

This is a far cry from what we were faced with in March 2014, when the costs and curtailments proposed by the regulations were said to have effectively eliminated direct-labour and owner-certification for one-off dwellings.

The negative impact was strongest for rural dwellers, in particular, who have historically found sound financial advantage in building their own houses. Something not lost on the ministers involved.

“I am satisfied that the new arrangements will level the playing field for individuals and families planning to build or extend their own home. They will no longer be held to ransom by excessive quotes for design and completion certificates,” said Minister Coffey.

“Owners who wish to invest in statutory certification may of course continue to do so and I believe many will do so, where reasonable and affordable prices can be obtained.

“This approach restores the balance of power to consumers. Nobody who invests in their own home would spend money on substandard work, but people should not have to pay at inflated rates for excessive inspection services.”

The provision of the local authority inspection remains veiled in confusion. Who tells the department your new house or extension is compliant with the building regulations? According to the Department of the Environment — you do.

“I firmly believe that local authorities should be setting the standard when it comes to the construction of homes — and given the roll-out of the Social Housing Strategy, we must ensure that we have well-built homes for families across Ireland,” said Minister Coffey.

And in a telling conclusion to an outline of the new regulations launched last Tuesday, the Minister said he looked forward to “the continued development of a robust and credible building control framework based on strong and effective oversight of construction activity, by industry and by local authorities, underpinned by the administrative arrangements now in place under SI No. 9 of 2014”.

This would assume that in the case of self-builders, a local authority inspectorate will take greater charge of policing the gap between permission granted and building erected — a chasm which has swallowed substandard builds and flagrant breaches of permissions in the past.

The Royal Institute of Architects of Ireland (RIAI) and the Construction Industry Council are against this change. In May, before the consultation stage of the department’s review was over,the RIAI stated that removing one-off housing and extensions from BCAR was nothing short of an “undermining of consumer protection”.

Do we need protecting from our own naivety when building or extending? I have personal experience of the exhaustion on site that can lead to unintentional short cuts, moonlight hires, and lazy fudges in a direct labour build.

In a mortgage situation, the lenders’ demands for staged visits by a competent architect or chartered engineer, with full professional indemnity insurances as a condition to release funds, will cover the major bases, shielding us to a degree as it did before building certification.

Engaging an architect or chartered professional to sign off on a certificate of compliance, obligatory last year with full certification at the end of a build, is now an important option for the self-builder.

It provides not only peace of mind but will speed the process of conveyance when you sell. The difference now too is that you can move into your self-build without that certificate — which included a stipulation of ‘habitable condition’.

This was a testy point with the building controls of 2014/15 which could potentially have kept owners out of their technically ‘uninhabitable’ home or renovation until that crucial cert’ was filed at the controlling hub, the BCMS.

Something was amiss certainly in the last year. Confusion, lack of professionals willing to step up as assigned certifiers or simply teething problems?

The Building Register of commencement notices for 2014 showed that the number of building projects were down on 2013 (Building Control Management System records).

Mark Stephens, an architect practising in Mayo is well known for his innovative zero energy and passive house builds. He was available to carry out certification using the BCAR system for his clients last year but said he was pleased the system has changed:

“It makes my life easier. It makes my clients’ lives easier, but is the new system what’s best for the country?”

He questions the prospect of just 15% inspections by local authorities across residential builds.

According to the Department of the environment notes I received: “Significant inspection capability is already in place and will continue to be enhanced and developed over time”.

“It’s 100% all in, or nothing in my view,” says Mark Stevens.

“The government should be handling supervision and inspections of every one of these builds. I actually don’t want to be the assigned certifier on my own projects.

"It’s hassle, it’s work I don’t really get paid for and it places a huge responsibility and liability on an architect’s shoulders.”

Architect Andrew Lane who practises and also teaches architecture in Cork, suggests that the market and price structure for certification would have found its own level, given more time, and that the alterations to the process was pushed into play by the prospect of looming elections, rather than the good of the consumer.

He’s backed up in this theory by a recent survey undertaken by the RIAI which revealed that 71% of consumers were still unaware of the changes to the building regulations in March 2014.

“Yes, having local authorities carrying out inspections was the way to go — but the government have upset private professionals and their clients who were going honestly through the misery of learning the certification system.

