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.
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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.
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