Stardust Remembered | Building Control is about protecting life, not property (Part 1)


13 February 2015

Stardust Remembered|Building Control is about protecting life, not property (Part 1)

Orla Hegarty 

It is still shocking to read about the Stardust Fire, 34 years after the disaster. The bereaved families and survivors are still looking for closure and there are many unanswered questions. However, it must be acknowledged that the political reaction to the tragedy has undoubtedly saved many lives in the intervening years. In the early hours of 14th February 1981 a fire broke out in a night club. The former jam factory in Artane, North Dublin had been badly converted into an entertainment complex and the fire spread quickly through unsuitable materials. The building was not compartmented, the exits were inadequate, there was no emergency lighting or smoke ventilation. Forty eight young people died and 214 were injured in terrible circumstances.

The current Irish Building Control system was introduced as a direct response to the Stardust tragedy; consequently the legislation is weighted heavily on a rigorous process of fire safety design certification by the local authorities. In one generation this brought about a culture change, as the principles of fire safety became widely understood and the construction industry responded. The backbone of the system has been resources and training for dedicated staff in the local authorities. The success of this policy is demonstrated in the fact that in the four year period 2010-2013 there was only one fire fatality in non-residential buildings in Ireland[1].

The late David Keane, architect, barrister and former President of the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland (RIAI) was instrumental in the building control changes in the 1980s and 1990s. He wrote extensively on the subject[2] and guided  through many of the issues. David Keane was the brother of Justice Ronan Keane, who lead a Tribunal of Inquiry into the fire in 1981. The report is controversial in relation to the cause of the fire but it found that the fire spread extensively because the conversion of the Stardust complex failed to comply with “twelve public resort bye-laws, twelve fire protection standards and six draft building regulations“[3]

This is the context of Building Control legislation in Ireland- regulation to protect life[4], to safeguard people in and around buildings. It was never intended to provide financial guarantees on property because the purpose of building control is primarily to protect people, protecting property is a secondary consideration. This distinction is very important.

Priory Hall[5] in Donaghmede, North Dublin is just 4 km from the site of the fire in Artane: Twenty five years on, another crisis for families in this part of the city has brought about the most recent changes to the Building Control system. In late 2011, 189 apartments were evacuated on foot of a High Court Order due to urgent fire safety concerns. The building was very poorly constructed and the owners had no redress. As pointed out by Deirdre Ní Fhloinn, solicitor “The residents at Priory Hall had two enormous problems. The first was that the building was defective and uninhabitable [risk to life].  The second was that the builder did not rectify those defects [risk to property] … The new systems introduced by BCAR 2014 may go some way to preventing the first problem from arising on another development, but do not deal with the second problem”[6]. The evacuation of the buildings at Priory Hall may have solved the immediate problem of protecting the residents; however they were left with no consumer rights when it came to purchasing a defective ‘product’ – because that is beyond the scope of Building Control legislation.

In my view, the resolution of the current conflicts and deficiencies in the Building Control (Amendment) Regulations lies in identifying the core purpose of two different problems – firstly, improving design safety (technical compliance) and secondly, safeguarding financial investments (consumer protection). The latter is not resolved by recording technical compliance.

The first strand of this dual approach would clarify for all involved that ‘technical compliance’ is the responsibility of design professionals (for clarity, ‘design safety’ in intended to include all necessary and ‘measurable’ standards, for example, width of stairs, height of handrails, energy performance, adequacy of structural elements, specification of proper materials, soundproofing of party walls, access for the disabled etc.). The second strand would introduce consumer protections by confirming the duties and obligations of builders and developers in law. In this context consumer protection would extend to workmanship, build quality and the procurement and installation of proper materials – areas entirely within the control and responsibility of the builder. It is the builder, not the designer or technical inspector that is the supplier of the ‘product’. At present, this distinction is very unclear in Irish legislation and as a result consumer protections are very weak: The Department of the Environment’s own strategy acknowledges that “remediation of defects is a matter between the parties concerned i.e. the owner and the builder/developer and their insurers…..If satisfactory resolution cannot be achieved through dialogue and negotiation the option of seeking civil legal remedy may be considered”[7].  It should be noted that consumers who purchase any other ‘product’ have established legal rights and rarely have to resort to court action to justify them.

