Building Defects

Same Risk of Building Defects

People who buy newly-built houses today face the same risk of building defects as those who bought during the boom, according to an assistant professor of architecture at University College Dublin.  “There’s an awful lot of paper being gathered up but it’s mostly people self-certifying, effectively saying ‘my work is fine’ – it’s not people checking other people’s work.”  There needs to be an independent inspection system.

The economic crisis that hit Ireland in 2008 stemmed from an uncontrolled real estate bubble that developed over a period of five years with a very severe impact on all aspects of the economy.  Growth patterns appeared in 2012 and this recovery has continued.  Between 2012 and 2018 there was a cumulative GDP increase of almost 66 per cent while the CSO construction volume index rose to 149.9 in the final quarter of 2018, up 10.1 per cent on the previous year.

This new wave of building activity occurs alongside a series of revelations of many sub-standard buildings constructed by the same developers during the boom cycle. Most recently, issues at developments in Hyde Square Kilmainham, Marrsfield Avenue Clongriffin and Spencer Dock Dublin 1 have hit the headlines.

According to a recent Irish Times investigation hundreds of residents in pre-2008 apartment blocks are facing huge bills for remediation works, the prospect of costly legal actions and the risk of eviction.

Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy said he sympathised with the people affected. “It’s a very distressing position that some owners and residents have found themselves in, through no fault of their own. “We didn’t have the necessary standards and controls under the Celtic Tiger government; the focus was more on tax breaks for builders and investors than on quality and standards. We’ve made great improvements since then” he added.

Despite the fanfare, Ireland has maintained a unique ‘hands-off’ 100% system of self-certification of building standards, where developers can employ private building inspectors directly.  The state still has no role in testing compliance with building standards.

Prior to the amendments introduced in March 2014 the building control and compliance system allowed a system of self-certification whereby the person or company undertaking a development had responsibility for compliance without being required to provide evidence of compliance.  This meant there was no independent professional input on-site during the construction stage, while a Local Authority (LA) had no obligation at any time to visit a construction site.

The names of places where construction defects and fire safety concerns have arisen are well known and include The Cube Beacon South Quarter, Priory Hall, Belmayne, Longboat Quay, Shangan Hall, Balgaddy, The Laurels, Elm Park, all in Dublin; Kentswood Court in Navan; Glenn Riada in Longford; Riverwalk Court in Co Meath and Millford Manor in Newbridge.

The plan for cleaning up the notorious Priory Hall development far exceeded initial estimates.  In 2013, estimates showed initial costs to the tax-payer for Priory Hall at approximately €20m.  In 2016, it was reported that costs to the Irish tax-payer were likely to exceed €36.4 million.  That price tag did not include the costs of apartment rents and hotel bills for residents evacuated from the complex by order of the High Court 2011, the costs of security in the years in which the complex was vacant, the purchase of apartments formerly owned by the developer, or Dublin City Council’s legal fees. Collectively these costs added more than another €5 million to the bill.

The intent of S.I. No. 9 Building Control (Amendment) Regulations 2014 was to enact what was already in place in the Building Control Act of 1990, to ensure stronger compliance with building standards and to provide consumers with a better means of assessing new construction.

While the new building control regime brought in new roles and new administrative procedures, it is still possible for real estate developers to employ their own certifiers (registered professional employees) directly. Creating a project-specific company and employing a registered professional directly is allowed under the new regulations.  Meanwhile a Local Planning Authority (LPA) is only required to validate statutory certificates.

Third-party review of building design and construction refers to review of building plans and inspections during and after construction conducted by a technical expert independent of the building designer, contractor, or owner.  Being independent of the designer, contractor or client allows the building control body to act purely from an ethos which seeks to ensure the building is healthy, safe, accessible etc.  Without an appropriate inspection system in place, there is no real mechanism to ensure that buildings comply with standards.

Architect Orla Hegarty said the 2014 Building Control (Amendment) Regulations, enacted in response to the serious structural defects found in Dublin’s Priory Hall development, are “not fit for purpose” while there is a consensus supported by the World Bank and European Consortium of Building Control studies, that S.I. 9 self-certification will not work, particularly for speculative residential development.

Clearly, there are limitations to the amendments and there are concerns in the residential sector that the self-certification regime remains entirely in the control of a developer.  Any industry that regulates itself is susceptible to conflicts of interest, inconsistent application and inadequate oversight.   The current building control system remains problematic.

