The State is still not ensuring compliance as building boom nightmare hits southeast, writes Michael Clifford
The scourge of firetrap homes has broken out in the south-east.
A village just over 15km from the seaside resort of Tramore, Co Waterford, is the latest location of a housing estate that is officially a danger to life.
In recent years, there have been high-profile developments, such as Longboat Quay in Dublin, Millfield Manor in Kildare, and Riverwalk Court in Co Meath, exposed as being deficient in fire prevention.
Now, the village of Kill near Tramore is grappling with the problems that continue to seep out as a sour legacy from the days of the Celtic Tiger.
There are many similarities between those other developments and what has befallen the owners and residents of Ceol Na Mara in Kill, but above all else, the human emotions are identical.
One resident of the estate, who doesn’t want to be identified because of tensions over the problem, put it thus: “We’ve been left high and dry. We who bought our homes in good faith, thinking they were in proper order, have been told we’re on our own. Something is very wrong.”
The sentiments are echoed by local Sinn Féin councillor Declan Clune.
“It’s another hangover from the Celtic Tiger,” he says. “Loose regulation again, more houses slapped up, poor oversight, and people left with no comeback. “These people simply don’t have the money.”
The money in question is what it will cost to fix the problems, estimated to be around €15,000 per home for each owner.
The €15,000 is needed to pay for remedial work to make the homes safe, but must be considered in conjunction with the negative equity, inflated mortgage repayments, and the loss of value due to the discovery of the fire safety and other deficiencies.
In another echo of what has occurred elsewhere, there is a two-tiered approach to the problem. Homeowners are on their own, while those in the public housing element will have their homes rectified with public money.
The narrative of how the problems came to light follows a path that has been beaten in recent years.
Ceol Na Mara was completed in 2008 by Cork-based firm, Bowen Construction.
The estate consisted of 54 two-storey and bungalow semi-detached homes. It was built using timber frame rather than masonry, a construction method that grew hugely in popularity during the boom years of frantic building.
The homes sold for between €185,000 and €310,000. By the time the crash occurred, the development company still had not managed to sell all the properties. When Bowen went bust in 2011, Nama took possession of these 19 homes.
Within two years, Waterford-based housing agency Respond stepped in to purchase the 19 vacant homes. The Irish Examiner understands that a deal was struck to buy the properties for around €50,000, just over a quarter of what they were valued at when the estate was built five years earlier.
Before taking possession of the homes, Respond did a detailed examination and out popped some dark secrets. There were deficiencies in heating and energy rating, but most crucially in relation to fire safety.
In essence, the houses were unsafe for habitation.
Respond informed Waterford City and County Council, which owns five of the properties in the estate. These were purchased under Part V of the Planning Act 2000, which made provision for a percentage of new developments to be handed over for social and affordable housing.
The council took possession of these homes in 2008, yet it was not until contacted by Respond five years later that the local authority realised there was a problem. It commissioned a consultant’s report into the homes in public ownership. The result confirmed the problems identified by the Respond survey.
The problems that were discovered were similar to those that have dogged other timber frame estates which were shown to have been deficient.
Among these issues were:
The council realised that immediate action would have to be taken. Last March, it called a meeting of the owners and residents. They were informed of the problems, but the private owners were told that it was up to themselves to have the issues rectified.
“We were asked to a meeting in the community centre,” an owner told the Irish Examiner.
“We were told it would be €4,000 each for an engineer to go into our attics and put a camera down and it will cost another €10,00 each to get things done. And there’s also a problem with the chimneys that will have to be fixed.”
They said residents were provided with a number of smoke alarms as extra protection: “They gave us one for each bedroom and one for the attic and another for the sitting room. Depending on how big your home, you got four or five of these.”
The council confirmed to the Irish Examiner that it has also offered the services of a technical officer to the residents association to help with “issues of technical and/or regulatory nature”.
Remedial work has got underway in the five council-owned houses and the 19 being purchased by Respond. The remaining 30 owner/residents have to deal with the issue themselves. The problem is exacerbated as most of the properties are semi-detached, requiring neighbours to both agree to the work and funding.
As with most of the other cases where these issues have arisen, the development company involved no longer exists. The council says it will make some efforts to seek restitution for its properties from anybody connected with the company. It also confirmed that “there is no provision” to financially assist the private homeowners.
A spokeswoman for Respond said the agency does not have a contract with the original developer.
“Respond only has a contractual relationship with Nama vis-á-vis this property and cannot attempt to recoup costs from the original developer. That would be a matter for Nama,” said the spokeswoman.
Bowen Construction, which was once the sixth largest housebuilder in the state, went into receivership in 2011.
The only option open to the owners is to legally pursue some of the construction professionals who were engaged to sign off or approve the original works. That is an arduous and usually unsuccessful route, but the owners feel they have no option.
“Who was supposed to be keeping an eye on this when it was built,” a resident told the Irish Examiner.
“We all trusted that we were buying homes that were safe and properly built.”
Not for the first time, the trust was misplaced. Regulation of the construction industry was handed over to the business itself in 1990, and — even with changes since some of the problems from the Celtic Tiger were exposed — largely remains so.
Minster for Housing Simon Coveney recently confirmed this position when answering a parliamentary question from Waterford TD David Cullinane about Ceol na Mara.
“Compliance with the building regulations is first and foremost the responsibility of the owners, designers and builders of the building concerned,” he said. “As minister, I have no function in assessing, checking or testing compliance, or otherwise, of specific works or development.”
That was a stark admission. The State has no function in testing compliance of building regulations. What if the state abdicated testing compliance with financial institutions, or, more pertinently, compliance with road safety laws? How would that be received?
Mr Cullinane described the reply as extraordinary. “It demonstrates that little has changed since scandal after scandal has emerged regarding poor building standards,” he said.
Some homes were not built to the standards required
- Michael Clifford
Ceol Na Mara is a timber frame construction. This method of building grew in popularity during the years of the building boom.
Timber frame construction is attractive from environmental and energy conservation perspectives. From a builder’s point of view, it is also clean and has quick construction times.
Apart from Ceol Na Mara, major fire safety deficiencies in timber frame homes have been discovered in Millfield Manor in Newbridge, Riverwalk Court in Ratoath, and an unidentified estate in Fingal, which was uncovered by the local authority in 2012, according to documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
In Millfield Manor, a fire in March 2015 razed a terrace of six houses in less than half an hour, when, according to design criteria, such an eventuality should have taken three hours.
The frames are prefabricated off-site, then installed by the developer. Crucially, a high degree of precision is required in installing the frames. The allowable room for error is much smaller than in masonry.
Two issues arise in relation to timber frame construction during the boom years. In the first instance, who was operating with a high degree of precision when buildings were being thrown up in jig time in order to move quickly onto the next project and turn the next fast buck.
Apart from that, the amount of expertise in this specialised field in this country does not appear to have been present on the building sites.
A report commissioned by the government in 2003 into timber-frame development noted these problems. It pointed out that “the fire protection of timber structures can be compromised if not detailed correctly and not constructed in accordance with the details and product manufacturer’s instructions”.
The same report also found “instances of defects of site which are attributed to a lack of knowledge and experience of erectors and tradespeople in timber frame”.
None of this is to suggest that there is a problem with all timber frame developments. Some firms specialise in timber frame construction and operate to a high degree of precision. Others have been vigilant of the higher degree of expertise required in installation.
However, there are undoubtedly a number of cases where timber frame developments were not built to the standard required. And in all likelihood, there are more out there with secrets hidden behind the walls.
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