MICHAEL CLIFFORD: Housing defects special report: We can’t afford to make the same mistakes again

The Riverwalk Court Development, Fairyhouse Road in Ratoath, Co Meath. Picture Nick Bradshaw

Relaxed regulation meant buildings were thrown up at a frantic rate during the boom. Michael Clifford investigates and asks what we can do to avoid the same mistakes again

Ready, steady and they’re off. The future of housebuilding in this country starts here, or more accurately with the recent launch of the government’s housing and homeless plan.

The plan envisages ramping up building to the point where there will be 25,000 homes constructed each year. Between now and 2021, there are plans to build around 26,000 social houses. That is going to involve a lot of work.

Everybody is agreed that a major building programme is required to tackling the housing shortage, but who is going to be keeping an eye on the quality of the work?

The one thing we learned from the building boom of the 2000s is that without proper policing of standards and regulations, the quality will suffer with major consequences.

A number of examples of the fall-out from the last building boom have been laid out on these pages. Those featured are only the more serious of which we are aware. All involve the most egregious aspects of shoddy work – fire safety deficiencies. In effect, we’re talking here about the protection of life.

What is indisputable is that these cases are not lone exceptions. In the first instance, a common thread running through all of them is that the deficiencies were only discovered after a detailed survey on foot of a major event.

For instance, in a number of the cases, the discovery was as a result of a survey by a receiver selling on multiple apartment units. In these cases the receiver wanted to ensure that all was kosher so a detailed inspection was commissioned and from behind the walls of apartment blocks out popped dark secrets.

None of these problems had been discovered when individual owners commissioned surveys on their apartments when purchasing. This illustrates the limited value of such surveys.

So in all likelihood, there are a raft of other developments out there which are potentially dangerous, but the problems have not yet been uncovered. In addition, there is the scenario that homeowners understandably want to keep any problems under wraps.

The Irish Examiner is aware of at least three developments where problems were uncovered but were dealt with following co-operation and financial input from the apartment owners.

One example of public money being used for this purpose without attracting any scrutiny is the development in Fingal County Council’s area featured on this page.

And local authorities have not been pro-active in attempting to find out whether their housing stocks are safe and sound. Despite all that has tumbled out in the last few years, the Irish Examiner understands that only two of the forty local authorities has undertaken a full audit of housing stock to ensure that all is as it should be.

The picture that emerges is one in which buildings were thrown up at a frantic rate in a frenzied atmosphere where the imperative was to keep moving, keep building, keep making hay with the huge profits that were available. Overseeing this activity was a regime of regulation that was, to a large extent, non-existent.

In such a milieu, it is left up to the builders to maintain standards. Some, to their credit, did despite the pressures at the time. Others quite obviously did not, and the fall-out is being felt in estates and developments up and down the country.

In a recent interview the chief executive of the biggest private landlord in the state, IRES Reit, said his company had to do a lot of improvements after buying some apartments built during the boom years.

“The interiors and hallways and so forth are outstanding but some of the buildings are not as good as they could have been,” David Ehrlich said.

“There are other building techniques that could have been employed that would have taken some time but would have bene better.

“For example, some of the buildings we bought don’t have membranes under parking garage slabs to prevent water from coming up through the floor.

“In one of our properties, (the developer) put in very large glass panes in areas where you would not have noticed a break.

“So now if there is one little crack you have to replace the whole panel so it’s created a maintenance issue.” All of which brings us to the kernel of the problem which is regulation. Quite simply, the system of regulation that existed at a time of building frantically was appalling.

From 1990 to 2012, effective self-regulation was in place. Builders hired professionals who conducted a visual inspection of the completed work. In the area of fire safety, local fire authorities were obliged to sign off on the design, but it was left up to the developer to hire a consultant to sign off on the finished product. Quite simply, it didn’t work.

This was acknowledged by the government following the debacle of Priory Hall in Donaghmede, north Dublin, which had to be evacuated in 2011 due to fire safety concerns.

