A Dublin City Council video shows how the council transformed two old run-down council flats in Ballybough House into one three-bed modern A-rated home with triple-glazing and wooden floors.
It cost Dublin City Council €270,000 to retrofit and renovate the new home, bringing it up to the standard of a new build, says a March letter from the council to the Department of Housing.
That’s much less than the cost of a new build. In September 2020, a council official said it cost the council around €450,000 to build a two-bed apartment on land it owns.
“I think it’s gorgeous. I think it’s well deserved and that we do need it in the flats,” says Ballybough House resident Sinead Mangan, in the video.
“This has given us some hope,” says Cathy McDonald, another resident of the complex.
But Ballybough House is not, so far, on the council’s list of flat complexes scheduled for regeneration. And a spokesperson for the Department of Housing says it hasn’t yet decided whether it will fund similar refurbishments across the complex.
So far, the inner-city flats, more than 2,000 of which are in historic or protected structures, have been largely left behind by the council’s social housing retrofitting programme.
Councillors welcomed the pilot and say they want to see it replicated across the older complexes. “It is a chance to bring them into the 21st century,” said independent Councillor Nial Ring.
Working up a Template
Ballybough House, a protected structure, was designed in the 1930s by renowned architect Herbert Simms.
The council has about 2,000 flats in 18 complexes that are protected structures or of historical interest, most of them are four storeys with deck access, designed by Herbert Simms, says a council presentation.
Almost 10 percent of council-owned apartments are protected structures, and almost 4 percent of all social housing, it says.
Alongside Ballybough House, that includes homes in big city-centre flat complexes such as Mercer House, Countess Markievicz House, and Pearse House.
(Pearse House already has “stage one funding” from the Department of Housing for a refurb, says the council presentation. “It will be the first full renovation of a Simms flat complex.”)
In May 2018, there had been backlash to a report from council officials suggesting that some social-housing complexes that are protected structures should be delisted, torn down and rebuilt.
“Recent feasibility studies indicate the cost of deep retrofitting complexes can be as high as demolition and rebuild,” said that report.
In October 2021, the council finished its retrofitting pilot at Ballybough House, the aim of which was to see whether the council could bring living conditions within the council’s historic flat complexes up to standard of new builds, while respecting their fabric.
The building is solid, but the flats are too small, expensive to heat and “at risk of condensation”, says the Dublin City Council presentation.
Builders knocked two small ground-floor flats into one three-bed, four-person apartment of 90sqm in the old complex,
Renovation measures included internal wall insulation, damp proofing, replacing PVC windows, swapping the gas boiler for a heat pump – all bringing it up to an A3 energy rating.
The new apartment emits zero carbon in use – with heating and hot water provided by a heat pump.
“The heat pump extracts the heat from the air which is a renewable process and this will reduce the heating bill by about 80 percent,” says Jessica Lange, the council’s executive architect, in the video.
The Money Question
Department of Housing official Nicola Matthews, complimented the project in an email to the council in January.
“The overall refurbishment provided a high quality residential unit which retained a distinctive character,” she wrote.
Dublin City Council wrote to the Department in March 2022 to ask it to pay €273,856 to cover the pilot refurbishment project.
At that price, to roll it out across the complex, creating 75 new larger homes from the 112 original flats, would cost around €20.5 million.
“That would represent excellent value,” says independent Councillor Nial Ring. The council recently spent €14.2 million to buy 30 apartments in Dublin Landings, a private complex in the city centre, he says.
Ring says that he would fully support the council refurbishing all of Ballybough House to the same standard as the pilot project and he hopes the Department would fund it.
Said Labour Councillor Joe Costello: “It’s certainly the way to go, but of course it is expensive too. Ballybough is in rag order. It needs a major refurbishment of some description.”
He visited the pilot retrofitted home and he was impressed by it, as were the residents in the complex, he says.
To demolish and rebuild the whole complex would be an even bigger job so perhaps the council should do a full block next and see how that goes, says Costello.
Labour Councillor Dermot Lacey, who heads the council’s housing committee, said both the price tags for the Ballybough retrofit and for new builds are striking. “I find those figures quite staggering.”
It’s expensive because the council has to tender for anything it does, he says, but he doesn’t believe tendering out is cheaper than an in-house set-up would be, especially as construction inflation kicks in.
“I personally believe that there should be a state building company to tackle the housing crisis,” he says.
Opposition to doing things in-house, and hiring more staff for it is ideological, he says. “We need to get back to the state building houses for people.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Housing said: “The cost of projects such as this are specific to the site, particularly with historic building.”
“No decision on the future redevelopment of Ballybough House has been decided upon yet,” they said.
Weighing It Up
Three big considerations beyond money are carbon emissions, quality of life, and the lost opportunity to build more social homes.
According to the council presentation, constructing a new building takes roughly 600kg/sqm of carbon while upgrades like Ballybough House would possibly take less than 50kg/sqm.
In February 2020, Pat Barry, the chief executive of the Irish Green Building Council, said “the environmental impacts of demolition and rebuild are huge and particularly at the moment we need to reduce our carbon rapidly”.
Retrofitting dramatically improves the lives of people living in these homes that, because they were built for another time, are often damp with condensation, says People Before Profit Councillor Tina MacVeigh.
“It’s great that it happened,” says MacVeigh about the pilot project. “We’re running out of excuses why we shouldn’t be doing this kind of thing.”
One argument against this approach is that if the council did demolish the complexes it could potentially rebuild more homes on these valuable city centre sites, in areas with high social housing waiting lists.
In contrast, if it proceeded with the plan for Ballybough House, it would end up with 37 fewer homes.
Costello and Ring both said that the council cannot knock the complexes anyway because they are protected structures.
The council will have to accept fewer homes in Ballybough House, says Ring, and he thinks that it won’t be a major problem for tenants.
Around 11 or 12 of the homes in Ballybough House are already boarded up, he says, and some residents are looking for transfers out of the complex because of conditions.
If they were all done to the standard of the pilot that would be different, he says. “There would be a queue around the corner for them.”