Fire safety issues 'whitewashed' in long awaited review

Michael Clifford raises questions over the failure of a new review to address fire safety concerns in homes built during the housing bubble, and the delay in its publication.

THERE is a case to be made that the State and its agencies are spinning dangerously to
minimise fire safety concerns about homes built during the bubble years. Either that, or the State and its agencies are intent on giving the impression of spinning dangerously about such concerns.

This matter comes to a head following publication last Friday of the report, Framework For Enhancing Fire Safety In Dwellings Where Concerns Arise. The title is long and unwieldy, but unfortunately the content is short of anything worthwhile.

The framework has its origins in a fire in a terrace of houses in Millfield Manor, Newbridge, Co Kildare, on March 31, 2015. The fire burned six houses to the ground in 25 minutes.
According to building design, this spread of fire should have taken three hours. Thankfully, the fire began in the afternoon and no lives were lost.

However, those who had bought homes in the timber frame construction estate, built in 2006, suddenly realised they were living in potential fire traps. They also had to accept that their homes were now unsellable.

The fire occurred at a time when fire safety concerns specific to timber frame construction began surfacing in estates built during the bubble years. The form of construction became popular in this country in the 1990s. It is estimated that up to 30% of homes built during the 2000-2008 period were of timber frame.

There is much about timber frame construction to be applauded, including its positive impact on the environment.

Some concerns over design criteria were raised when the method was introduced here, but if homes are built to specification, any risk is minimised.

Timber frame construction is largely done through prefabricated units being fitted into place, which is cleaner and quicker than standard construction.

The catch is that the work must be done to a high degree of precision, and any deviation from strict design criteria can have proportionately far more adverse effects than would be the case in other construction methods.

As is now evident, an awful lot of building during the bubble years fell short of proper standards, not least because the State abrogated any responsibility to inspect construction. In such a milieu, potential fire safety defects in timber frame construction have been amplified. Timber frame estates and apartment blocks around the country in Dublin, Kildare, Meath, Louth, and Waterford have in the last few years been identified as having problems. And these are developments in which problems were uncovered because of specific circumstances.

Against that background, and following the Newbridge fire, the then-environment minister Alan Kelly commissioned a review into the issue in September 2015. He appointed a three person team from outside the department to conduct the review, to be chaired by former Cork county manager Martin O’Riordan.

Announcing the review at the time Mr Kelly stated: “I am acutely aware of the stressful and distressing situation facing homeowners, such as those in Millfield estate in Newbridge, who simply do not know whether the home they live in is safe and secure from the risk of fire.”

While the terms of reference for the review do not specifically mention “timber frame construction”, Mr Kelly confirmed to the Irish Examiner last Friday that his intention was that the problems around timber frame would be examined, and Millfield Manor used as a case study in pursuit of this.

The review was to have been completed by January 31, 2016, but was delivered in April that year.

In ordinary circumstances, it would have been published soon thereafter. That did not happen. In fact, it was 17 months until last Friday before it was published, and then only in part.

During the interlude, speculation was rife that the delay in publication was due to the review highlighting issues around fire safety concerns which would be unpalatable, and costly, for the Government. This opinion was widespread in politics, the media, and among professionals in the fire safety area. The suspicion was heightened by the differing responses given for the delay in publication. These varied from “it remains under examination” to
“referred to the Attorney General for advice” to “contains information relevant to the deliberative process of the department”.

The excuse of referring it to the AG only surfaced last May, more than a year after it had been delivered to the department.

Finally, on Friday, the review was published, although the case study of Millfield Manor was not. The latter is only available through a Freedom of Information request.

The published review doesn’t mention timber frame construction. It doesn’t dwell on any specific issues that have arisen in Millfield or around the country. It doesn’t explore whether there should be changes to design criteria, construction methods, or aspects of inspection in these types of construction.

As one Millfield resident put in on reading the review: “It’s basically telling you to turn off the Christmas lights to avoid a fire.”

The perceived shortcomings of the document are no reflection on the application or ability of the review members. But it does call into question what exactly they were asked to do and if any clarification was sought from the department on what they were to look at.

The glaring question that pops out from the pages of the review is, why was it delayed for so long? Its contents are uncontroversial and legally unimpeachable. Did it sit in the department simply because there was a hope that the longer the hiatus before publication, the less likelihood that it would cause any bad headlines? Or did it sit there simply to give the impression that it was a document that required detailed consideration?

The residents of Millfield Manor have described the review as a “whitewash”.

What can certainly be stated is that notwithstanding the inordinate delay in publication, the review does absolutely nothing to address concerns about fire safety in homes built during the bubble years, as Millfield was.

The list of estates and buildings where such concerns arise continues to lengthen, particularly where timber frame construction was involved.

Following the Grenfell disaster in London, Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy ordered a review into fire safety in specific categories of development and building, which did not
include timber frame construction.

The impression was that any issues arising in timber frame would be addressed in the review published last Friday. That is now exposed as being wide of the mark. The same concerns exist. The same dangers are out there and simply cannot be spun away.



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