With mounting pressure on the construction industry to build housing to solve the supply problem, skills shortages for both main contractor and specialist sub-contractor organisations in the industry have implications for the quality of building.   Increasing the quantity of new homes must not, as before, be achieved at the expense of quality.

As the property marketers and advertisers harness the power of words to sell us new residential developments built by the same organisations involved in defective developments in the past, it remains unclear as to who might pay in the future should similar issues arise again.

Bringing back homes

Submission for ‘Bringing Back Homes’

Pillar 5 of the Rebuilding Ireland initiative (launched by then Minister for Housing, Simon Coveney, in 2016), relates to the stated aim of utilising existing housing.

The aim of the Bringing Back Homes draft initiative was to “support and facilitate the reuse of older/ vacant buildings… for residential use” and “to increase the number of viable residential properties”.

The concept of the initiative bringing unused or underused properties back to full and sometimes changed use as new residential dwellings is not without merit.  In order to further inform the DHPLG’s work, submissions were invited from interested parties on key issues.

The draft manual circulated during the consultation phase of the proposed scheme claimed its aim was to “provide property owners, members of the public, Local Authorities and those involved in the construction industry with clear guidance on how current regulatory requirements apply to common, existing building types” and that it would provide “guidance on how best to facilitate the reuse of these building types”.  In doing so it set out the “main regulations” which would impact on the transformation of vacant buildings to new residential dwellings to include the planning system, Exempted Development Regulations, regulations affecting older buildings, building control system and the Fire Services Acts.

On review of the draft manual, Inspex, identified that the Housing (Standards for Rented Houses) Regulations 2017 were not specifically mentioned, despite clearly being a potentially significant and important element of these refurbishments. The draft manual made a brief reference to works which “may also require compliance with Building Regulations, Building Control Regulations or other regulatory codes and standards” but without specific reference to the minimum rental regulations included only as part of an Appendix at the back-end of the document.

Inspex made an official submission to the Department of Housing on 09/08/2018 highlighting that existing regulatory systems around new building, refurbishment works, and rental properties often create competing agendas.  To bring certainty to the task of achieving regulatory compliance within the PRS, the mention of ‘Rental Regulations’ as included could so easily be over-looked by readers.

Reintroducing new homes into “the liveable housing stock” and encouraging this by means of the Repair and Lease Scheme for example, specifically highlights the potential use of reused homes as rental properties. The most efficient and beneficial time, particularly from a landlord’s perspective, to ensure a rental property complies with the minimum standards is upon inception and prior to occupation, rather than retrospectively.  Retrospectively is costly and more difficult to achieve particularly with tenants already in situ.

Since its submission on 09/08/2018, the final Bringing Back Homes Manual for the reuse of existing buildings was officially launched in December 2018, with the welcome amendment of a prominently placed reference to the Housing (Standards for Rented Houses) 2017 (Page 10).

Carbon Monoxide - A Silent Killer

Carbon Monoxide – A Silent Killer

Gardaí are investigating the death of an elderly couple at their home on the outskirts of Kilkenny last Wednesday. It is understood they may have died of suspected carbon monoxide poisoning.

Carbon monoxide (CO) is hard to detect because it has no smell, taste or colour, meaning it is easy to inhale without realising.  The gas is produced when fuels such as gas, oil, coal and wood do not burn fully.  Exposure to CO can cause illness or death.

In recent years there has been a push to create awareness around CO, the dangers associated with it and the preventative measures that should be taken.  A public safety initiative ‘Carbon Monoxide Awareness Week’ organised by the Commission for Energy Regulation (CER) and supported by public bodies and organisations involved in the energy sector stresses the importance of regular maintenance and servicing of fuel burning appliances to raise awareness of the potential dangers and eliminate unnecessary risks and save lives.

According to HSE, approx. 40 people in Ireland die each year from accidental CO poisoning.  Further NSAI research shows that over half of Irish households (55%) don’t have a CO alarm while almost 65% of people admitted they could do more to protect themselves from CO poisoning.   Although there is a relatively high level of awareness of the importance of regular maintenance and servicing of fuel burning appliances, one in five admitted it had been 2 years or more since they have last had their boiler serviced, while one in ten households admitted to not knowing when their boiler was serviced last.

