STANDING outside, looking up at their homes, the owners of apartments in the Priory Hall complex struggled to grasp what they were hearing.
The leaks, cracks, crumbling concrete and fire-safety breaches were well known to them but now they were being told that the entire front of the building could fall off.
If ever a symbol was needed for the scandals that were beginning to engulf the building industry and its regulatory overseers, a toppling facade was it.
This was 2011, two decades since the beginning of a runaway building boom that left a painful and expensive legacy, the scale of which is only beginning to be officially recognised.
In the early 1990s, it was already clear that building regulations were playing catch-up.
It was 1995 before apartment design standards were introduced, too late for many shoebox developments already thrown up in Dublin.
Over the next ten years, around 700,000 houses and apartments were built. The pace was unprecedented and the regulatory system unprepared.
Compliance with building controls was self-certified, the idea being that the prospect of a spot-check by a local authority building inspector would safeguard planning, design and fire-safety standards.
But checks were not mandatory and local authorities didn’t have the staff to carry them out even if they were.
It is now believed 90,000 apartments built in the boom years are defective and in need of remedial works at an estimated cost of more than €1billion.
Houses seemed to fare better than apartments – although Milford Manor and the social housing developments at Balgaddy have highlighted shocking flaws – but soon after Priory Hall came pyrite.
Thousands of homes, mainly in Leinster, were built on shaky foundations with pyrite in the building materials causing swelling and movement.
The Government responded relatively quickly with a redress scheme to cover all the homeowners’ costs.
But in the background, mica was rearing its head. It’s a much bigger and more expensive problem, with possibly 6,000 homes and an as yet unknown number of other buildings affected so badly by defective concrete blocks containing mica that many will need to be demolished.
The cost is estimated to be at least another €1billion.
Belatedly, and half-heartedly, the government of the day introduced new building controls in 2014.
Sadly, they didn’t require buildings to be future-proofed and climate-friendly – a legacy of another kind that will also prove extremely costly.
Of more immediate effect, self-certification was replaced with sign-off by a recognised certifier – employed by the builder.
On paper, there was more oversight, but in practice, it is questionable that much has changed.
The construction industry will insist otherwise, saying training, awareness and compliance are now central to everyday operations.
But if something does go wrong and shoddy standards slip through, homeowners will still come up against a brick wall.
Ironically, that wall is well constructed and reinforced by a restrictive statute of limitations, non-transferrable warranties that mean liability is to the first buyer only, and multiple avenues for redress including builders, suppliers, certifiers, overseers and insurers that provide safety in numbers to the targets, not the homeowner.
When they run into this formidable structure, it is the State and the taxpayer who are left to pick up the pieces.
The important Safe As Houses report, produced by the Oireachtas Housing Committee in 2018, highlighted these issues and made many recommendations to address them.
One recommendation from the report that has been acted upon is the setting up of an independent working group on defective housing.
It was only formed in the last few months, however, and has met three times although its terms of reference have yet to be published.
Thirty years since the start of the first building boom, government policy is to actively encourage another one.
It is needed as the numbers seeking homes and affordable rents is clear.
But what is not needed is a return to the rush to build, pressure to certify and unquestioning faith in the construction industry that brought the homes and hopes of so many crashing to the ground.