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Dublin: -2 °C Thursday 27 November, 2014

Column: Another Priory Hall is coming down the tracks. Here’s why.

Phil Hogan is planning to introduce new regulations which are meant to make for better buildings. He’s making a major mistake, writes Mike Morris.

Mike Morris

WHILE THE RAMIFICATIONS of Priory Hall are still being felt, one of the least becoming aspects of the fallout was the fingerpointing that followed the emergence of the story.

And yet it’s fair to say that one of the most-publicised facts of the appalling Priory Hall affair, however, was that the building was not inspected by anyone during construction –  and yet certificates of compliance were produced by an architect, based on a cursory visual inspection and (effectively) the contractor’s word of honour. Most frighteningly this was not even an unusual situation.

The Draft Building Control (Amendment) Regulations - essentially a response to Priory Hall – are currently available for public consultation, with submissions by the Department of the Environment being accepted until this Thursday 24 May.  Among other measures, they contain new, statutory certificates of compliance for all buildings.

This was promised in the Irish Times by Minister Hogan himself: “These mandatory certificates will mean what they say,” he wrote, in an article on 27 October 2011. Priory Hall was a watershed moment, and one thing on which the cacophony of voices agreed was that Things Had To Change.

There’s no doubt that the intention of the new regulations is to do just that. So it’s all the more shocking, then, that the draft regulations misunderstand the sickness at the heart of the regulation system so badly that they may well make things worse.

What’s in these plans by Minister Hogan- and why they’re unworkable

(Taoiseach Enda Kenny speaks to former Priory Hall resident Darren Kelly last month. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire)

The premise of the draft legislation is that a “properly qualified person” (an architect, engineer, or surveyor) should regularly inspect a building and warrant that it has been built without defect. Should this turn out not to be the case, the assigned professional is liable for financial restitution and prosecution. This seems to provide the tough regulation beloved by government posturing – but dig beneath the surface and the defects become obvious.

No designer can ever guarantee a building has been built to perfection, simply because they are not the ones who have built the building. To even begin to make such a statement, such a person would have to be on-site full-time for the entirety of the construction period; a house extension would require an client to pay an architect or engineer to be on-site, full-time, for several months. Even this, in practice, would not be enough – an architect is not qualified to know that a boiler is not defective, and an engineer cannot reasonably say for certain that a window will not leak. The very principle of asking someone to vouch for the work of someone else is desperately flawed, and legal advice taken by the RIAI suggests this may be uninsurable. We are in the realms of the ridiculous here.

The real story, though, is what the legislation doesn’t do. There was no shortage of comment after Priory Hall, but amid the search for blame, little attention was paid to this key point: had the builders behind Priory Hall not gone bust, there was little or nothing to stop them building even more apartments. There is no licensing of builders in the country. Bodies such as the Construction Industry Federation perform some of this function, but membership is not mandatory. Anyone can call themselves a builder, and this proposal does nothing to change that.

“I have been an architect for ten years… and I have never seen a Building Inspector”

What makes this worse is the lack of enforcement in the sector. Currently, a mere 12-15 per cent of buildings are supposedly inspected (Minister Hogan’s article promised “pooling of resources” to combat the problem, presumably under the impression that there are hundreds of Building Inspectors sitting idle somewhere in Leitrim).

There is little substantiation of even that figure, and most within the industry find it questionable.Anecdotal evidence time: I have been an architect for ten years, on projects of a combined value of over €50m, and I have never seen a Building Inspector. Most of my peers say the same. Similarly, while figures are not readily available for prosecutions under the Building Control Act, I have never heard of a prosecution.

Again, nothing has been done about this. The draft legislation expects designers to inspect properties, but designers cannot bring prosecutions against contractors. This does not constitute “enforcement” – it’s more like expecting traffic wardens to bring an end to speeding offences… in a country with no driving licences.

What needs to change

It is long past time the issue of Building Control was taken seriously. We should at least be talking of the following: a National Building Inspectorate, examining at least 40 per cent of all buildings under construction; a system of licensing or registration for builders; full prosecutions of all designers or builders who are in any way negligent of their duties, and public statistics of the same; an open register of all buildings that have been inspected, free for the public to view; and education of the public so that they know exactly their entitlements when building, or when buying a new-build property.

Instead we, have a perverse document that places the onus for proper building onto people who cannot possibly enforce it, and does nothing to increase state inspection and enforcement of building. If initiated as it is it could well lead to chaos, with buildings left uncertified as no professionals are prepared to sign the certificates required of them.

This is not about professionals, though; it’s about people. What do we have, from the point of view of the ordinary person? Well, it’s a reasonable assumption that the mooted legislation will not in fact come to pass, and that the Draft Regulations will be amended to produce certificates that designers can reasonably sign.

This will then just amount to an empty exercise in kicking the can down the road, a document that does not strengthen enforcement or inspection in any meaningful way whatsoever, a document which insults the Priory Hall residents it purports to protect… and in ten or twenty or thirty years, another high-profile news story of some other shoddy building will reveal that nothing whatsoever has changed. More finger-pointing; more innocent people left homeless or worse.

Failure to institute proper building control now is unforgivable. The excuses have run out, and what has been presented is more of the same. Enough of this.

Mike Morris is a registered architect and Member of the RIAI. He is writing here in a personal capacity.

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