An opinion piece by Eoin O Cofaigh MRIAI, RIAI President, 1998-1999, RIAI current member of council
So who do the new regulations protect?
The RIAI Council agreed unanimously last January that “self-certification (such as the regulations provide for) will not adequately protect the consumer” for whom the Government introduced these regulations in the first place. No backing there! This position is close to that of the National Consumer Association, who in their submission on the draft regulations said that independent inspections were needed; as, indeed, did the report of the Government’s own Pyrites Panel, who wrote the same thing.
The building regulations which came into law last week create a huge structure under which the construction industry regulates itself, by getting the architect to certify that everybody else has done their work properly. Now who, with the most rudimentary understanding of human nature, could imagine that a system which allows X to dump responsibility for what they do onto some other private person, will result in that same X carrying out their work better?
The winners and losers under the new regulations
The winners? Contractors and subcontractors, who are distanced from liability for their own work, this being covered by the “Assigned Certifier”; lawyers, who are circling the regulations in happy anticipation of future growth in litigation; and the Government, who gain plaudits for, as they tell us, “sorting out the Priory Hall mess” and for some tough talking about construction sector cowboys.
The losers are a rather wider category. They include the self-builders who, notwithstanding Ministerial promises, will be compelled to employ registered builders if they want to borrow to build or to sell their houses. They also include businesses saddled unnecessarily with increased compliance costs in what international surveys identify as already one of the least competitive construction regulation systems in the developed world; architectural technologists, whose livelihood has been largely closed down; and large numbers of architects, lumbered with liability for certifying other peoples’ work, for an hourly recompense in the region of the national minimum wage. But the biggest loser by far is the Irish people, who have once again been sold a building regulations pup.
Loser 1 – The Irish people
The people of Ireland: taxpayers, home buyers and citizens generally: lose under the new regulations. Home buyers lose because they get more paper, not better building; because if the building goes wrong, they face a nightmare of legal cobwebs; and because they have been conned into a second-best system. Taxpayers will lose because they will have to pick up the tab for future Priory Halls and future pyrites problems which the new regulations will not prevent. Citizens generally lose because building control is too important an issue for it to be treated as a second-class subject.
Loser 2 – Small businesses
Small businesses doing building work lose because they are now saddled with extra costs of paying for certifiers and more paperwork for which they never asked. They lose because the regulations require the local authority to sign off on the final paperwork before the building or works can be opened or occupied. This will interfere with licensing applications and delay opening retail premises at busy times of the year. They lose because even projects taking a couple of weeks are subject to the new regulations.
Loser 3 – Foreign direct investment
Large or even small firms investing in Ireland, who never asked for these regulations, lose. The requirement that plans and specifications are to be sent to the local authority to be available to interested parties opens up vital intellectual property issues for firms who have valuable product and facility data to protect. The delay issues they face, added to those around the planning process, make the Irish construction regulation process even less competitive.
Loser 4 – Self-builders
Notwithstanding everything the Minister and his Department have said in recent weeks, the Completion Certificate must be signed by “ the Principal or Director of a building company only”. The Law remains the Law. Nothing a Minister says can change the Law of the Land. When a bank wants evidence of proper completion before handing out a mortgage, they can point to a defective Completion certificate as a reason not to lend. When a self-builder needs to sell a home, a purchaser can do likewise. Self-builders, who never asked for these regulations, have been saddled with totally unnecessary extra costs.
Loser 5 – Architectural Technologists
Architectural Technologists all over Ireland lose. The regulations make it impossible for them to provide the service to their clients which they have been doing for decades. They cannot act as “Design Certifier” or “Assigned Certifier” and their clients must now go elsewhere.
Loser 6 – Certifiers
Architects and other certifiers lose because the extra work which it has become clear is needed to deliver the mountains of paper; and the extra liability of having to certify the work which the builder, plumber, electrician, carpenter, engineer, fire specialist, window maker and more have done, are totally out of proportion to the fee they can expect to be paid. Many architects have had to emigrate in recent years and these regulations will push more of them to the breadline.
Winner 1 – The Government
The short-term reward of tough talk always wins votes, while the long-term failure to sort out the problem of bad building will be somebody else’s problem.
Winner 2 – The builders
The builders now see the architect having to certify that the builder’s work complies with the building regulations! What a let-off! They can escape responsibility themselves, and with the Minister’s repeated promise of a “Statutory Register of Builders in 2015”, they are clear winners.
Winner 3 – The lawyers
The new regulations are so self-contradictory and vague that a leading Senior Counsel has predicted more litigation. Litigation is good for lawyers, but not so good for those – winners and losers alike – who have to pay for it.
Winner 4 – The professional organisations
The last group of winners are the professional bodies who take in the annual retention fees which the certifiers must pay. It is now more or less impossible to work in Ireland as an architect, never mind calling yourself an architect, unless you are on the relevant register. At an annual cost of hundreds of euro, the guaranteed yearly fees will be a boon.
A proper system of regulation
A proper system of independent inspectors of construction design and execution was and remains possible. Analogous to company auditors, such a system would be at no cost to the public purse. It would “tick all the boxes” for people taking responsibility for their own work, leading to better building. Such a system can be seen in operation on the adjoining island, anywhere east of Holyhead. No Priory Hall or pyrites problems there.
The new building regulations spawn mounds of paper and digital information. They distance the local authorities from any duty of inspection. They continue with self-certification in a sector of industry which, of all sectors, needs the most stringent public inspection.
The regulations do nothing to prevent another Priory Hall or pyrites disaster. They will not prevent a future Minister having to again dig into the public pocket to underwrite the next round of repairs to distressed homeowners’ dwellings. They are a huge missed opportunity, from a Government who knew the proper solution and who ignored it.
Eoin O Cofaigh, 18th March 2014
RIAI President, 1998-1999