“We were managing well and my clients were more than happy with certification as a mark of the care going into their build.

“This change was implemented too soon. If it’s an opt out/out in choice, frankly I would have to discuss the subject fully with clients who opted out.

“Imagine if you sell your house and the buyers ask why you opted out on having the house fully certified? What will the mortgage lender make of it? I do think taking the assigned certifier off smaller extensions was a positive, but for one off houses — it’s questionable.”

This is an important point, borne out by the department’s reply to the Irish Examiner on the matter.

“Consumers who at a future date consider buying a house, will know from the statutory building control register whether it was subject to statutory certification or not and will be in a position to make an informed decision in relation to their purchase.”

Michael O’Mahony, with a practise based in Ballincollig, Cork, is a member of the Irish Engineering Institute, MIEI, and the Irish Institute of Surveyors (MIS). He was still considering the changed situation, but said he was ‘relieved’ that the system had taken self-builders out of the net.

“I certainly wasn’t enjoying the process, and it increased the cost to my clients to as much as €8,000 because of the legwork and paperwork involved in certification.

“We had to sign off on every slate and nail that went into a build. Having a chartered engineer contracted to attend regularly on site and inspect the build at €175 to €200 a time is better value, and there will be that added necessary certification for say plumbing and electrics, whatever system is in place.”

He was less optimistic about the proposed local authority-led inspection process, arguing that it was certainly the best solution, but that it would take time and huge resources to get up, running and managed effectively.

“A whole new building control department will have to be put in place, and certification will have to include not only engineers, but the skills of all the trades. Cork County Council is already under resourced and cutting numbers — not hiring in.”

And in that regard, the regulations include another striking change — the statutory registration of architectural technologists — which the statement says, “will further broaden the pool of certifiers for building control purposes”.

It could be argued that the department is trying to broaden the base of qualified certifiers to reduce the cost to builders across the board.

This might not go down so well with the RIAI who lobbied hard to control use of the title ‘architect’ and who may see this move as a deregulating act.

So — for those building their own homes or planning to extend beyond 40m², what’s changed? Well, if you are commencing now under the new regulations, you, the self-builder, can sign off on the commencement notice, rather that having it certified by an architect or engineer.

There is a wider choice of contractors and trades to work on your build (not on the CIRI register) and the individual or firm will not have to attach their names to a sheaf of paperwork.

You must still adhere to your planning permission and follow the stipulations of the building regulations. For those who want and can afford it, BCAR certification is an optional extra.

Local authority inspections have yet to be determined and it remains to be seen if the extra confidence of a BCAR certified house will translate into a saleable advantage in the open market.

Here are some salient points from the Department of Environment, Community and Local Government

* Building in accordance with the Technical Guidance Documents published by the Minister demonstrates, prima facie, compliance with the requirements of the building regulations.

An information note for single dwellings availing of the opt out facility will be published on the Department’s website and existing guidance is also available to assist building owners in meeting their statutory obligations.

* Where a building owner opts out of statutory certification, the compliance documentation lodged with the local authority at commencement, will no longer require to be certified by a registered construction professional.

* The facility to opt-out applies only to projects which commence on and from 1 September 2015. Projects which have already commenced must continue to comply with the legal requirements that applied when they commenced.

* Primary responsibility for ensuring that a dwelling is designed and constructed in accordance with the requirements of the building regulations, continues to rest with the owner and any persons they engage to design or build the dwelling.

* Significant inspection capability is already in place and will continue to be enhanced and developed over time.

* There has been no change in relation to the minimum performance standards that must be achieved by a dwelling. Building owners continue to have a statutory obligation to ensure that these minimum performance standards are achieved in practice.

* Owners have not been given an exemption, but may now-opt out of statutory certification. They may decide to avail of statutory certification where they can do so at a reasonable cost. In any case, they must continue to prepare and lodge design plans and compliance documentation prior to commencement.

* Local authorities are not responsible for achieving compliance or approving a dwelling. Their role is one of inspection and enforcement and, where appropriate, prosecution where serious breaches of the regulations occur.

Consumers, who at a future date consider buying a house, will know from the statutory building control register whether it was subject to statutory certification or not and will be in a position to make an informed decision in relation to their purchase.

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