A new system was introduced, known as SI9, which provides for a paper trail at every stage of the process from design to completion. Each part must be signed off by an “assigned certifier”, drawn from the ranks of engineers, architects and surveyors.

The process is effectively designed to ensure that there is somebody to blame – the assigned certifier – in the event of things going wrong.

However, the system remains deeply flawed. The certifier is obliged to have professional indemnity insurance, but the nature of deficiencies is that they may not surface for years. So what happens if the insurance lapses in between the construction and the discovery of flaws? What happens in a highly mobile industry if the certifier has left the country and is working in another jurisdiction?

An even bigger issue is to whom is the certifier answerable. Under the rules the certifier can be employed by the developer. This renders the system as effectively a continuation of self-regulation.

The result is the state is still attempting to ensure the regulation of the building industry continues to be sub-contracted.

A recent reply in the Dail to a question about regulation from housing minister Simon Coveney summed up the state’s position.

“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,” he told Sinn Fein’s David Culinane.

They do things differently in the neighbouring jurisdiction, where regulation is undertaken by state bodies, or contracted out on behalf of the state. The changes brought in by SI9 here, however, appear to indicate that a hands-off approach will continue to prevail.

Anecdotally, it would appear that builders in general are being more careful so far under SI9 than was the case previously.

However, the real test will come with activity is ramped up to attack the targets set out by the government’s housing plan. The jury is still out on whether the mistakes and conduct of the past will end up being repeated.

 

One developer takes responsibility

McGreevy Enterprises is one of the few companies to hold up its hands and promise to rectify safety issues in its Dundalk development

Problems at Ath Lethan, Dundalk, look closer to resolution than in many similar projects that have gone wrong.
Problems at Ath Lethan, Dundalk, look closer to resolution than in many similar projects that have gone wrong.

In rare instances, somebody holds up their hands, admits they got things wrong and resolves to rectify the situation post haste.

One such case was that of the Ath Lethan complex at Racecourse Road outside Dundalk, Co Louth.

The complex was built in 2005 by Northern Ireland based company, McGreevy Enterprises. It consists of a mixed development of over 200 homes, ranging from five-bedroom detached houses to terraced two- and three-storey houses and seventy-two apartments in nine blocks.

Problems with the apartments arose in April of this year as a result of a fire safety report commissioned by a potential purchaser of a number of units. The report found cavity barriers not being “provided as outlined in the granite fire safety certificate application.”

Among the specific problems were “numerous issues where there were penetrations through fire rated walls and floors that were inadequately firestopped to maintain the integrity of the fire rated walls and floors.” The total estimated cost of remedial works in order to bring the development up to the required standard is €1.4 million.

On being informed of the problems, the chief fire officer for Louth County Council wrote to the management company to the effect that unless the remedial work was carried out, a fire safety order would be sought, which would ultimately result in the homes being evacuated.

A meeting was convened on May 10 at which the first surprise was the presence of a representative from the developer.

This was followed by the shock that the developer was actually admitting responsibility and vowing to rectify the problems.

“They did agree mistakes had been made by a number of people in the development,”

Alan Grehan, of the development’s management company told LMFM the following day.

“They categorically stated that they would put it right. They stated that they had already been on site, which we were aware of, and that they would be coming back to us over the next week or so with a comprehensive plan of what they’re going to do, a timescale for doing it and who they’re going to appoint.

“It was quite a positive meeting to be honest and hopefully from this we will get a resolution.” For the owners and residents, this was as good a result as could be expected under the circumstances.

Discovering that one’s home is unsafe and not properly built is a major blow, but most of those thrust into that nightmare then must face a battle to have the issue resolved.

Here, the first positive is that the developer is still in business.

In a number of cases the development company has fallen victim to the Celtic Tiger and gone bust. In such instances, the principle within the company is not liable, even if he or she has substantial wealth or assets. Even for those still in business, it can be a long and often fruitless battle to make somebody legally liable.

