‘So far, we have been spared tragedy”- the legacy of boom-time housing | Michael Clifford

MilfordManorFireGardai_large

8 June 2015

The article ‘Trapped in smouldering housing boom rubble‘ was published in the Irish Examiner on May 13th 2015. Author Michael Clifford….”poses questions after six houses in a boom-time estate were razed in a fire in 20 minutes despite standards stating a fire should take an hour to spread from each house“.

Widely believed to be the tip of the iceberg, recent high-profile building failures such as the potentially deadly fire in Newbridge (discussed in the article) confirm that the country faces into years of remedial work to potentially thousands of defective buildings constructed during Ireland’s ‘celtic tiger’ years.

Widely criticised, our current system of ‘self-regulation’ building control with little or no independent inspections remarkably continues under BC(A)R SI.9, new building control regulations introduced last March and subject to a current Ministerial review.

See link to article here; full article to follow:


Trapped in smouldering housing boom rubble |  Michael Clifford

THE fallout from a devastating fire in a Newbridge housing estate is raising concerns about fire safety and legacy issues from the building boom on a whole series of levels.

In the first instance, up to 90 homeowners in the Millford Manor estate have been placed in an unenviable position. They have been told their homes are possibly fire traps, but it’s up to them to have that confirmed or discounted, and to sort out remedial work themselves.

A fire in the estate on March 31 burnt to the ground six houses in a little over 20 minutes. Fire design standards allow for one hour before fire should spread from one house to another. In this instance, it should have been at least three hours before one of the houses at the extremity of the fire was engulfed. Luckily, there were no fatalities, but if such a fire were to occur in the middle of the night, for instance, the outcome could be catastrophic.

Following the fire, Kildare County Council commissioned an inspection on 10 unoccupied houses in the estate and found major deficiencies. In particular, the party walls — which separate the houses — were not built to specifications, thus ensuring that any spread of fire would be more rapid than allowed for. Crucially, the party walls were not built right to the underside of the roof, thus depriving the building of a vital delaying mechanism in the case of fire. These issues would be serious in any scenario, but the houses in Millford Manor were built using timber-frame construction, which exacerbates the dangers.

The council has stressed that the report does not imply that all of the houses in the estate have the same problems. “The report identified fire safety deficiencies in the units inspected,” the council has said in a statement. “And the council offered to meet with a representative group of the residents and communicate the findings of the report to them whilst making it clear that the report only referred to a specific number of vacant units within the estate.”

While this statement can be taken at face value, it is clear there were deficiencies in both the destroyed houses and the 10 inspected for the report. What’s the chances that all of the others, which were built by the same now-defunct company, Barrack Construction, are any different?

At a meeting last week, an official read out the report to a group of resident representatives and agreed to furnish the representatives with a copy. A request for a copy by three councillors who were present was refused. Effectively, the council is leaving it up to the residents to do what they will with the report. Residents and owners can have their homes inspected, and pay for any remedial work that might be required. The type of deficiencies identified in the report would require residents to leave the houses while remedial work is undertaken.

What if one homeowner on a terrace wants to have an inspection and carry out any work necessary in order to ensure his or her safety, and their neighbour hasn’t either the will or the money to do so? That is one of the many problems that the residents of Millford Manor now face.

Independent councillor Willie Crowley has said he does not apportion blame to the council, which has its hands tied by legislation.

“But I feel this matter is being shuffled aside because of the macro issues it raises,” he said. “It now requires intervention at government level. If these householders have to take measures to secure the safety of houses they bought in good faith, someone will have to provide the money to accommodate them while work is being undertaken and someone will have to pay to address and make good the deficiencies which were signed off on.”

There are, however, other issues for the council. Was a commencement notice signed off by the council when the estate was built in 2006? If so, did anybody in the council notice that this was to be a timber-frame construction, which may have required greater vigilance? Were the houses ever inspected, either during construction or on completion? Since the estate was built, there have been legacy construction and fire safety problems in apartment blocks which form part of Millford Manor. Did that shoddy work not alert anybody in Kildare County Council there could be problems here?

There are issues over how the State deals with fire safety. Multi-occupancy buildings, such as apartment blocks, require a fire safety certificate. The local authority has both the power and responsibility to evacuate such buildings, under Section 20 of the Fire Services Act, if the building is deemed unsafe — which is precisely what happened in Priory Hall, which was evacuated in 2011.

But in single occupancy buildings, such as houses, that act does not apply. The local authority has neither power nor responsibility for fire safety in houses. So in Milford Manor, there now exists a situation where any discovery of fire safety issues in the apartment complex is a matter for the council, while anything in the houses has nothing to do with the state body. This, despite the evidence in the fire on March 31, that the spread of fire from one house to another was potentially deadly and rapid.

There is a much greater issue lurking in the travails of Millford Manor. Not for the first time, it raises questions about the safety and suitability of timber-frame construction. During the building boom, timber-frame construction grew in popularity in this country. It is easy, clean, and quick. Most of it is prefabricated, which cuts down on costs. And at a time when houses were being thrown up, it was a route to turning a buck quicker than the next developer.

For years, some architects and engineers have expressed concerns about the design and testing of timber-frame houses in this country. Installing prefabricated units requires that the installation must be done to a high degree of accuracy. One thing that has emerged from the embers of the building boom is that expediency trumped any fidelity to high design. As one architect put it to the Irish Examiner: “We’re not great in this country at installing that kind of thing to a high degree of specification at the best of times, and the Celtic Tiger was not the best of times.”

In such a milieu, the only fallback is that the inspection process would ensure that some proper standards were applied. As we now know, there was no inspection worth writing about. As with the financial world, light regulation was the order of the day. Despite a new system brought in a year ago, little in practical terms has changed.