In the housing sector, two recent examples demonstrate the issues: Longboat Quay[8] is an apartment building in Dublin. It appears that fire safety (life protection) systems were incorrectly installed. These systems could (and should) have been tested and signed-off at completion. In this case, there is demonstrable ‘non-compliance’ with Building Control regulations.

Gallery Quay[9] is another apartment development in Dublin docklands: Here there are reported on-going problems with damp and water ingress – construction defects, that may not be evident for several years after completion. The problems are possibly caused by material failure, poor detailing or bad workmanship: However, these are not issues of building control that could be measured, tested or guaranteed at completion. A latent construction defect may put the owners’ financial investments at risk, but not their personal safety.

In simple terms, it is not possible to solve inadequate  ‘consumer protections’ by stretching the definition of ‘technical compliance’ to provide a guarantee. In my view, the two distinct problems must be urgently considered, particularly in relation to multi-unit housing. There is a real risk that unworkable sequencing under SI.9, confusion about the remit of Planning / Building Control Regulations and unnecessary duplication will add cost and delay to housing construction- without tangible benefits.

These issues are not new: In 1977, The Law Reform Commission[10]  reported on ‘the liability of builders, vendors and lessors’ and the report makes very relevant reading. It identified that “defective premises” may have two different meanings, that “dangerous defects” are not the same as ”defects of quality”. The report findings and recommendations address many of the same problems that are at issues now: It points to solutions through reform of how the building industry operates, not in technical compliance. (This will be discussed in more detail in Part 2 of this paper.)

A generation may have passed since a tragedy brought about meaningful reform and real improvements in the safety of Irish buildings: It is important now to openly acknowledge the many complex reasons for the failures in Priory Hall (and other developments) and to insist that everything necessary is done to ensure they are not repeated.

Tomorrow is the 34th anniversary of the Stardust Fire.

Orla Hegarty B.Arch. MRIAI RIBA is Course Director for the Professional Diploma (Architecture) at the School of Architecture, UCD

References mentioned in the above opinion piece:

[1] Department of the Environment, Community & Local Government statistics

[2] ‘Building & the Law’ David Keane, Gandon Editions 2003.

[3] Independent Examination Of The Stardust Victims Committee’s Case For A Reopened Inquiry into the Stardust Fire Disaster, 2008.

[4] Building Control Act 1990, Section 3 “(a) making provision for securing the health, safety and welfare of—(i) persons in or about buildings, and (ii) persons who may be affected by buildings or by matters connected with buildings; (b) making provision for the special needs of disabled persons in relation to buildings; (c) making provision for the conservation of fuel and energy in relation to buildings; (d) making provision for securing in relation to buildings the efficient use of resources; (e) making provision for the encouragement of good building practice; and (f) making provision for such other matters as appear to the Minister to be necessary or expedient and are specified in the regulations”

[5] Explainer: What is happening with Priory Hall? The

[6] ‘Legal Perspective: Consumer Benefit?’ Deirdre Ni Fhloinn

[7] Strengthening the Building Control System, Department of the Environment Community & Local Government 2012,29908,en.pdf

[8] ‘Is this apartment block the next Priory Hall?’ Irish Examiner 7 February 2015

[9] ‘Legal Action taken over Gallery Quay development’ RTE News  17 February 2014

[10] Law Reform Commission “The law relating to the liability of builders, vendors and lessors for the quality and fitness of premises” 1977

[11] Oireachtas Committee- National Building Agency Ltd. Report, 1980

2 thoughts on “Stardust Remembered | Building Control is about protecting life, not property (Part 1)

  1. Andrew Alexander MRIAI

    This very informative piece (Part 1) exposes very succinctly some of the misguided contradictions behind SI.9.

