FireAlarm

In the aftermath of Priory Hall, questions are being asked about fire safety and building standards in Ireland. KEVIN HOLLINGSWORTH assesses the scale of the problem.

The Priory Hall debacle has raised considerable queries in the public’s mind in relation to the building standards imposed in this country. It is the author’s opinion that Ireland’s building regulations are a robust set of standards based on international best practice. However, the problem exists with the lack of oversight in relation to the implementation of these standards. The new building control amendment regulations will go some way to providing a more robust method of ensuring compliance; however, it remains to be seen how they will actually be implemented and function in practice. They may ensure that buildings are better built in the future, but do nothing for those already built. This is the problem that many property owners are currently considering.

What is the scale of the problem?
If the Priory Hall scenario indicates that there is a problem, what then is the true or even potential scale of this problem? This is a question that it is impossible to answer accurately. The evidence that I have seen in my day-to-day work is that non-compliance with building regulations is more the norm then the exception.

Due to lack of assistance from professionals such as architects, surveyors or engineers in the construction process, and miniscule supervision from the building control authority, buildings constructed during the boom period rarely fully comply with the building regulations. However, to tar all builders/developers with this brush would be unfair. For example, I recently inspected an ongoing apartment development and was more than impressed by the on-site engineer’s approach to ensuring compliance with even the most stringent of the latest regulations.

Of great concern to many building owners and occupiers who purchased a property during the last 15 years is the actual standard of fire safety in their buildings. In a number of instances I have stumbled upon glaring contraventions of the building regulations. A recent example was a simple bath leak; when the bath panel was removed it revealed a large hole around the service pipes where I could reach my hand into the ceiling void of the apartment below and take a picture. Other problems have been revealed by pre-purchase surveys of apartments where the surveyor has gone the extra mile and unscrewed service hatches to reveal missing fire protection between properties. When such things are uncovered, the building owners need to take immediate steps to attend to the issues.

Staged investigations
If no such alarming evidence has materialised and a building owner is simply concerned, then my advice would be to undertake staged investigations to ensure that their building is constructed as it should be.

This can be done by:

1. Reviewing the surveyor/architect/engineer’s opinion of compliance with Part B of the building regulations to check if the certificate is based on a single visit at the end of construction (when no hidden items can be seen) or on a number of key inspections.

2. Obtaining certificates from specialist providers of items such as fire stopping/fire protection, fire alarms, emergency lighting, smoke vents, fire doors, etc. This should be in the health and safety file, but if this has not been provided, every effort should be made to find out who installed the systems originally.

3. Obtaining a copy of the approved fire certificate from the local authority and having this reviewed by a competent professional who can identify such obvious things as:
(i) are the correct types of fire alarm/detection and emergency lighting installed?;
(ii) has the correct amount of automatic opening vents been installed?; and,
(iii) are fire doors installed in the correct locations?

4) Undertaking strategic opening up works to confirm if the required fire protection is in place such as:
(i) cavity barriers;
(ii) intumescent fire collars around vertical and horizontal pipes;
(iii) protection to structural elements; and,
(iv) fire damper.

If there has already been some evidence of a lack of compliance in the construction, then this could justify some opening up work. If there has not, then it could be a very expensive, disruptive and ultimately unnecessary exercise, although some sample testing can be done to reassure.

Any building owners I have acted for since Priory Hall have taken the decision to act immediately to protect the occupiers of the building and to prevent a reduction in the building’s value due to the effects of negative press. This is the best course of action for all concerned, but it is based on any development having the money to undertake the works immediately, which was not the case in Priory Hall. When the money is not there, it becomes a much bigger problem for the development as a whole.

Persons having control must take reasonable measures
Regardless of the building regulations and the fire safety certificate, all buildings are subject to the requirements of the Fire Services Act 1981 and 2003, which applies to occupied buildings. Section 18 (2) of this Act places a duty on persons having control over a premises to take all reasonable measures to guard against the outbreak of fire and to ensure as far as is reasonably practicable the safety of persons on the premises in the event of an outbreak of fire.

I believe that the four steps stated above would be reasonably practicable to expect any building owner to undertake to ensure that the occupants of any building remain safe in the event of a fire. To get back to the original question of “the true scale of the Priory Hall issue”: I don’t think we will ever know the full extent of the issue. My only hope is that “persons having control” over buildings do the necessary and we never have to experience any loss of life due to this lack of compliance.

Kevin Hollingsworth
Kevin is a Chartered Building Surveyor with
McGovern Surveyors and Chairman of the
Building Surveying Division.