In the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower tragedy, it’s timely to ask how buildings in Ireland measure up in terms of fire safety.
The Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland’s recent submission to the Department of Planning, Housing, Communities and Local Government has been widely welcomed, in particular its call for a high-level study to consider multi-occupancy units constructed between 2000 and 2008 for inspection in order to establish the extent of possible significant defects within such properties. This submission has not fallen on deaf ears. Fire authorities are currently writing to property managers of certain developments (over 18m high), requesting that a “Fire Safety Assessment” is completed on “the overall premises”, and setting a response timeline of four weeks. These assessments are being requested by the fire authority under the statutory requirements of the Fire Services Act 1981 and 2003 (1981 Act). This Act is an umbrella piece of legislation governing fire safety, so could be utilised to request a fire safety assessment of any building (excluding dwellings), including our older building stock.
Under the 1981 Act, a fire authority can enter any land or building (except a dwelling occupied as a single dwelling) for the purposes of ensuring that the statutory obligations under the Act are being complied with. The fire authority does not need to give notice or seek the consent of the owner or occupier. It may bring any other person and/or equipment it requires onto the premises to assist with the inspection. Two types of enforcement notice can be served under the 1981 Act:
- fire safety notice (section 20); or,
- closure notice (section 20A).
A fire safety notice may be served by a fire authority on the owner or occupier of a potentially dangerous building under section 20. This may prohibit the use of the building, or any part of it, unless certain specified precautions are taken. It may also impose specific requirements on the owner or occupier. A closure notice may be served on the person in control of the building under section 20A if an authorised person is of the opinion that a building poses or is likely to pose a serious and immediate risk to the safety of persons in or on the premises, including a risk of fire. The notice comes into effect as soon as it is received. Under section 4 of the 1981 Act, contravention by any person (by act or omission) of any requirement under the Act, or failure to comply with a fire safety notice or closure notice, as served, is an offence.
The establishment of the Construction Industry Register Ireland (CIRI) is welcomed. This register of competent contractors and sub-contractors, with statutory footing, will assist in protecting consumers against future defects.
So how did we end up here?
This won’t be news to many of us, but during the 90s and early noughties there was somewhat of a free-for-all in the construction industry. Developers retained the services of a professional (usually an architect) to design their scheme and get planning permission. The relationship usually ended there and the developer proceeded to build (very often using their own in-house construction team) without professional site supervision, and only engaged the architect again to do a visual-only certificate of compliance. At that time there was no statutory requirement under the Building Control Act for sign-off on compliance, and the certificates were solely to facilitate a sale (a requirement of the Law Society during the conveyancing process). This system of prima facie self-certification, and the failure of the Building Control Act to require sign-off, failed the property purchaser.
But the problem wasn’t just the lack of inspections by construction professionals or the local authorities (who simply did not have the resources to carry out the required inspections at the time), but a lack of skilled operatives on the builder’s team. Building contractors were struggling with the volume of work, and as demand outstretched supply, resources were overstretched and programmes were fast-tracked in order to keep up. Perhaps more importantly, the traditional tradesman training fell by the wayside. In this environment, it was no longer a requirement. Carpenters and plumbers could skip ‘the apprenticeship’ because they were being offered big money to hop jobs to the next builder, who treated them as if they were qualified. The result? Poor quality workmanship by unqualified tradesmen, examples of which building surveyors identify regularly in the course of our work.
Site supervision (or lack of) also played a significant role. Foremen were stretched, often inexperienced, and unable to adequately supervise works in their care leading to a breakdown in continuity, communication and, ultimately, quality. As a simple example: a plumber fitting a pipe as part of snagging may have just pushed a pipe through a wall/partition/floor with no regard for the work completed by the block layer, carpenter or fire contractor who preceded him.
And where are we now?
The establishment of the Construction Industry Register Ireland (CIRI) is welcomed. This register of competent contractors and sub-contractors, with statutory footing, will assist in protecting consumers against future defects. The Building Control (Amendment) Regulations 2014, which came into effect on March 1, 2014, require strict sequencing, monitoring and sign-off of work, and this will be of great benefit. It should be remembered, however, that sign-off is at a point in time showing compliance and the certifier cannot be responsible for deficit/inadequate work or damage caused as a result of future repair and maintenance during the lifetime of the building. There will be a strong reliance on property managers to ensure that compliant buildings are maintained to the same standard as at the time of handover. While we have limited control over what an individual does within their own apartment, we must ensure that the compartmentation and early-warning detection systems perform their intended function, and that buildings are in substantial compliance with the building regulations.
Owners, occupiers and property managers
Leaving the technical aspects of construction aside for a moment, we must consider the owners, occupiers and property managers. As mentioned previously, clear instruction is coming from the fire authorities, citing the 1981 Act, with concerned owners and occupiers looking to their property manager for direction and guidance. The 1981 Act states: “It shall be the duty of every person having control over premises to which this section applies to take all reasonable measures to guard against the outbreak of fire on such premises, and to ensure as far as is reasonably practicable the safety of persons on the premises in the event of an outbreak of fire”. There is an obligation for owner management companies (OMCs) (with the guidance of their property managers) to obtain the correct advice and rectify any shortcomings identified.
The ultimate difficulty once any shortcoming is identified is how to fund the work. The Government does not have plans at present to assist apartment owners who find themselves living in unsafe buildings. This is the same government that is charging 13.5% tax on rectification/safety work and 23% on any professional services required to ensure that the work is completed correctly.
Managing Director, McGovern Surveyors