    Two extracts from the piece (below) are connected to two previous posts on this forum which are well worth re-visiting;

    “It was never intended to provide financial guarantees on property because the purpose of building control is primarily to protect people, protecting property is a secondary consideration.”

    The recent forum post on EBS consumer guidelines disturbingly described the Completion Certificate as a ‘guarantee’. If this is how the Completion Certificate is being viewed by estate agents and insurers we are in dangerous territory.

    “There is a real risk that unworkable sequencing under SI.9, confusion about the remit of Planning / Building Control Regulations and unnecessary duplication will add cost and delay to housing construction- without tangible benefits.”

    A reading of the recent BCMS call for assistance and the challenge of achieving ‘absolute compliance’ (their words) using sequential completion certs in multi-unit / multi-phased housing will result in all of the above – unnecessary duplication, cost, delay and no tangible benefits.

  2. Michael O'Neill

    Thanks are due to Orla Hegarty for such an excellent first principles look at SI 9 (2014), the disaster that represents current and past government thinking on how building in Ireland should be regulated.

    I’m not sure who first touted “technical perfection in building” – as represented by the signed piece of paper issued by that mythical beast the Assigned Certifier – as a remedy for the ailments the beset the Irish building industry in the Tiger years. Yet this myth is what SI9 (2014) presents to Joe Public as the cure-all for the range of ailments that beset Ireland’s Building Industry.

    Nothing could be further from the truth as this excellent article strongly suggests.

    Corruption within and without the industry led to abuses of a scale and depth not seen before, with sub-contracting companies being told by Main Contractors that it was ‘their turn” to “take a hit” on a contract or they wouldn’t be asked to tender again.

    Suggesting that such abuses arose from within the profession of architecture or that architects should have stopped them or even that architects should somehow “pay” for what befell the industry and the country fall on deaf ears as far as I am concerned.

    If you want to believe estate agents hype and you cannot recognize a bubble forming and you think you can pay back easy money in amounts that are many multiples of your income when they are being lent at a time of historically low interest rates with no care given to even a possible rise in interest rates in the future – don’t look to anyone else as the author of your misfortune.

    Technical issues didn’t cause the crash or the boom and technical issues will not stop this happening again. Proper regulation of the industry and the market by the state is our only tool. Leave it to the free market and you will be savaged by over-hyped prices (again!) and poor quality of work.

    This is happening now.

    Suggestions by the State that it had no role to play during the Tiger years in curbing and controlling this criminality is a mere disavowal of their responsibilities by the government of the day as well as subsequent governments who refused to make local authorities shoulder their responsibilities in order to provide a much needed independent monitoring and regulating function.

    Instead desk top studies and a wholesale adoption of the Passive Haus ethos were applied to Ireland’s building landscape and culture. We are not German living in a German climate. Yet we have ended up with “approved details” on government websites that are not integrated – and which in this writers opinion are actually dangerous – with endless revisions to Part L leading to uncertainty and non-compliance in the built work.

    This is happening now.

    During Plan Expo 2009 I called for a set of integrated details to be produced explaining to all stakeholders how the various technical guidance documents requirements for prima facie compliance could be attained in an integrated suite of details.

    This never materialized, despite the cohorts of architects weathering the storm of the 2008 collapse in the shelter of government paymasters – whether in various departments, local authorities or the Board of Works.

    Nothing happened then or now.

    SI 9 of 2014 looks like the work of an MBA who read the 1990 Act and is committed to the principle of lean government, and who is trying to get private sector capitalism to do something it does badly – regulate itself.

    Self regulation by Private Capitalism doesn’t work in the banks, it doesn’t work in medicine and it doesn’t work in the building industry.

    Touting technical perfection as the answer to rogue builders and developer clients is a snake oil salesman trying to instill confidence in a market so the participants can be screwed again.

    Perfection doesn’t exist in the building industry. No court judgement expects even “expert” performance from an architect never mind “perfection”. “Competence” is what is required.

    I look forward to reading

    “Stardust Remembered | Building Control is about protecting life, not property (Part 2)”

    with interest.


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