Categories
Construction

Longboat Quay – a modest proposal

It’s delusional to think that Longboat Quay and Priory Hall are in any way unique. The chances are that Ireland is full of such developments, constructed by slipshod, incompetent and often dishonest, builders. We’ll see many more of these disasters and each time there will be calls for the government (in other words, the taxpayer) to cover the cost of repairs, even though neither the government nor the local authorities had anything to do with building these things.

If you listened to our national broadcaster, you might think that the local councils are responsible for fixing the problems because they certified the buildings as fire-safe, but you’d be wrong. Local authorities do not certify buildings. They have never certified buildings. They don’t sign off on newly-constructed developments.

What about the fire safety certificates? you might say. Didn’t the council give them a certificate?

They did indeed, but for what?

Well, if you were one of our cutting-edge high-profile national journalists, you’d be telling the nation that they issued certificates for the buildings, and you’d be quite wrong. They did not.

A fire safety certificate is a document based on the plans and specifications for a proposed new building. All it does is confirm that the development will comply with the building regulations provided it’s constructed strictly as set out in the plans, calculations and specifications submitted.

That’s all. Under the law, that’s what a fire safety certificate is. An approval for a design. Nothing more.

All right, you might say. In that case, where were the council inspectors? Why did they miss these problems? Brown envelopes maybe?

Well actually, the truth is more prosaic.

The truth is that successive governments made a very deliberate decision to keep the number of inspectors to an absolute minimum, for several reasons. Professionally-qualified staff are expensive and what’s more, they disrupt the smooth running of a builder’s empire when they find faults. On top of that, the public have for years been fed the false narrative of the bloated public service, resulting in Ireland having one of the most undermanned public sectors in Europe.

Here’s a fact worth repeating: Belfast has more building inspectors than the entire republic. As somebody pointed out on radio, we have more dog wardens than building inspectors.

When a builder sells you a new apartment, they have an obligation to deliver a dwelling that complies with the building regulations in every respect, and if they don’t, you have a legitimate case against them under contract law, but of course, if the building company goes out of business, you’re stuck.

This is the situation with Longboat Quay, built by Bernard McNamara, who subsequently slid off to England, went through a one-year bankruptcy process and then returned to Dublin to start building again using a new limited company. Bernard is in the clear while you’re stuck with a dangerous apartment.

Dublin City Council have been painted as extremely hard-hearted for threatening the throw these unfortunate residents out on the side of the street with nowhere to go, and it’s true that the situation is utterly appalling, but let’s just examine the alternatives.

The council have been made aware of serious fire safety defects in the building, threatening the lives of as many as 900 people. What are they supposed to do with that information? Should the CEO or the chief fire officer take it on themselves personally to ignore that fact? If a catastrophic fire does occur, what should the chief fire officer tell the court when he’s being prosecuted for criminal negligence or even manslaughter?

What council manager in their right mind would volunteer to hang on a cross erected by a bad builder?

The local authority are stuck. They have no choice but to issue a fire safety notice specifying what needs to be done, and if that work is not carried out, under the law, the complex must close. That’s the law.

So what’s the answer?

Let’s take a step back.

New houses and apartments are bought and sold under civil law. A builder owes you a duty of care.

Somebody signed off on this building. It might not be the banks’ valuers on behalf of individual clients, but somebody periodically certified for the developer that the building complied with the regulations so that the banks could release funds to continue construction.  Some professional person informed the banks that their money was safe. That means the banks might have failed to perform due diligence and therefore carry some share of responsibility. It also means that a surveyor failed to detect the construction  flaws and presumably that surveyor has professional indemnity insurance covering such eventualities.

That’s all in the sphere of civil law but the building regulations, or more specifically, the Building Control Acts, are essentially criminal law. If you fail to comply with the regulations, you can be prosecuted.

Combine these two things. The local authority has the power to prosecute anyone involved in construction who fails to comply with the regulations. They can prosecute individuals, and it seems to me that if they decided to prosecute under indictment each and every person involved in the construction of Longboat Quay, from the former company owner to the lowliest foreman, regardless of what bankruptcies had been concluded we might see money magically materialising to settle the civil claims and pay for the repairs.

It wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest and it would strike me as a far better outcome than the taxpayers yet again having to bail out bad practice as they were forced to do for the investors in the failed banks.

It is a well-established principle in law that nobody is protected by the veil of incorporation.

 

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Categories
Construction

Millfield Manor fire could expose a severe defect in thousands of Irish houses

Six houses in Newbridge, County Kildare, burned to ashes last Tuesday after a fire broke out in one of them.  Luckily, the fire happened at 4pm so that all the occupants were able to evacuate safely and even though the people lost everything they owned, they’re still alive. But it was only a matter of chance that nobody died. If the fire had broken out at four in the morning it’s likely that many people would have lost their lives and we would now be in a convulsion of recrimination on a par with 1981, when the Stardust fire took 48 lives.

After the Stardust disaster, the fire service was fundamentally restructured, and the Fire Services Act was passed into law, giving fire authorities draconian powers of inspection and prosecution — except in relation to private houses. The fire service was given no powers in that area.

Later, with the Building Control Act, 1990, local authorities were empowered to carry out random inspections of building sites, but were only given resources to inspect 12% to 15% of all developments. This was light-touch regulation, in tune with the wishes of developers, much like the later non-regulation of the financial institutions. Instead of local authorities having the people and the money to inspect every single building multiple times, a decision was made to place responsibility for compliance with the building regulations on the builders and designers, with predictable results.

Amid much talk of the bloated public service, here’s an interesting fact. Belfast city council has more building inspectors than the entire Republic of Ireland.

Timber-frame and other similar lightweight forms of construction, such as steel-frame housing, have an obvious advantage for builders. The various panels can be made in a factory, brought to the site and rapidly assembled into a weather-proof shell where workers can carry on with their jobs under shelter from the elements.

Except of course, the walls between the houses, which have to be non-combustible to comply with regulatory guidance. If you’re a developer, you don’t want to do that. You’d prefer if the entire building could be made in a factory. You don’t want to be paying block-layers good money to build solid concrete walls between the houses, just on the off-chance that the odd fire might break out, and you don’t want to be paying for the heavy foundations needed to support those walls.

What do you do? You lobby government, that’s what you do. The same Fianna Fáil government that gave you the light-touch regulation of the Building Control Act who duly oblige by changing the rules. Where the technical guidance documents used to insist that walls between houses must be non-combustible (in other words, concrete) it now suddenly, magically, becomes possible to have party walls of timber, sheeted with plasterboard on both sides and maybe with a sheet of fibreboard in the middle. A wooden fire-wall, in essence, with the added advantage that, should you have a delinquent neighbour, he can get into your house using only a bread-knife.

That’s not a joke. That’s a fact, and we saw the consequences in Newbridge last Tuesday when a fire in one house rapidly spread to five more, due to flaws in the construction of the party wall, and possibly due to the fact that nobody bothered to put in any cavity barriers.

What are cavity barriers? Well, you see, the house has an inner structure of timber, and then it has a skin of brick or block, literally a veneer to maintain the illusion of solidity. There’s a cavity between this brick skin and the timber frame, and if it’s not sealed at strategic locations, a fire can simply skip between one house and the next through this unprotected cavity.

There was no tradition of timber frame construction in Ireland before the boom, and most builders had no appreciation of the finer details such as cavity barriers, which were often simply omitted unless some vigilant local authority inspector or conscientious architect spotted their absence and forced the builder to fit them.

The same is true of the timber party wall. When you’re relying on plasterboard to save lives, it’s important to get the details right. The plasterboard is simply screwed to timbers and the screws have to be close enough to each other.  They also have to be applied properly, without breaking the paper skin of the plasterboard.

That’s right. Paper.

There are other details that must be constructed properly but let’s leave it at that for the moment. If you live in a timber-framed house, and if that house happens to be semi-detached or terraced, you are relying for your safety on a wooden frame with plasterboard on both sides to protect you from a catastrophic fire in your neighbour’s home.

As we saw in the Newbridge incident, none of that worked out too well, and the implications are horrifying.

