Home Truths: Tackling fire blocks requires ‘big’ plan
Minister Alan Kelly's recent warning that the Longboat Quay debacle might not be an isolated one was widely taken to be a reference to one other housing development outside of Dublin which experienced a fire some time ago that spread at surprising speed through adjoining houses.
While that scheme should be investigated on this basis, Minister Kelly will be talking about dozens, if not hundreds, of other fire regulations-deficient schemes - if, that is, he has been talking to building sector insiders.
Back in 2011 I sent three quantity surveyors nominated by the Society of Chartered Surveyors through a selection of Irish homes built through the property boom. The object was to ascertain if they achieved required building standards for a news article.
Even on a limited access basis (without more intimate access to wall cavities and internal roof areas) it quickly became clear that not one of the homes investigated complied with all requirements. The apartments in particular threw up serious fire regulation concerns.
However, the news outlet I was working for deemed the resulting article to be risky to publish - not on the basis that it was incorrect, but on the grounds of the scale of the financial damages that would incur if those surveyor assessments could be disputed in any way.
There was also a valid question over whether other property owners in the schemes involved would take action against an article which would have quite obviously damaged the value and saleability of their homes. Each home owner would have a case to be taken on and we would have to prove the same results for each home. The ramifications were enormous. As a result, the article did not name developments.
While surveyors and inspectors can have differing views on compliance per building, it is the sheer extent of potential for damages, financial and otherwise, to those whose properties are at risk, as well as those who built the properties (whether they are guilty or not), which have curtailed movement on this so far.
The home owners in both Priory Hall and Longboat Quay have both faced ejection from their home with no idea who will foot their bills for repairs. For this reason alone, it is safe to assume many mortgage holders living in other apartment blocks today might be glad if the fire inspectors stayed away - even if it means sticking their heads in the sand on fire safety. Homelessness and loss of your home's entire value and saleability in one swoop are also huge risks to take.
The building sector insiders I have talked to over the past three years most commonly use the word "widespread" when asked about how common serious fire regulation breaches are in Celtic Tiger era apartment schemes.
But when I have asked them exactly how "widespread" (are 30pc in breach? 50pc? 80pc? 100pc?) they genuinely don't seem to know.
First off, be certain that any developer who has been knowingly in breach of fire regulations would tell absolutely no one about it. Such gossip would not circulate.
Second, given the way apartments were constructed through the boom era, it is also possible many Tiger era developers genuinely won't know whether their schemes are in breach.
This is because many relied on sub-contractors to get their buildings up, who in turn sub-contracted and in turn sub-contracted. Architects (who could not be on site for every second of every day) would similarly not know whether their instructions were ignored by cost-cutting chicanery once they left the site. Until last year, when the Building Control Amendment Regulations came into effect, remember that one visual inspection was all that was required to give a building a clean bill of health.
In contrast, in Britain, local council building inspectors in yellow helmets, high viz jackets and clipboards swarm over every building site like a rash, poking into anything and everything, ticking boxes. No person sets a foot inside any finished building there unless the council inspectors have signed off on it from head to toe. If the council inspectors are wrong, then it's their neck on the line.
So "widespread" could mean 20pc - or it could mean 90pc. And unless we take one building at a time and start prying into their innards in a systematic fashion, we really won't know either.
At the peak of the Tiger, more than 30,000 apartments were being built each year. The residents of Longboat Quay are looking at €18,000 each. If we go looking into every Tiger era block of apartments, the bills to fix what we might discover could run into billions and generate homelessness the equivalent of the entire current housing waiting lists or more.
So if we need to do this (and we might have to) then we require a very big contingency plan indeed in place to cope with the potential fallout of what "widespread" might really mean.