The known victims of the building practices are those in Milford Manor, Priory Hall, and other developments where investigation years after construction has discovered dangerous or extremely shoddy work. So far, we have been spared tragedy. In the absence of any system to properly service and protect citizens, all we’re left with is hope that no tragedy occurs in future.


Other posts of interest:

Building regulations make Dodge City look good | Irish Examiner

BC(A)R Review Meeting is “…a gathering top-heavy with vested interests.” | Irish Examiner

Independent inspection is essential – Flawed building regulations | Irish Examiner

Kildare fire disaster shows madness of Kelly’s self-certification proposals | Green party

Here we go again…house building in crisis

Radical plan to exempt new homes from building rules | Independent

Building Control Inspections should be independent | RIAI

Self-regulation did not work in the past – and it won’t work in the future |Paul Meila

Dáil: Fall in Housing Construction following introduction of Building Control Regulations

1 thought on “‘So far, we have been spared tragedy”- the legacy of boom-time housing | Michael Clifford

  1. Michael O'Neill

    “Independent councillor Willie Crowley has said he does not apportion blame to the council, which has its hands tied by legislation.”

    = = = = = =

    I think a possibly more fruitful route to resolution would be to investigate the powers of the Building Control Authority and the Appointed Building Control Officer to inspect and issue Building Defects sheets, followed by Enforcement Notices under the Building Control Acts and Regulations, as opposed to hiding behind the shortcomings of the Fire Services Acts and attendant legislation.

    = = = = = =

    From The Building Control Act 1990:

    Number 3 of 1990

    BUILDING CONTROL ACT, 1990

    http://www.irishstatutebook.ie/1990/en/act/pub/0003/print.html

    Enforcement notice.

    8.—(1) Where—

    (a) the construction of any building or the carrying out of any works to which building regulations apply is commenced or has been completed or any material change takes place in the purposes for which any building is used, and

    (b) the building or works are not designed or have not been, or are not being, constructed or carried out in conformity with building regulations, and

    (c) the failure to comply with building regulations is not such a failure in relation to which the building control authority would be prepared to grant a dispensation or relaxation pursuant to this Act,

    the building control authority may serve a notice (in this Act referred to as an enforcement notice) under this section.

    AND ALSO

    Powers of inspection by authorised persons.

    11.—(1) In this section “authorised person” means a person authorised for the purposes of this Act by a building control authority or by the Minister, or by An Bord Pleanála, as the case may be.

    (2) Subject to subsection (7), any authorised person shall be entitled to enter at all reasonable times into any land (subject to his producing, if so required, his authority in writing as such person) and thereon inspect for the purposes of this Act any building, and any plans or documents relating to such building.

    (3) Any authorised person may—

    (a) inspect any building—

    (i) following its completion, or

    (ii) during its construction, alteration or extension, or

    (iii) during the installation therein of any fittings, services or equipment to which building regulations apply, or

    (iv) in respect of which any material change takes place in the purposes for which such building is used;

    (b) require to be informed by the owner or occupier of such a building, or by any person responsible for the construction of such a building, or by any of the aforementioned persons, to the extent that such persons have knowledge of the matters in question, as to the purpose for which the building, or any part thereof, has been, is being, or will be, used, the number of persons who are, or will be, employed or accommodated therein or who resort or will resort thereto, the substance of which any such building or any part of such building is constructed, and the method of construction employed and as to any other matter which the authorised person considers to be relevant;

    (c) require the owner or occupier of the building, or any person responsible for the construction of the building, to provide such plans, documents and information as are necessary to establish whether the requirements of building regulations are being complied with in relation to the building;

    (d) be permitted to take such samples of the materials used in the carrying out of any construction work or take such other action in relation to such construction work as may be necessary to establish whether the requirements of building regulations are being complied with in relation to the building.

    (4) An authorised person shall be entitled to be assisted by such persons, and to bring with him such equipment, as he considers necessary to enable him to exercise his powers under this section.

    (5) Any person who—

    (a) refuses to allow an authorised person to enter any land or building or to take any person or equipment with him in the exercise of his powers under this section, or

    (b) obstructs or impedes an authorised person in the exercise of any of the powers conferred on him by this section, or

    (c) wilfully or recklessly gives, either to an authorised person or to a building control authority, information which is false or misleading in a material respect, or

    (d) fails to comply with any requirement of this section,

    shall be guilty of an offence.

    (6) Where an authorised person is prevented from exercising his power of entry into any land or building in the exercise of his powers under this section, the building control authority concerned may apply to the District Court for a warrant authorising such entry.

    (7) Nothing in this section shall empower an authorised person to enter into, or to inspect any plans or documents relating to, any land or building which is—

    (a) a prison or place of detention, or

    (b) in the occupation of the Garda Síochána or the Defence Forces.

    = = = = = =

    The Building Control Acts and Regulations address the building standards in all buildings, and unless there has been a sea change since 2005 that I am not aware of, this includes housing of all types, including single family dwellings that are not apartments separated by party walls.

    However the time may have elapsed for serving these notices and other factors may intervene.

    As to who to pursue and whether matters can still be pursued under the law as it now stands, a legal opinion may be needed.

    From recollection of the previous legislation and how it applied, the Building Defects sheets and Enforcement Notices can be served on both the Builder and the Owner.

    = = = = = =

    This situation underlines the role played under the previous legislation of the Purchaser retaining their own building professional to inspect the premises prior to purchase.

    This person would have examined the building, the subject of the self-certification Opinions of Compliance that the builders Architect would have issued.

    Where no such person was retained, the system was open to abuse, however all conveyancing solicitors I know were in the habit of recommending such inspections were carried out by the prospective purchaser

    Happy to stand corrected on this matter.

    Reply

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