The Housing (Standards for Rented Houses) Regulations 2017 Regulation 6(6) requires that ‘each house shall contain, where necessary, suitably located devices for the detection and alarm of carbon monoxide’.

With the benefit of PRS inspection experience, Inspex can confirm that Local Authorities interpret Regulation 6(6) to mean that CO alarms should be provided in accordance with TGD J5.  This means that the CO alarm should be installed as per the manufacturer’s instructions, in working order and within its ‘end of life’ indicator.  Additionally, CO alarms should:

  1. Comply with I.S. EN 50291- 1:2010 / A1:2012;
  2. Incorporate a visual and audible indicator to alert users when the working life of the alarm is due to pass; and
  3. The manufacturer should have third party certification confirming compliance with the standard.

A sample of properties inspected by Inspex in the last 9 months shows that 100% of properties are in contravention of Regulation 6 of the Housing (Standards for Rented Houses) Regulations 2017 provision of a RGII Gas or OFTEC CD-11 Certificate with 66% of these properties remaining in contravention following the second and follow-up inspection stage.  At the same time 88% of these properties are in contravention of Regulation 6 CO detector requirements at the first inspection with 31% of these properties remaining in contravention following the second follow-up inspection.

Greater awareness is needed amongst landlords and tenants along with an increase in the maintenance and servicing of appliances and use of carbon monoxide alarms if a reduction in the number of accidental deaths from CO poisoning is ever to be achieved.

The Regulations are in place to protect tenants in rented properties from the harmful effects of CO.

Fire Safety a Grave Concern

Fire Safety – Elusive Evacuation

Fire Safety is a Grave Concern but Evacuation Plans Remain Elusive

The Housing (Standards for Rented Houses) Regulations 2017 provide guidance on the delivery of fire safety measures in private rented dwellings.  Under Regulation 10 (Fire Safety) it is provisioned that ‘each self-contained house in a multi-unit building shall contain an emergency evacuation plan’.

A sample of properties inspected by Inspex in the last 3 months shows that 96.21% of apartments in a multi-unit development (MUD) were in direct contravention of Section 10(3) of Housing (Standards for Rented Houses) 2017 at the first inspection stage and just over 59.1% remained in contravention of the same regulation at the second, follow-up inspection stage.

The responsibility in respect of fire safety in rented dwellings was not conferred on to landlords until the introduction of the Housing Regulations (2008), despite the first iteration of these Regulations being in effect since 1993.

A small number of those remaining in contravention could be considered as purposely contravening Regulation 10(3) but for the majority, Inspex research shows that landlords are genuinely confused as to what their obligations are and how to bring a residential unit in a multi-unit development in line with the Regulations.

Landlords must be familiar with their obligations under Fire Services Act 1981 that refer to the “person having control” of premises in terms of fire safety, to ensure safeguards are in place and safety measures followed to protect those occupying and enjoying use of the premises.

Similarly, Section 18 of the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1992 includes ‘standards for rented houses’ and the areas for which a landlord may be held accountable as provisioned by the Department’s office (1993 Regulations for rental properties duly followed).

The design and construction of buildings is regulated under the Building Control Acts 1990 to 2014 and the Building Regulations set out the basic requirements to be observed in the design and construction of buildings.  Both measures are intended to secure the safety, health and welfare of people in and around buildings.

The process of ensuring ‘fire safety’ in buildings is governed by the Building Regulations 1997.  TGD Part B refers to fire safety vis-à-vis the fabric and layout of a new building while a Fire Safety Certificate is the certificate issued by the Building Control Authority.  These Certificates state that the works or building to which an application relates will, if constructed in accordance with the plans and specifications submitted, comply with the requirements of Part B of the Second Schedule to the Building Regulations 1997.

Once the fire safety certificate is issued, and the building is completed, a developer, as per the Multi Unit Development Act 2011, must ensure that an ‘owners’ management company’ (OMC) is set up to which all common areas of the building must be transferred before the sale of any of the individual units.  As the OMC is only responsible for the common areas of a building, emergency evacuation plans for individual residential units do not form part of the process at this stage.

Some or all of the units may then be sold by a developer to a new landlord(s), at which point the Housing (Standards for Rented Houses) Regulations 2017 take effect.  These regulations place the responsibility on landlords to provide for an Emergency Evacuation Plan in an apartment in a multi-unit development.

