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Wednesday 17 September 2014

Many flats built in boom are fire traps, say experts

Blaze at home of Vodafone boss was caused by Christmas tree

Published 06/01/2013 | 05:00

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A CHRISTMAS tree is believed to have started the fire which engulfed a seafront house in south Dublin rented by the head of Vodafone Ireland in the early hours of St Stephen's morning, it has emerged.

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Jeroen Hoencamp, his wife and three children were living in the house, which was rented by his company from property developer Robin Power.

Mr Power has a portfolio of upmarket houses along the seafront from Blackrock to Killiney. He bought an existing house on the site at Marine Parade in Sandycove 10 years ago for a reported €2m, demolished it and replaced it with a much larger, timber-framed house in 2006.

The fire broke out at around 1am on St Stephen's Day and within 30 minutes flames could be seen coming from the roof, neighbours said. The roof was ablaze by the time fire engines arrived.

Local people said the blaze was intense and there were concerns that it could spread to adjoining houses. An hour after the fire had started, they heard an explosion, which is believed to have been caused by a nearby ESB fuse box exploding on Marine Parade. The electricity supply to the neighbourhood was out until the following afternoon.

Mr Hoencamp and his family were preparing to leave Ireland as he is due to take up a new role as enterprise director of Vodafone UK.

Although the fire gutted the roof, the walls remain standing. There is no suggestion that the timber-frame construction or design of the building contributed to the spread of the fire.

However, fire-safety experts are concerned about other timber-framed buildings, including apartment blocks, which went up all over Ireland at the height of the boom.

The top two floors of the Priory Hall complex are timber-framed and the manneer of their construction led to concerns precipitating the evacuation of residents in 2011.

Under the new building regulations that are set to be introduced soon by Environment Minister Phil Hogan, penalties including up to two years' imprisonment are to be introduced for failure to meet fire-safety standards in new buildings.

Fire-safety experts say that many timber-framed apartment complexes that went up in the boom were not built to proper safety standards.

One of their main fears is the failure of some builders to ensure that the voids between inner and outer walls and between apartments were fire sealed to proper standards. In cases where standards are not met, there is a danger that fire could spread between the unprotected voids.

Another major concern is over the failure of builders to compartmentalise roof spaces in multi-unit buildings, which could allow fire to spread along attics to adjoining homes.

There have been at least two instances of this in recent years in new developments. Both fires occurred at day time and there were no casualties as most of the occupants were out at work. Experts say that if fires occurred at night time when people are sleeping, there could be deaths from inhalation of carbon monoxide and other toxic gases.

Architects and engineers say that under the proposed new building regulations, prompted by the plight of the residents of Priory Hall, they are being unfairly made responsible for any defects which might occur during the building process. Meanwhile, they say, builders are largely absolved.

Punishment of up to two years' imprisonment and heavy fines are being introduced.

Fire-safety professionals say the new regulations will not adequately deal with the existing problems in many buildings erected in the boom. They also say that there has been inadequate fire inspection.

While people have been imprisoned in the UK for fire-safety violations, sources say that prosecutions here under the Fire Services Act are rare and usually only occur in the aftermath of fires and mostly where injuries have occurred.

Tom McFeely, the developer of Priory Hall, received only a six-month suspended sentence and a €3,000 fine, even though more than 130 owners lost their homes.

Sunday Independent

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