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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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