Examiner | Housing Defects Special

Michael-Clifford

Michael Clifford: “We can’t afford to make the same mistakes again!”

On Monday 1st August 2016, the Examiner newspaper published a comprehensive overview, by investigative journalist, Mick Clifford, of recent building failures uncovered in Ireland . The 4,500 word article also assessed the implications of what went on before on the possible quality of the construction in any housing recovery (Link: Here).

Several high profile building failures were examined in detail including Longboat Quay and Millfield Manor, Newbridge and some less well-known developments, Ath Lethan, Dundalk and Ceol na Mara, Waterford. In addition, the article reports on how a freedom of information request from the Irish Examiner uncovered one of what could be dozens of examples of estates with fire safety defects which were quietly rectified, often from the public purse, without any publicity. The Irish Examiner understands it was deemed necessary for the council to pay for the work on private homes for reasons of access to the council owned properties within mixed private and social housing schemes.

In relation to BC(A)R: SI.9 Clifford writes, 

“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…..

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.

Link to: Examiner: Housing Defects – We can’t afford to make the same mistakes again

OTHER POSTS OF INTEREST:

Michael Clifford: “when will we address cracks in construction?” Irish Examiner

You can still buy a non-compliant home…and it’s all perfectly legal | SI.9 Loopholes

Is the scene set for another Priory Hall? | Look Back 11

Further questions over Newbridge fire-trap houses that have ‘no resale value’

Reintroduce State Inspection of Buildings | Mick Wallace T.D.

5 thoughts on “Examiner | Housing Defects Special

  1. Michael Tweed

    Two common fire engineering deficiencies in apartments seem to be inadequate fire stopping of internal corridor walls above ceiling level, compromising safe egress of occupants from their apartment, and more concerning inadequate fire stopping where soil stacks pass through compartment floors compromising fire separation and increasing the risk of smoke and fire spread between apartments. However a look at Fatalities for Fire statistics published annually by the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government ( http://www.housing.gov.ie/search/archived/current/sub-topic/statistics-fatalities/sub-type/fire/topic/fire-and-emergency-management) makes interesting reading. It shows that the largest number of fatalities occur in houses with very few fatalities occurring from apartment fires. I’m no statistician but my reading is that apartment buildings are generally reasonably fire safe and the statistics didn’t seem to indicate any incidents where fire had spread in an apartment block causing multiple fatalities. Make no mistake, however, deficiencies in the fire prevention measures in apartments certainly put the lives of the occupants at risk and there is absolutely no excuse for defective construction. But apartment buildings per se don’t appear from Fire Brigade statistics to be as risky fire traps as ordinary houses. In light of that I’m extremely pleased that Mick Clifford’s very informative article shines a glaring spotlight on timber framed construction. Heralded as the great new building innovation any meaningful appraisal of how fit-for-purpose the end product has been has been blissfully ignored in particular by politicians due to the jobs it was able to provide in more outlying parts of the country. In particular where timber party structures are introduced, such as in multi-occupancy apartment buildings, terraced or semi-detached housing, and fire separation is by way of protection of timber structural elements and fire stopping of cavities, etc., rather than the use of incombustible materials in the separating structures, the ability to stop spread of fire is entirely reliant on complex construction details. The rapid incineration of the terraces of housing recently in Newbridge and in Terenure in 2011 (http://www.cjwalsh.ie/2011/04/recent-terenure-terraced-housing-fires-party-wall-failures/comment-page-1/) surely bring into question the safety of timber frame houses. In this case the fire brigade statistics SHOULD ring alarm bells – since they clearly show that the greatest number of fatalities in fires occur in houses! Consider this – a terrace of timber frame houses DOESN’T REQUIRE A FIRE SAFETY CERTIFICATE!

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  2. Michael O'Neill

    I endorse Michael Tweed’s comments and add the following.

    Apartments that are not timber or steel framed were usually built of robust materials – concrete for in situ columns and beams with pre-cast floors with topping screed and solid block walls from slab to slab between apartments and circulation routes: walls had a wet plaster finish and full bed mortar joints to seal the compartment. Inner fire rated corridors were usually in min 44mm faced timber stud with 12mm plasterboard both sides and bracing at specified centres to give 30 mins FR with 20 mins FR doors and a 60 min FR entrance door.

    These traditional construction apartments were built in the nineties and early noughties. I cannot give all apartments a clean bill of health during this period since only certified my own firms’ work. However, there was a fire on one block I am aware of when furniture was being moved in and the compartmentation behaved as it should. Fire did not spread in any direction.

    This was partly due to the sealing provided by wet trades and the relative ease of inspection of materials which run right through and are not built up in layers. A solid block wall is a solid block wall. The only skimping is likely to be on the joints if they are not quite full-bed and this is most likely to affect sound transmission

    Huge concerns have arisen with timber frame construction. The seduction of drywall is the elimination of wet trades, with consequent reduction in finishing times.

    The downside appears to be twofold

    Drywall construction causes additional difficulties in terms of quality control on site. The ease of visual inspection is not available and the compartmentation is less robust.

    There seems to be a lack of understanding of what makes a layered lightweight construction fire resistant. The details are straightforward to draw, but they seem to be hard to get right, even when there is a will to do so. Couple this to a lack of understanding of how a fire propagates and how this should be resisted and you end up with life-threatening non-compliant building works.