With the benefit of PRS inspection experience, Local Authorities interpret Regulation 10(3) to mean that an Emergency Evacuation Plan should be provided and permanently located inside the front door to each apartment. The Evacuation Plan should have a floor plan showing exits and location of fire equipment, the exact address of the apartment, relevant contact phone numbers, and the actions to be taken in the event of an emergency.  Although not the responsibility of the OMC, this information should be readily available from the OMC Common Area Evacuation Plans and Procedures.

National Government appears to have made some progress with the urgent need to increase the rate and improve the quality of private rented sector (PRS) inspections.  The Government's commitment to set aside separate funding from 2018 onwards for inspection and compliance ‘activity’ in the PRS is a welcome development.

According to the Fire Safety in Ireland – Report of the Fire Safety Task Force 2018, the Residential Tenancies Board (RTB) confirmed it had notified all registered landlords in the aftermath of the Grenfell disaster to highlight the standards set out in the 2017 Regulations, with further information being provided on the RTB website.

Despite legislative, regulatory and practical efforts by the legislature, the Department of Housing and the RTB respectively, complying with Regulation 10(3) remains an area of confusion and concern amongst landlords.  The confusion on the part of property owners coupled with persistently high rates of properties contravening the standards, it seems that not enough has been done yet to sufficiently highlight to landlords what their responsibilities are.


Clampdown to Limit Use of Airbnb

Another initiative to tackle the ‘housing’ crisis sees the Department of Housing (DHPLG) announce new regulations for short-term lettings, such as Airbnb.  These new regulations put restrictions on owners of buy-to-let properties and come into effect from Summer 2019.  Landlords of such properties will require a ‘change of use’ planning permission from Local Authorities if they want to use their rental houses or apartments for short-term lets, for more than 3-months of the year.

Local councils will have the power to refuse such permissions in areas where there is a high housing demand. Minster for Housing Eoghan Murphy has said it is “unlikely that permission would be granted” in these areas.

The regulations will not affect properties already classified for tourism, i.e. bed and breakfast accommodation, owner-occupiers when letting rooms in their principle private residence or long-term ‘rent a room’ schemes, such as student digs.

Only owners of second properties will be restricted by the 90-day limit per calendar year. The regulations have been introduced as popularity of short-term lets has resulted in landlords withdrawing their houses and apartments from the traditional private rental market.

A recent report showed that of the available homes to rent in Dublin, over 53% were being listed as short-term tourists lets on sites like Airbnb, rather than to those seeking long-term tenancies.

Property owners found to be in breach of regulations will risk criminal prosecution with extra resources being provided in Dublin City Council to help enforce the rules.

DHPLG anticipates that by introducing these regulations, the number of rental properties for long-term renting in the traditional sense will increase.


Persistent Demand But Slow Supply

There is a longstanding adage in Ireland that for investment there is nothing "as safe as houses". Traditionally, the understanding and most common perception was that houses were, in effect, a completely safe bet.

Through our company's long standing, independent, professional inspection practices Inspex is committed to assisting Local Authorities fulfil their responsibility to inspect and improve accommodation standards in the Private Rented Sector (PRS).

Statistics tracking the change in Ireland’s national population in comparison to the change in the housing stock up to 2016 seem to lend some weight to recent, anecdotal claims of a disparity between the quantity of accommodation and the corresponding demand from accommodation seekers in recent years. Between 2011 and 2016, the national population grew by 3.8% while the housing stock increased by only 0.4% during the same period (CSO). In addition, there has been an outpouring from mainstream media and social media commentary regarding the so-called “housing crisis”, with local and national government officials, opposition parties, and members of the public all weighing in on this contentious topic, with the Taoiseach describing the housing situation in front of an Oireachtas Finance Committee as “extremely disturbing” (Irish Times).

With the government under intense pressure to curb the rising trend in homelessness and ‘emergency accommodation’ provision; government agencies focussed on protecting the rights of tenants facing possible rent increases and eviction notices; and tenants scrambling to secure and/or retain the roof over their heads, the recently rolled-out Housing Regulations 2017 face the possibility of being forgotten in the midst of the scramble to ease public tensions and increase the pipeline of supply.