Tens of thousands of such houses were built all over Ireland during the boom and while the Millfield Manor residents were lucky enough to be awake when their homes caught fire, it’s only a matter of time before a major disaster happens.

That disaster will be a consequence of weak government, underfunding of enforcement and political cronyism. It will be on the heads of politicians and certain weak-willed officials in the Department of the Environment who slavishly obeyed the diktat of their political masters and changed the rules to permit this inherently flawed method of construction.

There’s another national scandal brewing.

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Environment

Priory Hall and the Prevalence of Naivety

I have great sympathy for the residents of Priory Hall and I’d like to see them helped out of their predicament. I want the government to spend the money and get rid of the problem, even though it will cost me even more taxes than I’m already paying, but we should support our fellow citizens.  So therefore, yes, go for it.  Help these people. priory hall There is, however, a caveat.  We do this because we feel sorry for the people who bought the apartments in Priory Hall, and perhaps because we detest the developer, Tom McFeely.  I can tell you that I personally find him utterly detestable. He built shit apartments.   He sold them to trusting customers.  He walked away with the money.

Tom McFeely embodies everything that was wrong with the Celtic Tiger feeding frenzy and then he added a bit more of his own. He’s a thug.  He’s a bully.  He’s a convicted criminal.  He’s a hypocrite, this former IRA hunger striker proclaiming his British citizenship to avoid Irish bankruptcy proceedings.  Tom McFeely is an utter prick.

Having said all that, is the State responsible for compensating people who have been ripped off? No.  It is not.  There’s no law, no constitutional provision requiring the taxpayer to pay you back if some scumbag robs you.  Most of the time, that’s why we pay insurance.  There’s a widespread, naive belief that somehow the State is responsible for the actions of people like McFeely when the reality is that there is no such obligation.  We fix the problem solely because we think we should, out of sheer altruism and that’s fine too.   Altruism is what sets us apart from brutes, but there is not now, and never was, an obligation on the taxpayer, to pay the bills generated by chancers.  It’s that simple.

I’m bothered about this Priory Hall thing, not because I think the residents should be abandoned, but because I wonder where it will stop.  Should every homeowner who paid a bad builder for bad work be entitled to compensation at the expense of you and me?  And if not, why not? Let’s define the circumstances in which we, the Irish people, pay extra taxes to cover the costs generated by bad builders.  I’m not saying No.  I’m just asking for a definition.  When do I pay?

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Construction

Dublin City Council to Buy Priory Hall Apartments?

The Priory Hall  apartments are a heap of junk  and those who bought them were sold rubbish.  This is beyond doubt.  The apartments are so dangerous that Dublin’s chief fire officer felt compelled to serve a fire safety notice on the complex, closing it down, despite the fact that it was home to dozens of families.

But let’s be clear about something.  Dublin City Council didn’t make these people homeless.  What made these people homeless was the fact that their homes were dangerous.  Dublin city council didn’t build the apartments, nor did it have any obligation under the law to make sure that the buildings were constructed properly.  That responsibility, under Irish law, rests exclusively with the builder.

That’s how matters stand with regard to the building regulations, but we can take it a step further.  The people who bought these apartments were in the same position as anyone else buying a dwelling.  They had every right to survey the building before making a financial commitment.  They were free to hire surveyors and I imagine some, if not all, of them did so.  If the fire inspectors, after a visual inspection, were able to identify fundamental safety problems, why weren’t the surveyors hired by the purchasers able to spot the same problems?

What did these surveyors say about the Priory Hall complex?  Did any of them say that it was a fire trap, and if not, why not?  What are their contractual obligations to the people who hired them?  And if the purchasers didn’t have the specialised knowledge to assess their homes before buying, why did they not hire an expert to advise them?

I hear that the local authority is now under pressure to buy the apartments from the owners and I have to wonder why.  If it turns out that my house is uninhabitable due to subsidence or dampness, will my local authority buy it from me to save me from the consequences of my failure to check it out properly before buying it?

I suspect not.

So what exactly is the difference between the Priory Hall owners and any other householder who happens to be sold a defective dwelling?

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