Dr. Lorcan Sirr
Relying on an expensive paper trail of even more self-certification is not the way to ensure high-quality building in future.
INSPECTION of buildings by the state during construction and on completion has led to a huge gap in Ireland’s building history. An almost total lack of state inspection — and, since 1990, a reliance on self-regulation — has contributed to situations such as those at Priory Hall in Dublin and Millfield Manor in Kildare.
In the case of Priory Hall, residents were forced out of their homes because they were a fire hazard. Last year, six homes in a terrace were gutted at Millfield Manor within 20 minutes.
It’s not even that there has been a lack of systematic state inspection; there has been little commitment to supporting inspection. Self-imposed targets that 15% of all buildings be checked by a local authority building inspector resulted in just 3% of buildings being looked at at the height of the property boom. The remaining 97% were expected to be self-certified. So, of the 93,000 homes built in 2006 alone, about 90,000 of these may have not been inspected.
An architect or engineer would sign a form saying that in their opinion, usually based on a visual inspection, the building “substantially complies” with regulations. There was no requirement for the professional to have been present during the building process, so how could they certify this? Also, in most instances they would have been an employee of the builder. Surely this was a conflict of interest.
In typical Irish fashion, there were rules, but they were weak and enforcement was weaker. Is it any wonder that corners were cut and poor building ensued?
As construction lawyer Deirdre Ní Fhloinn points out, when defects are discovered by buyers, as at Priory Hall, they tend to have two problems. First, their building can be so defective that it is uninhabitable. Second, getting the builder to rectify mistakes is almost impossible, resulting in the owners having to foot the cost.
Chasing builders through the courts is a time-consuming and generally fruitless process because many of them frequently set up companies specifically for each individual development and then wind them up upon completion.
In early 2014, the minister for the environment, Phil Hogan, introduced new building control regulations, commonly known as BC(A)R, to make sure standards were improved. This system is a mess, however, and is hindering the development of new housing.
The system still relies on self-certification. The builder may opt to employ an independent “assigned certifier” to sign on the dotted line, or they may be an actual employee of the builder themselves. In either case, they are in the pay of the builder.
As the certifier now carries the legal can in case of defects, they are charging a fee to reflect that added risk. The BC(A)R system also involves a huge paper trail, the collation of which is time-consuming and costly.
When the regulations were launched, Hogan estimated the cost of the services of an assigned certifier to be €1,000-€3,000 per house. The reality is more like €27,000 per apartment and €50,000 per house before VAT. No wonder house building is costly.
Amazingly, a 2015 review of the BC(A)R came up with nothing new, except that now one-off house builders could opt out of the certification process, thus saving rural voters a huge sum of money. The idea of legal redress, and a latent defects insurance scheme, was not addressed in any substantive manner. Instead, as Ní Fhloinn says, the benefits to consumers are intended to result from improvements in the building process.
The review did nothing to address the fact that certifiers can die, retire, go out of business, emigrate or let their insurance lapse. Nor did it address that developers can still wind up companies at will to limit their exposure to litigious buyers.
The only solution is to return to state inspection. There are about 70 building control inspectors in the country. The four large Dublin authorities surprisingly have only one each, while Wexford has three. The annual cost of employing the extra numbers needed (about 170 more) is €15m. This is small beans in the context of the amount of building that happens here each year, and the numbers of people housed.
Irish consumers have suffered long enough from poor consumer comeback from cheap and sometimes dangerous building methods. They deserve better. But relying on an expensive paper trail of even more self-certification is not the way to ensure high-quality building into the future.
The above opinion piece first appeared in the Sunday Times on 3rd April 2016 (see link here)
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