Purpose Built Student Accommodation (PBSA), a sub-sector of the market has become of interest to investors and developers of late, where the risk/return ratio often is like the general residential market and often with the added benefit of higher yields achievable in PBSA (CBRE) .  This leaves students embroiled in a frantic, and often fruitless, attempt to find accommodation close to their chosen third level institution, at an affordable price, and of acceptable quality. Such has been the desperation of the student masses to secure adequate accommodation in recent years, that the Union of Students of Ireland (USI) this year released a guide to student accommodation and finances, in partnership with the Residential Tenancies Board (RTB), to assist students in their search.

Student-accommodation may be perceived as a niche within the PRS market but, regardless of the demographic of the tenant in any private rental property, the standards do apply, and every tenant is entitled to live in a comfortable and safe home. Particularly with homeownership rates on the decline, falling from 69.7% to 67.6% in the five-year period to 2016, while there was a corresponding 4.7% increase in the number of rented households making renting the tenure choice of almost 30% of all occupied dwellings nationally (CSO). Based on these trends, it is imperative that rental accommodation in Ireland is maintained in accordance with the standards prescribed by the Department of Housing Planning and Local Government (DHELG), to safeguard the growing rental sector for future generations of private renters to come.

The National Standards Authority of Ireland (NSAI) has also stepped into the breach actively promoting the importance of upholding existing standards and ensuring compliance with PRS regulations, with a special emphasis on the student cohort (NSAI).  Inspex welcomes this as a positive step towards improving awareness of the Standards and moving towards improving compliance rates.

Being cognisant of the challenges, Inspex continues to monitor the PRS market while remaining steadfast to its ideology of independent verification of standards.

Its ongoing support in this space educates landlords and tenants as to their responsibilities and supports Local Authorities in achieving the Government inspection targets for 2021 and beyond.

The Inspex approach can ensure that more rental properties meet and comply with the rental regulation standards.

Carbon Monoxide - A Silent Killer

Supporting Carbon Monoxide Week

The 'silent killer' Carbon Monoxide (CO) is a highly poisonous gas that has no colour, no smell and no taste. At high levels it can kill in as little as 3 minutes; at lower levels it causes illness.  

On average, this poisonous gas kills 6 people in Ireland each year with many more being made to feel ill. Approximately half of these deaths result from the inhalation of smoke from fires.

Household appliances, such as cooking and heating devices, that are incorrectly installed and badly maintained are the main causes of accidental exposure to carbon monoxide.

Blocked flues and chimneys are another potential cause of carbon monoxide poisoning as they can stop the gas escaping, allowing it to build up to dangerous levels in a room.

Burning fuel in an enclosed or unventilated space, where there are no air vents also increases the risk of CO poisoning.

Although CO poisoning is a common cause of death it is preventable. Provided household appliances are correctly fitted, used safely and well maintained, they should produce very little CO gas. Damaged appliances, or those that are not serviced regularly, often produce higher levels of CO gas than normal and can become dangerous.

Articles 11 and 13 of the existing standards for Rented Housing do not go far enough in this regard.  Article 11 states that a house must contain a fire blanket and either a mains-wired smoke alarm or at least two 10-year self-contained battery-operated smoke alarms. Article 13 states that the electricity and gas installation in the house should be maintained in good repair and safe working order with provision where necessary for the safe and effective removal of fumes to the external air.

A simple protective measure that should be included in future amendments to the regulations is to ensure an audible CO alarm is installed in a rental property together with smoke detectors and adequate ventilation.  

To participate in the Dun Laoghaire Rathdown RAS Scheme, a carbon monoxide detection unit must be appropriately fitted in each property.

Housing Shortage

Tackling Ireland’s Housing Shortage

Taoiseach Enda Kenny, Housing Minister Simon Coveney and other Cabinet members have published the long awaited Action Plan "Rebuilding Ireland".

Described by Government as an 'action driven plan that will result in a dramatic increase in the delivery of homes nationwide'.

The plan provides an action-oriented approach to achieving Government's Housing objectives including

  1. Tackling Homelessness -  6170 people recorded as homeless in May 2016
  2. Increasing Social Housing Output - 47000 units to be delivered by 2021
  3. Increasing Housing Output  - 25,000 units per annum by 2020
  4. Improving the Rental Sector - 324,000 registered tenancies 
  5. Utilising existing Housing Stock - 198,358 vacant homes in Ireland

Ultimately, the most effective way to reduce and stabilise rents in the medium to long term, according to the Minister, is to increase supply and accelerate delivery of housing for the private and social rental sectors.

