Michael Clifford reports on the increasing nervousness among residents of buildings constructed during the boom years that the ‘light touch’ regulations of the time have left their lives in danger
SHEILA was in her friend’s house across the street when her home began to go up in flames. She asked her friend to look after her five-year-old son and ran across the road to the complex, on Station Hill in Clongriffin on Dublin’s north side.
She was living in a two-storey duplex. She entered on the lower floor, which included the two bedrooms. The smoke was overpowering.
“I knew the extinguisher was on the first floor but I didn’t even get to it,” she recalled. “The whole bedroom was on fire. If I’d stayed any longer the smoke would have killed me. My friend was screaming from the bottom of the stairs. The whole place seemed to go up so quickly.”
Shelia got out unscathed. Within minutes, the fire service was at the scene. The first call was received by Dublin Fire Brigade at 5.38pm. Once the seriousness of the situation was assessed, six units of the brigade were dispatched, along with an ambulance. Everybody was evacuated from the complex, which is located next to the train station in Clongriffin.
All 80 occupants were housed that night in the nearby Clayton Hotel, and all except Shelia and her son were subsequently allowed to return. Her rented home was destroyed, and along with it many of Shelia’s possessions.
The next door neighbour’s duplex was also damaged by the fire, with another half dozen homes suffering smoke damage and some water ingress. A gym located on the ground floor of the complex was also damaged, but reopened soon afterwards.
The origins of the fire are the subject of a criminal case, but what alarmed many who witnessed it on November 1 last was how quickly it spread. As a result, Dublin Fire Brigade directed the management company of the complex to undertake a fire safety assessment. A consultant has been retained to conduct the assessment and a report is expected to be delivered in the coming months.
Shelia — not her real name as she doesn’t want to attract publicity — has not been back to the duplex. After a brief stay in the Clayton, she and her son were accommodated by Dublin City Council in a hostel on the North Circular Road.
Three weeks ago, she was finally able to access rented accommodation where she and her son now live. “It was tough, especially on my son who had to travel back across the city to get to school. I was supported by friends and family, but none of it was easy.”
The only trace of the fire today is a large scaffolding propped against the front of the building where repair work is being done.
Most of the apartments and houses in Clongriffin, including the complex on Station Road, were built by one of Ireland’s largest homebuilders, Gannon Homes. An arm of Gannon is the management company for the complex in question.
A series of questions emailed to the management company about the fire and its aftermath received the response that the company “was not in a position to answer the questions posed.”
It should be noted that Gannon has a good reputation as a homebuilder, and unless a consultant’s report finds otherwise there is no reason to believe there are any fire safety issues arising from how the complex in question was built.
However, the response to the fire from Dublin Fire Brigade, and members of the public who witnessed it, points to a heightened nervousness around any sort of a fire in a modern apartment block.
The problem is that there is now a widespread acceptance that building regulation during the boom was highly deficient. As a result, there is often little confidence among fire service personnel that buildings were constructed as per design at a time of intense activity.
One source in Dublin Fire Brigade put it thus: “The public expect us to go in (to a fire situation) and rescue anybody in there. That’s what we call an offensive approach to the fire.
“But now we have to assume that there was no regulation in place for stuff that went up during the boom. There were no inspections. So somebody has to make a decision on the spot whether to send men in when we don’t know the real dangers in there.”
The fire service has been involved in a number of cases in recent years where fire safety orders have had to be issued on apartment complexes on discovery of fire safety defects. A fire safety order demands that remedial work be done or the building will have to be evacuated.
The most high profile of these was Longboat Quay in Dublin’s docklands. In 2014, a survey by a senior fire officer concluded that the two six-storey blocks in the complex should be evacuated above the first floor such was the seriousness of the defects. This was revised, the following year a fire safety order was issued which is still live.
Longboat Quay is not an isolated case. Last December, when a group occupied a complex in Finglas in response to the occupation of Apollo House, it emerged that that building had been discovered to have severe fire safety defects which were being addressed by Dublin City Council.
