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.