Someone’s going to have to pay as much as €4 million to make the Longboat Quay apartment complex fire-safe, although it’s not yet clear who.
Meanwhile, it looks like it’s going to take independent.ie/business/personal-finance/property-mortgages/redevelopment-begins-at-priory-hall-31563483.html">€27 million to make the disastrous Priory Hall apartment complex in Donaghmede safe, a redevelopment Dublin City Council (DCC) recently began.
And it’s not just Priory Hall and Longboat Quay.
Minister for Finance Michael Noonan said last month that NAMA has spent €100 million fixing defects in “40 individual developments, mainly apartment developments in the Dublin area”.
Why is it that when you pull the skin off so many of these shiny boom-time apartment buildings, they turn out to have rotten cores?
A lot of experts think it’s the fault of a lax regulatory system of “self-inspection” that was in place from 1990 and 2014. And that the system might not be fixed yet.
In March of 2014, an amendment to the law was made to ensure “reinforced self-inspection”, but some local architects argue the new system doesn’t lead to better buildings, just many more hours spent compiling complex paper trails and making sure there is someone to sue if things go wrong.
The Self-Inspection Era
In 1990, the Building Control Act replaced the old system of mandatory building inspections by local authorities, and introduced the system of “self-inspection”. That new system lasted until March 2014.
During that period, says Deirdre Ní Fhloinn, a PhD student at Trinity College Dublin’s School of Law, who specialises in legal remedies for defective housing, “the practice was that an architect or engineer would give an opinion saying, ‘In my view the development substantially complies with the building regulations.’”
To say that the building substantially matched the drawings submitted when the development was given planning permission, though, the professional was not required to have been involved in the development throughout the construction process. This meant she or he could easily miss defects inside the walls.
Also, the professional giving their opinion on compliance was an employee of the developer, which could make it awkward to say that the building was crap and construction needed to stop until certain problems were fixed.
“The problem in Ireland, which is almost unique is that there is no person who isn’t connected to the developer, looking at the project making sure it is being built right,” says Sandycove-based architect Maoilíosa Reynolds.
If a building did turn out to be rubbish under this system, the consumer was left hanging. His or her only recourse was to try to sue someone. Unfortunately, sometimes there is no one to sue.
That’s what happened with Longboat Quay.
The developer, Bernard McNamara, went bust in the crash. His old development company, Gendsong, is in receivership and therefore not suable. And the architect who gave the opinion of compliance?
He now lives in Ghana.
The New Rules
The new rules were introduced in March of last year “to ensure that we never had another Priory Hall or poorly built housing estates around the country again”, according to a Ministry of the Environment press release.
They require a developer to hire a certified architect, building surveyor or chartered engineer to inspect the development throughout the construction process and certify that the building is up to standard once completed.
The professional who inspects and certifies the building is called the “assigned certifier”, and she has to sign off on a building with her own name, not her firm’s, making her liable if the building turns out to have any defects.
Is this system any better? Not if you ask an architect.
Just “More Red Tape”
“The system’s failures that gave us Longboat Quay are still there in the new system, they haven’t been addressed,” says Reynolds, the Sandycove-based architect. “The system essentially is still the same except there’s an awful lot more red tape.”
The main problem with quality-assurance, as Reynolds sees it, is that there is still no external, independent inspector coming to the site with real regulatory teeth. The assigned certifier still can be an employee of the developer, and still doesn’t have much power.
“This assigned certifier role that has been created has no statutory powers. The builder doesn’t even have to let them on site, so they can’t close the site,” says Reynolds. “If they see something that is being done badly, the best they can do is resign.”
If an assigned certifier did resign, the developer could probably find another professional who would sign off on the project and hope no problems surfaced in the future.
Clare Daly, Independent TD for Dublin North, sees the issue much the same way as Reynolds.
“The new system simply identifies somebody who can be sued later on and will in no way stop deficiencies from happening,” Daly said in an email. “To make architects a fall guy for the deficiencies is ludicrous.”
But not everyone sees the new system as Reynolds and Daly do.
Making Someone Responsible
“It seems to me to be a robust system,” says Labour’s Andrew Montague, chair of Dublin City Council’s planning committee.
Montague thinks the new regulation will make a future Longboat Quay situation “a lot less likely because someone has to put their name on the form and say, yes they’ve inspected it.”
“It would be my feeling that the architects don’t like it because the buck stops with them and they’d rather it to stop with someone else,” says Montague of the concerns raised by architects.
Ireland’s Construction Industry Federation (CIF) agrees with the councillor.