Last month, it was revealed that the Beacon South Quarter complex in south Dublin will require at least €10m to fix defects which include fire safety defects. A consultant’s report said that although the defects must be addressed, the problems don’t render the complex a dangerous building.
Over the last few years at least 30 complexes or estates have been publicly identified as having serious deficiencies. In most cases, the problems included fire safety defects.
As these cases have tumbled out into the public domain, it has been acknowledged at government level that regulation was deficient during the boom. Following the debacle of Priory Hall in 2011, then environment minister Phil Hogan was straight up about what had unfolded.
“When I became minister I inherited an appalling mess of shoddily built homes like Priory Hall, developments with pyrite problems and with dangerous breaches of fire regulations. The interests of speculators and developers were, in some cases, allowed to take precedence over those of families and individuals.”
In 2014, Enda Kenny spoke of confronting the country’s past in this regard. We have to stand up and confront the major deficiencies in the sector that tolerated poor standards through a weak regulatory and enforcement regime,” he said.
Yet, in reality there has been no effort to do so. When Longboat Quay emerged, Brendan Howlin suggested that local authorities should step up to the plate.
“I think that every local authority should set about ensuring that there’s a full audit of any apartments or buildings built during that period to ensure the residents and all of us that things are safe and as they should be,” he said.
Yet few are playing ball. A survey conducted by this reporter last year found that only three local authorities had undertaken such a survey. The spectre of Priory Hall hangs over most local authorities. Once the deficiencies were discovered there, and the building evacuated, Dublin City Council ended up forking out €27m to tackle the problems.
Instead of an interventionist policy, most local authorities adopt a hands-off approach. One example of this was Riverwalk Court in Co Meath, where the local authority — and fire service — were aware of severe fire safety defects for over a year before finally acting following media coverage.
Fingal County Council conducted a review of fire safety in an estate in 2011, but never brought the full contents to the attention of the homeowners.
In Kildare, the local authority conducted a fire safety review after a fire destroyed six houses in Millfield Manor in Newbridge in half an hour in 2015.
Owners were allowed to read the damning conclusions of the review, but were not given copies. The developer, Paddy Byrne, has stated that he or his company bear no responsibility for any defects in the estate as, he says, “the completed buildings had the proper certification for completion.”
At national level, the song remains the same. Following the Newbridge fire, a review of the fire safety issues around timber-framed homes was ordered by then minister for the environment, Alan Kelly. That was completed last February, but nearly a year later it has yet to be published. A spokesperson for the department said that aspects of the review were still under consideration.
Tom English, a fire consultant, says that the lack of urgency in tackling dangerous work from the boom years is down to a fear of opening a pandora’s box. “What other way can you look at it,” he says. “They know that in a worst case scenario if they dealt with all the problems, you could be talking of a cost of up to €10bn to rectify what is out there in the worst case scenario.
“The local authorities don’t want to know. They know if they get involved they have to move people out, but where do they move them to.”
English maintains that the only way to tackle the legacy issues is with a national plan, but he doesn’t see the appetite in political circles for that.
“They would have to admit that there is a problem in the first place if they were to put together a plan. And if they admit there’s a problem, they’d have to say it’s our problem.”
In the meantime, the apartment buildings and estates which were not built to standard will keep giving up their secrets in a drip, drip manner. And anytime a fire occurs, the worst will be feared unless it is demonstrably shown that, unlike so many others, this particular building was put up according to proper standards.
The following questions were mailed to a representative of the management company for the Station Hill complex.
1. When was the Station Hill complex built?
2. Are you satisfied that there are no structural or construction defects in relation to fire safety?
3. When do you expect to receive the completed consultant’s report.
4. How many people are currently living in that complex?
After further emails, a response was received.
“Confirming receipt of your mail. I am not in a position to answer your questions posed below.”
The following statement was received from Dublin City Council in response to a series of questions.
“Dublin Fire Brigade (DFB) has written to the management company requesting that a fire safety assessment of the premises be undertaken by a suitable professional and a subsequent report be submitted to DFB in relation to same. DFB are aware that this assessment is under way and that a report will be submitted in due course.”
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