For those affected by the problems in Ard Lethan, the ultimate outcome was very worrying, but compared to the travails and battles that others who find themselves in the same situation, they can at least be grateful for small mercies.

 

Longboat needs millions to be safe

If work to protect residents from fire danger is not forthcoming then Bernard McNamara’s quayside development will have to be evacuated

Maria O’Callaghan, who lives at Longboat Quay apartments on Sir John Rogerson’s Quay in Dublin. Picture: Fergal Phillips
Maria O’Callaghan, who lives at Longboat Quay apartments on Sir John Rogerson’s Quay in Dublin. Picture: Fergal Phillips

In February 2015, the secrets behind the walls of Longboat Quay began to spill out.

The Irish Examiner published a series of investigations that showed major fire safety defects had been uncovered at the Dublin docklands development.

Longboat Quay was built by one of the most high profile Celtic Tiger developers, Bernard McNamara. It consists of 298 apartments in two blocks looking out on the Liffey from Sir John Rogerson Quay.

When the development first went on sale the apartments were snapped up for as much as €535,000 per unit. Former president Mary McAleese and her husband bought two units for just under €1.2 million.

McNamara got into trouble and the vehicle he used to build Longboat, Gendsong, went into receivership. In 2014, the receiver was unloading nineteen apartments and employed a fire consultant to give them the once over.

The results of that consultant’s investigation were devastating. A whole litany of defects – from lack of smoke vents to inadequate fire stopping – rendered the building a firetrap. The receiver informed Dublin Fire brigade which undertook its own investigation.

The senior fire safety officer who oversaw it deemed the defects so serious that he recommended evacuation of everybody above the first floor of the six floor development.

A compromise was reached whereby fire marshals were employed to patrol the buildings 24/7 while a top rated new alarm system was installed.

A comprehensive survey was then undertaken by a leading fire consultant which estimated the cost of remedial work at €3.88m.

In September last year, a meeting of owners and residents was told the extent of the problem. For most of them it came as a bolt from the blue.

The following month, with little progress being made, Dublin Fire Brigade applied for a fire safety order. This has been suspended until next year, but its effect is that if the work is not completed the building must be evacuated.

What has developed now is a major row over who is going to foot the bill. Gendsong, the developer is gone. In any event, McNamara claims the defects were not his fault, although he has offered to assist in the remedial work.

The Dublin Docklands Development, which owned the common areas, offered to put up around €2.5 million, but that still left the owners with a major bill which most of them simply don’t have.

McNamara has claimed he can do the work more economically than set out in the consultant’s report.

However, further surveys have uncovered more defects in the building, particularly to do with the roof, which will ramp the bill up again, most likely close to the original cost figure.

For the last few months word has seeped out a solution was imminent, but one way or the other something will have to be done by next year when the Fire Safety Order kicks in.

 

Owners left in limbo after council says defects not to do with them

The fire in Newbridge in 2015. Picture: Eamonn Farrell
The fire in Newbridge in 2015. Picture: Eamonn Farrell

On the afternoon of 31 March 2015, a terrace of six houses in Newbridge, Co. Kildare, burned to the ground in less than half an hour. The fire occurred in Millfield Manor, an estate of 90 timber-framed houses and apartments built in 2006.

The rapid spread of the fire caused alarm for all residents in Millfield Manor, but also for the Kildare Country Council, the local fire authority. Building regulations require a one-hour party wall between housing units, which means that in normal circumstances it should take 60 minutes for a fire to engulf a neighbouring home. By that standard, it should have taken three hours at a minimum before the whole terrace was razed. What went wrong?

Millfield Manor was built by Barrack Construction, a firm headed up by a local builder, Paddy Byrne. He was long gone by March 2015. Three years previously, Barrack had gone into receivership and soon after Byrne declared himself backrupt in the UK.

The council commissioned a report on a terrace of vacant houses in the estate and the results were devastating. A whole series of fire safety defects were uncovered which effectively rendered the homes as firetraps.

The council convened a meeting with a group of residents and informed them of the results of the report. However, the officials refused to publish the report.