“Our view is that BC(A)R SI.9 [the new regulation] is a substantial step forward over and above what was previously in situ,” says Anne Cleary, the communications director at CIF.
Cleary thinks the new regulation “should ensure that the likes of Priory Hall and Longboat Quay won’t happen again.”
The Price of Change
Assembling the complex paper trail required by the new regulation takes a lot of time. And an architect’s time is expensive.
Former Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan suggested that the cost of complying with the new regulation, SI.9, would amount to somewhere between €1,000 and €3,000 per house. But others put the number at more than ten times that.
Properly inspecting a house takes about 109 hours, said Robin Mandal, president of the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland, last month on RTE Radio’s This Week.
Whoever you choose to believe, the price of getting your building inspected across the border in Northern Ireland is only a fraction the price: £175, which works out to about €247 at today’s exchange rate.
When professionals started charging for the inspections required by SI.9, the price of building your own house, or even of a modest extension to an existing house, skyrocketed.
This prompted a rather swift rethink of the regulation.
In April of this year, Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government Alan Kelly launched a review of SI.9. He publicly cast rogue architects as the villains causing the problems.
“A number of cases have been brought to my attention and my colleague Minister [Paudie] Coffey whereby consumers have been quoted outlandish charges for professional services in relation to residential construction projects,” said Kelly, in a press release.
Coffey is Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, with special responsibility for Housing, among other things. It seems he was charged with looking at the details of the issue.
By summer, the government had decided to to amend the regulation. What he came up with wasn’t a cheaper version, but exemptions.
The amendment exempts people building one-off homes, or “self-builders”, from the statutory certification process that requires a certified architect, engineer or surveyor to inspect the building.
They get to opt out if they can “demonstrate by alternative means that they have met their general obligation to build in accordance with the minimum requirements of the building regulations,” the Department of Environment said in July.
At the time, Minister Coffey said homeowners, “will no longer be held to ransom by excessive quotes for design and completion certificates.”
If the government is afraid of rogue architects squeezing money out of noble self-builders and architects are afraid of getting sued maybe it would suit everyone if the government just took care over building inspection.
What About Independent Inspectors?
The best way to make our building-inspection system work properly is clear, according to Clare Daly.
“Independent oversight and inspection of building works takes place in Britain, in Northern Ireland, in Germany and France, why not in Ireland?” she asks. “This is the only way in which to stop what happened before, happening again.”
So what’s standing in the way? Is it the property industry trying to keep ahold of the inspection system, so they can give themselves an easy ride? If you think the property industry likes regulating themselves, you might be surprised.
“The difficulty with the building-control amendment as it is at the moment is that it doesn’t resolve the problem,” says Peter Stafford, director of Property Industry Ireland.
“It isn’t preventing the bad thing from happening, it’s simply adding a lot of cost and a lot of delay and also big responsibility on the shoulders of the architect who isn’t necessarily the best person to do the work,” says Stafford.
“The easiest thing,” he says, “is to have a completely independent inspection regime where liability very clearly rests with that independent inspector.”
Paying for Independent Inspectors
If the Dublin City Council was responsible for all building inspections, how much would it cost taxpayers?
At the moment, there are about 70 building-control officers in Ireland. Although they haven’t been required by law to inspect construction since 1990, they still aim to visit 12-15 percent of sites a year.
Architect Maoilíosa Reynolds thinks Ireland would need about 170 more building inspectors to visit all Irish building sites. Based on the average salary of the existing building inspectors in Ireland Reynolds estimates that the cost of hiring these additional inspectors, would be just under €15 million a year.
At first, €15 million sounds like a lot, but keep in mind that the cost of building inspection will be cheaper. So if you’re building a house, you’ll pay less, and if you’re buying a house, you may also pay less since developers usually pass extra costs down to the consumer .
And the next Priory Hall would likely be shut down during the construction phase until the developer fixed the problem. Reynolds points out that Dublin City Council is spending about €27 million to refurbish Priory Hall.
“The question isn’t, can we afford to employ more local authority building control inspectors to operate a 100 percent independent inspection regime,’” says Reynolds. “Rather, it’s can we afford not to?”
We are not the first to suggest a system of independent inspection would be better.
When Phil Hogan was still Minister for the Environment, and Clare Daly tried to pin him down on why we don’t have a system of independent inspections by government inspectors, he didn’t have much of an answer. In a long-winded way, he just kind of said, we don’t have them because we don’t have them.
“It is not the function of the local building control authority to quality assure construction projects,” he said. “Owners, builders and designers must at all times take responsibility for their statutory obligations in line with the Building Control Act 1990 and take whatever steps are necessary in order to achieve compliance in respect of the building or works concerned.”