Could something like the Grenfell Tower fire happen in Ireland?

Many buildings constructed during last building boom did not comply with fire regulations

Queen Elizabeth and Prince William met members of the community affected by the fire at Grenfell Tower in London during a visit to the Westway Sports Centre which is providing temporary shelter for those who have been made homeless in the disaster.

 

The terrible tragedy which has occurred in London is a stark reminder of what can go wrong in older or badly designed and constructed buildings. The question must be asked could a similar event happen in Ireland?

The blunt answer unfortunately is “Yes”.

There are a number of different parameters between Ireland and the United Kingdom which need to be examined.

While Ireland does not have 24-storey apartment blocks such as Grenfell Tower, a similar type fire in a seven-storey apartment complex here – which spreads as easily as the fire did in London – would result in a similar catastrophic loss of life.

Unlike the UK there is an awareness among professionals involved in the construction sector – if not the wider public – that a significant proportion of buildings constructed during the Celtic Tiger era were not in compliance with building regulations in force at the time of construction.

Fire-safety issues have already been identified in a number of high-profile developments such as Priory Hall and Longboat Quay. More recently issues were identified at Beacon South Quarter in Sandyford.

But these are just the high-profile cases which were widely reported in the media. Many developments are addressing these issues away from the media spotlight. Over the last four years I have remediated 29 developments throughout the country for fire-safety issues.

These have all involved common issues such as:

- Non-functioning and/or non-compliant fire alarms and emergency lighting,

- Breaches in compartment walls to apartments where services (electrical supply and soil vent pipe) enter the compartment

- Breaches in compartmentation of the common area service shafts

- Breaches in compartmentation of the lift shaft

- Missing cavity barriers in cavity walls to prevent the spread of smoke.

In one apartment complex there was no barrier whatsoever between adjoining units. This meant that when we looked behind the sockets in one unit it was possible to reach across and push the sockets into the adjoining property. As these were timber-framed units there should have been no sockets at all in the party wall and enough plaster board between them to provide for one hour fire resistance.

In my opinion if a serious fire broke out in 40 per cent of these developments a catastrophic event, such as we’ve seen in London could have occurred.

Inadequacy

The reality is that these Celtic Tiger era properties in Ireland are in a higher risk category than those constructed in the UK. The problem evident throughout the country is directly related to the inadequacy of the former regulatory system which relied on self-certification by the builder/developer.

The Building Control Act 1990, which came into effect in 1992, replaced the previous bylaw regulations which operated in eight urban areas of the country. The Building Control Regulations 1991 implemented this system of self-compliance by owners, designers and builders with limited independent oversight by inadequately resourced, building control staff in local authorities.

In parallel with the lack of a mandatory inspection regime, the conveyancing process often required a certificate (opinion) of compliance with the certification based often on a visual inspection. This regime of self-certification was extremely flawed and often relied disproportionately on limited discretionary parallel conveyancing certification.

Thankfully a new inspection and certification regime was introduced in 2014. Although not without its flaws it was a massive step forward for consumer protection. One of the criticisms of it is that the assigned certifier can be an employee of the developer and this naturally raises questions about their ability to act independently.

In relation to fire safety, the legislation which applies to all buildings in Ireland is the Fire Services Act. This states that persons having control over a premises’ must ensure the safety of persons on the premises in the event of an outbreak of fire, whether such outbreak has occurred or not. This is regardless of the property being constructed in 1890, 1960 or during the Celtic Tiger era.

Lessons must be learned from the appalling loss of life which has occurred in London, especially given the similarities in our construction methods, workforce and legislation.

It is time that both building owners and the Government realised the extent of the problem in Ireland, primarily but not solely created by the Celtic Tiger building boom which has resulted in the construction of substandard buildings. There now needs to be an admission that the problem exists as well as a willingness to resolve it.

Recently the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland made a submission to Government entitled “Defects in our Built Environment”. This recommends the commissioning of a high-level study into the problem of building defects and recommends the setting up of an emergency fund to tackle buildings where there is a potential risk to life.

There is no doubt that the above would cost the State money and it would be up to the government to decide where this comes from. The Pyrite Remediation Scheme, provides a potential template which could be adapted for the remediation of these substandard buildings.

But as a first step let’s establish the extent of the problem so that a workable solution can be devised and implemented to ensure people are safe in their homes. That needs to be done urgently if the horror which has unfolded in London is to be avoided in Ireland.

Kevin Hollingsworth is a Chartered Building Surveyor and a member of the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland.

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