As far as the council was concerned, the problems had nothing to do with them. The houses were single occupancy, and therefore not the responsibility of the council. It was up to the owners and residents to get their own reports and pay for the required remedial works. The estimated cost per home was €15,000. Despite the council being the regulatory authority for building, it was now saying that the deficiencies uncovered had nothing to do with them.

This was clarified in a statement from the council. “As the report only refers to the units inspected, it cannot and should not, be used as a basis for conjecturing that other homes in Millfield are deficient in some way. The only method for a homeowner to determine if there are deficiencies in their home is to have an inspection carried out by a suitably qualified professional.” A report was commissioned by the residents, and compiled by experienced fire consultant Thomas English. That enumerated a litany of defects, which, the report stated: “leads to a total loss of saleable title and value for the properties and the almost certain withdrawal of insurance facilities.” The report suggests the dwellings are “life threatening” in terms of fire safety. Issues like fire doors, lack of cavity in walls, no fire stopping, faulty construction have all been uncovered.

Since then, the owners have been left in limbo. Many do not have the money to undertake the remedial works. Even those who do are hamstrung in that they would require the co-operation of next door neighbours.

Former Minister for the Environment Alan Kelly commissioned a report on Millfield Manor, which has yet to be published. In any event, the report is not mandated to suggest compensation for the owners.

 

Councils need to act fast without prompting

The Riverwalk Court Development, Fairyhouse Road in Ratoath, Co Meath. Pictured are some of the families who are residents of the development. Picture: Nick Bradshaw
The Riverwalk Court Development, Fairyhouse Road in Ratoath, Co Meath. Pictured are some of the families who are residents of the development. Picture: Nick Bradshaw

The fate of Riverwalk Court says much about how one local authority deal with some of the problems that arise with fire safety defects.

Riverwalk Court is a twenty six unit development in Ratoath, Co Meath, built in 2002 and 2003 by Saltan Properties. It is a timber frame development.

Saltan Properties is owned by Michael Ryan, a controversial figure who was once tried and acquitted on a charge of bribing a councillor for a planning decision.

By 2009, it had become obvious that there were major structural problems with Riverwalk Court. The management company and owners commissioned a number of reports which showed deficiencies which accounted for the water ingress. That problem was deemed structural and therefore covered by insurance.

However, during the engineers’ investigation into water ingress a number of deficiencies in fire safety were uncovered. The first of the safety problems were uncovered in 2011 and over the following three years another series of reports showed even more deficiencies.

In July 2014, a company which had completed another report for the owners forwarded the result to Meath County Council, on the basis that the deficiencies represented a public safety matter.

Three months later two officials at the council inspected the block, but the residents were never informed whether an inspection report was compiled and if so what the outcome was.

“We’re living in a death trap,” spokesman for the residents Mark Fitzmaurice told the Irish Examiner at the time. “We’re relying on the local authority to help us out and not only are they ignoring us, but they have become part of the problem.” The litany of deficiencies in the complex include “no fire stopping going into separating walls”; “single layer of plasterboard in roof zone”; “joist passing over party walls”; “no vertical cavity barriers”; no cavity barriers at floors”; “required fire resistance of compartments has not been achieved”.

Once informed of major fire safety issues, the local authority was obliged to carry out its own inspection to confirm whether there is a risk to the safety of residents. In the event that any such investigation would confirm the findings of the independent consultant, the local authority – which is the fire authority – would have been obliged to act. This would involve either ordering remedial work, or invoking Section 20 of the Fire Services Act immediately, which would have led to evacuation of the complex. Yet nothing happened for nine months until the Irish Examiner published an investigation into the fire safety deficiencies.

Thereafter the council engaged in a process with the owners and the developer to have the matter resolved.

The question arises as to whether or not the local authority would have acted if not prompted to do so by adverse publicity as a result of a media investigation.

To some, the whole affair smacked of a local authority sticking its head in the sand lest it be faced with the appalling vista of shelling out millions in the council’s own version of Priory Hall.