    Every prospective house and apartment owner should have had a competent, qualified independent building professional assess their property before they completed the sale. This was the check and balance in the self-certification system Failing this, everyone should get their property inspected now to check for life-threatening non-compliant building work. It will be too late after someone dies in a fire that is not properly contained.

    I believe it will take another Stardust to make the industry takes its responsibilities seriously and apportion blame for building defect and accountability fairly.

    In the meantime –

    You are the buyer.

    You are the owner.

    Saving money by not commissioning a professional inspection of your premises could be fatal.

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  3. Michael Tweed

    A further brief note – the last paragraph of Mick Clifford’s article that you quote here references anecdotal evidence of builders being more careful. Anecdotally I have heard of a situation on a large scale inner city Dublin development where the Assigned Certifier (AC) was bowing to pressure from a sub-contractor refusing to remedy non-compliant construction, and the fact the AC was employed by the Developer who was the one putting pressure on everyone to keep to program/costs etc undermined the AC’s authority. In the case in point the result most likely will be a leaking basement – but who knows what’s next? In my opinion a blind man on a galloping horse can see that SI.9 is no fix – simply self-regulation with added paperwork!

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  4. Michael O'Neill

    Agreed.

    The primary problem with self regulation is the check and balance system. Most architectural firms of a certain size are only too mindful of where their jobs come from and may possibly be too willing to listen to requests to look or not look at certain things. The same challenge to professional integrity that used to face those issuing Opinions now faces the Assigned and Design Certifiers.

    The only thing you can do is stick to your principles and make it clear from the day the client approaches you that you are not interested in building non-compliant buildings. You also need to cultivate good clients so that when you eventually get a bad ‘un you can stand your ground and not suffer too greatly in the reduction to your yearly income when you withdraw from the project.

    Also you should make clear that if it comes to your attention that non-compliant work is being carried out you will refer the matter to the appropriate authorities. These can include the Planning Authority, Building Control Authority and the police.

    Reply
  5. Michael O'Neill

    The writer of the article states as follows:

    = = = = = = = = =

    “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.”

    = = = = = = = = =

    This is the problem in a nutshell. I want to make two comments.

    1. Inspections

    Inspections were sometimes carried out by surveyors/engineers/ architects acting for a bank or lending institution using their 1 or 2 page checklist. These pieces of paper were sometimes filled in, in a cursory manner, to satisfy someone ticking a box in an office dealing with the transfer of the property.

    This level of inspection are not the same thing as a detailed inspection of a property that a registered building surveyor, engineer or architect would carry out prior to a purchase. I did many of the latter. There were some things you excluded from your check, like lighting a fire, but as for the rest you went through the property in a detailed manner. Older properties would normally expose their defects. But that still left the risks associated with new properties.

    Reviewing a newly completed house on the basis of visual inspection only just after completion will tend not to show up latent defects. Latent defects are those which are hidden. They are not patent or visually apparent the date of inspection. Depending on whether or not there are people living in the house for a few weeks, these latent defects may not show up on an initial inspection of a new property.

    Latent defects may only only become revealed over time, such as settlement,shrinkage and drying out of wet timbers, omission of DPMs, damp penetration and lifting of timber floors, interstitial condensation and mould growth, water penetration and wet rot, omission of cavity insulation and cold bridges, omission of vapour checks, omission of sole and head plates for studs, etc. Some latent defects remain hidden until a particular combination of circumstances bring them to the attention of the owner, e.g. changing ground conditions and the effects of pyrite.

    Many of these defects can be exacerbated by water penetration and/or high humidity and the heating systems being on. That is why I preferred to inspect after a good shower of rain in cold weather.

    2. Inspectors

    It is imperative that prospective home owners have their property inspected before purchase by a competent registered professional.

    This person should not be a ‘man of straw’. The purchaser should insist on seeing evidence of their Professional Indemnity cover and the wording of their proposed Inspection Report. Some of these contain exclusions at the request of the professional’s insurers that make a nonsense of the Report. Others contain reasonable exclusions which you should nevertheless be fully aware of before you commit to commissioning a Report.

    The Report should cover all aspects of the property. There is no point in just getting a ‘Structural Report’ in my opinion. Its all very well being assured that your property won’t collapse the minute you walk into it – that it complies with Part A. You need to be assured that it complies with ALL the Building Regulations.

    There is no excuse for not doing procuring an Inspection Report.

    If your inspector finds evidence of cold bridging in the Initial Report and suggests that opening up works or a thermal imaging are required, then take this on board. Make sure the investigation yields a result, do not leave it half done, and be prepared to walk away from the purchase and pay your bills because it will save you a packet in the long run.

    Because there are many other properties changing hands and you do not need to buy a money pit. Make sure its right, or make sure the vendor puts it right, BEFORE you purchase. Because accepting assurances about fixing defective work AFTER the purchase is a fool’s game.

    The players in the Property Game will promise you the sun moon and stars to complete the sale. These are the same people who helped hype up prices and create the property bubble which in turn led to the economic crash.

    Remember, its YOUR money, not THEIR money.

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