Sunday 21 January 2018

The right moves: Where does the industry go after Longboat Quay?

Longboat Quay Apartments near Dublin's Grand Canal Dock.
Longboat Quay Apartments near Dublin's Grand Canal Dock.

Paul McNeive

The discovery of apparent widespread breaches of building regulations in large developments is shocking and shakes the foundations of the property industry.

It should be deeply disturbing to the surveying, architectural and engineering professions that so many differences of opinion can arise over construction issues in buildings, which, of their nature, are specified in exact technical detail. Works either comply or they don't.

The carnage from light regulation in the banking industry should have taught us that self-regulation, without independent inspections, doesn't work. The new regime of building control has been criticised for that lack of independence, in that building designers can certify compliance for their own designs. However, it's worth noting that the alleged defects at the Longboat Quay scheme, occurred under the previous system, where professionals could minimise their accountability by issuing an "opinion of substantial compliance" with planning and building control.

Tony Grant, partner at specialist building surveyors Malcolm Hollis told me that "once a building is up, it is very hard to check compliance with items like fire safety, because the majority of what should be in place is hidden. Standardised checks should be taking place throughout the building process to protect the reputation of the Irish market."

The Building Control Amendment Regulations 2014 do increase the accountability of the professionals involved in certifying compliance. There has been relatively little development under the new system, but that's increasing now and it's interesting to see that "market forces" are beginning to bridge the gaps in the new legislation. To understand this development better I spoke with Eoin Leonard, CEO of i3PT Certification whose team of 20 are engaged as independent "assigned certifiers" on €1.5bn worth of construction projects in Ireland.

Mr Leonard told me that "legislation itself is not enough and vilifying developers is overly simplistic and can distract from other causes. What is required is a cultural change in how we produce and purchase buildings and that includes developers, contractors, professionals and consumers. The debate is focusing on legislation he told me but it is the "behaviour and attitudes" of all involved that is crucial. "Drink-driving was always illegal in Ireland but nothing changed for decades, he said. Enforcement is always important but it's only when we see a cultural shift in attitude that we'll notice a real change."

Eoin Leonard say's that many developers are already focusing on taking a "belt and braces" approach to compliance and this makes complete sense as one can only assume that there will be forensic examination of building standards and certification processes in the light of recent controversies. "The Irish construction industry needs to learn from this, move forward and start competing on quality, rather than just price" he added

"Ireland is one of very few countries in the developed world that allows the existing design team to sign-off on its own work." Mr Leonard said. "However some developers are bypassing this loophole by employing firms like i3PT to independently inspect and certify their work. Top developers are leading the way in demanding the very highest standards of independent inspection and certification" and he cited a major docklands scheme and Remley Development's "Miesian Plaza" office redevelopment in Dublin 2 as examples.

All of this raises the concept of developers actually adding value to their schemes by exceeding the requirements of legislation regarding independent inspection and certification. We are probably already at the point where purchasers start taking a strong interest in exactly who was involved in inspecting and certifying their buildings.

It was a great honour to present the Douglas Bader Inspiration Award to Major Phil Packer at a ceremony at the RAF Club in Picadilly in London

Major Packer lost the use of his legs in Afghanistan and has gone on to inspire millions overcoming challenges. London is seeing a spike in residential development and Savills director of european commercial research Mat Oakley told me that over 2 million sq ft of office space in the West End has been converted to residential. This, combined with a doubling of office take-up last year, has caused office rents to reach £185 a sw ft and tenants are "drifting east" for lower rents. It#s no surprise then that office development is ramping up, with 16 million sq ft expected over the next four years.

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