Instead, the owners and residents were left to their own devices over a protracted battle that went on for seven years.

Meath County Council did correctly point out that the primary responsibility for construction lay with the developer. However, once the developer refused to accept responsibility – as was the case initially at least – there was little firm action from the local authority.

 

Timber-frame houses being sold by Nama unsafe for habitation

The Co Waterford village of Kill, just ten miles from Tramore, underwent major housebuilding during the boom.

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, which was hugely popular 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 sold all the properties. When Bowen went bust, in 2011, NAMA took possession of these nineteen homes.

Within two years, Waterford based housing agency, Respond, had purchased them. A deal was struck for €50,000 each, just over a quarter of what they were worth 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. The houses were unsafe for habitation.

Respond informed the local authority, 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 wasn’t 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 were similar to those that have dogged other timber-frame estates.

  • Among these issues were: Attic party wall — plasterboard not properly jointed, reducing integrity of party wall (the party wall is the wall between separate dwellings)
  • Cavity barriers, where provided, were not fixed properly or were loosely fitted, causing sagging and gaps
  • Cavity closers missing to top of external walls
  • Fire stop missing at top of party wall between cavity closer and roof felt.

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 €10,000 each to get things done. And there’s also a problem with the chimneys that will have to be fixed.”

Each of the residents were provided with a number of smoke alarms as extra protection, now that it was known how dangerous the homes were.

“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.”

Remedial work has begun in the five council-owned houses and the nineteen being purchased by Respond. The remaining thirty 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.

Bowen Construction, which was once the sixth-largest housebuilder in the state, went into receivership in 2011.

 

Local authority strategies are not always in the public’s interest

A freedom of information request from the Irish Examiner uncovered one of what could be dozens of examples of estates with fire safety defects which were quietly rectified, often from the public purse, without any publicity.

The estate in question is in North County Dublin and consists of timber frame apartments and duplexes.

Following a survey in 2012, some six months after the problems in Priory Hall exploded in the national media, a dozen fire safety defects were uncovered. Up to one hundred homes were understood to have been affected by the deficiencies in construction.

Remedial work was undertaken and paid for by Fingal County Council on fifty five homes, including eleven which were privately owned.

The Irish Examiner understands it was deemed necessary for the council to pay for the work on private homes for reasons of access to the council owned properties.

Among the problems uncovered were:

  • “Apartment entrance hall partitions not carried full height/fire stopped to underside of fire rated ceiling layer of compartment floors.”
  • “Non completion of fire doors, missing smoke seals, gaps around fire doors not fire stopped.
  • “Lack of adequate fire stopping around PVC and waste stacks in kitchens and bathrooms.” The development was constructed in 2004 and fire safety certificates were issues between 2004 and 2006.

These certificates are issued for the design of buildings, and the deficiencies suggest that the apartments were not built according to design.

According to the report to the council, a number of options were available to rectify the problems, but: “It is clear that in every option the buildings will require to comply with the standards in respect of life safety as set down in the building regulations.”

The estate is one of a number where it was possible to address the problems that had been uncovered through a combination of public money for the publicly owned homes, and private contributions from homeowners.

Addressing the issue in this manner ensures that negative publicity that would impact on the value of the properties is avoided.

Questions do arise as to the use of public money. How intensely was the developer pursued for restitution?

What legal advice was provided that ensured legal remedy wasn’t pursued?

Is it in the public interest that these problems be dealt with publicly as arguably keeping it under the radar ensures that the full extent of these matters is not appreciated?

For local authorities who find themselves in this position, all actions are taken in the shadow of the experience of Priory Hall.

The evacuation of that development in Donaghmede, north Dublin in 2011 resulted in Dublin City Council accruing a bill of around €27 million to rectify the problems.

For all other local authorities that is the nightmare scenario and when problems do arise, the first instinct is to ensure there is no repeat of that experience.

Sometimes, however, alternative strategies taken by local authorities are hardly in the interest of the public at large or particularly affected homeowners.


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