In addition to focusing on the supply issue, the plan attempts to address the important issue of standards of private rental accommodation as well as improving the inspection and enforcement functions provided by the Local Authorities.  Consistent and fair enforcement of accommodation standards is considered critical so that the compliant and responsible landlords are not operating at a disadvantage to the non-compliant irresponsible landlords as a result of lax inspection regimes and poor enforcement.

A shared services model for inspection and enforcement of the rental accommodation standards regulations will be developed by the local government sector, either through a single national lead authority or a number of local authorities leading for their regions.

In order to increase the numbers of properties inspected, specific funding for inspection and compliance activity will be identified from 2018 onwards and annual targets for both inspection and compliance will be agreed.

Can 'Rebuilding Ireland' really tackle the country' housing shortage?  Only time will tell whether any or all of it has been made possible.

Regulation 8 Ventilation

Exposure to Pollutants

People who do not ventilate their homes properly expose themselves to harmful levels of pollutants, according to experts.

Specialists at the Glasgow School of Art Mackintosh Environmental Research Unit say modern homes are built to be too airtight and the unit has made a series of recommendations to reduce pollutants.

Professor Tim Sharpe head of the MEARU, says "There are clear links between poor ventilation and ill-health so people need to be aware of the build of CO2 and other pollutants in their homes and their potential impact on health".

The Unit conducted a survey of 200 homes which were constructed to modern building standards.  It found that most householders keep trickle vents and bedroom windows closed a night.

Levels of pollutants can be five times higher indoors than outdoors and when vents and windows are kept closed, the chemicals have nowhere to go.  Common pollutants include carbon dioxide, volatile organic compounds from carpets and soft furnishings, formaldehyde in MDF and plywood and chemicals used in plastics.

These chemicals cause eye and skin irritation, damage the central nervous system and have been linked to cancer.

For Irish rental properties to comply with current Regulations (Article 9) all habitable rooms in a dwelling should have unobstructed external wall ventilation with some additional mechanical measures for kitchens and bathrooms.

Simple steps experts recommend to reduce risks include

  • Keeping trickle vents or windows open when cooking or showering
  • Increasing ventilation when cleaning
  • Open windows at night
  • Dry laundry near an open window
  • Ensure to understand how the ventilation system of a property works

Building Regulation Inspection

Building Control Amendment 2014

The Government's objective to empower consumers to get a fair price for inspection work has resulted in an order to review the Building Control (Amendment) Regulations 2014 (S.I. No. 9 of 2014).

The amended Regulations introduced a year ago by Phil Hogan, then Minister of the Environment, Community and Local Government, were an attempt to end the system that resulted in the scourge of defective building works and schemes such as Priory Hall being certified as safe.

Mr. Paudie Coffey T.D. Minister of State at the Department of Environment, Community and Local Government says 'The Regulations were introduced to ensure competence and professionalism in construction and to bring accountability to bear within the industry".

Whereas the current regulations specify that 'assigned certifiers' must be registered architects, engineers or building surveyors, there is no provision included to ensure that those that are contracted to inspect building works are sufficiently independent of the developer and/or a construction team.

Minister Kelly says, "A number of cases have been brought to my attention and my colleague Minister Coffey whereby consumers have been quoted outlandish charges for professional services in relation to residential construction projects.  It is worthwhile for homeowners to have the home they invest in checked and inspected but, they should not have to pay an inflated rate for excessive inspection services."

The Department of the Environment, Community & Local Government is publishing a suite of documents today to inform the Review, including a sample inspection plan drawn up by the Department to inform the market.

Despite these attempts at bringing accountability to bear within the construction industry, it appears as if little consideration is being given to time on-site, back-office administration, lack of standardised inspection templates and the issue of liability.

The Inspex solution guides an Inspector though the inspection procedure using standardised inspection templates.  Using a mobile device, an Inspector chooses inspection items from detailed drop-down lists and looks up relevant housing regulations and appropriate building regulations.  The Report complies as the inspection takes place ensuring the process is streamlined and time efficient.