Whenever a new building is completed, at least three constructions are brought into being. One is the edifice itself, the thing made of brick, concrete, timber, glass. The second is the archive of the building site, which comprises the details of who did what and when, and all of the inter-communication that took place on site over the course of the build.
The third construction consists of a whole network of legal documents and certificates that relate to planning, structural integrity, fire, insulation, electrics, etc. These legal documents state that what was constructed was completed in a way that relates directly to the approved drawings and specifications. It is an important legal construction because it gives the building intrinsic value to the developer. The third construction should map directly onto the first, and, scrupulous and serious professionals will ensure, to the best of their ability, that this is the case.
Imagine a block of apartments being built by a developer who wants to sell the apartments as soon as they are taken into possession. Two numbers become pertinent in the developer’s mind: the cost of constructing each unit and the amount for which the unit can sell. This developer has more control over the first number, so, while the building is being erected he or she will focus on ways to reduce costs.
This cost-cutting can be done using entirely legal means, or, if the developer is unscrupulous, corners can be cut and costs reduced to such an extreme that, in some instances, it makes the building non-compliant and unsafe. In Ireland, these non-compliant buildings can still receive their legal documents and certificates.
How is this so?
Tbe problem is examined in Defects: Living with the Legacy of the Celtic Tiger, Eoin Ó Broin’s important new book. The first part introduces five buyers (four from Dublin and one from Co Clare) who, sometime after they purchased their Celtic Tiger-era apartments, encountered dangerous problems with the fabric of the building. Ó Broin carefully and compassionatly describes the stress these couples and single buyers encountered upon discovering these latent defects.
Presented are the failures in the systems that brought about these defects, and the complex and slow-moving systems encountered by buyers in trying to have them repaired and the non-compliant developers brought to justice. Ó Broin’s choice to focus on the purchaser, or “end user”, is a grounded and compelling way of drawing a reader into the nub of the book: the history of the Building Control Act (1990).
The second part of the book begins with a description of a series of fatal building disasters, from the 1913 Church Street tenements collapse through to the Stardust fire in 1981. These catastrophic failings led to the establishment of and changes in building regulations from the early to late parts of the 20th century.
Central to these regulations, however, was a form of self-certification, which means that a completed building can be certified by those associated with or under the employ of the person financing its construction. In short, this aspect of the regulations is skewed more towards the developer and less towards the protection of the user.
This section is well-researched and wholly accessible. The author relates the fascinating Dáil debates preceding the Building Control Bill and Act. There appears to have been considerable opposition to this aspect of the self-certifying of buildings from such figures as Proinsias De Rossa (then of the Workers’ Party) and the Labour TD Mervyn Taylor, who claimed that the purchaser of a defective building “is getting no protection from the Building Control Bill”.
These concerns were ignored by the then Fianna Fáil-led government, which seemed, according to this account, more interested in protecting the interests of the developer, or at least in protecting the conditions to allow the developer to most flourish. As a result, the self-certification aspect in the regulation remained in this 1990 Act, which would be tested to an extreme during the last building boom.
Ó Broin makes a convincing argument that this Act, and the self-certification aspect of it, failed to protect many people from developers whose orientation towards profit exceeded their responsibilities and competencies as builders.
Defects is a valuable prism focused on the problems of developer-led construction in Ireland. It also allows a reader to ask if the relationship between these developers, the construction industry itself and successive governments is a healthy one, and if it has led to a set of building regulations that improve the chances of every new building completed in Ireland being compliant and safe. This urgent question is well put.
In the concluding chapter, Ó Broin proposes a range of practical changes that he feels ought to be made to current building regulations and practices. Chief among them is that all certification of buildings should be carried out by an independent body with no connection to the developer. The job of this independent body, or local authority, would be to ensure that what has been built and certified objectively relates to what was designed and approved.
This proposal alone is a clear-sighted and invaluable contribution to a discussion where there is very much at stake.
Adrian Duncan’s new novel, The Geometer Lobachevsky, will appear in 2022 from Lilliput Press and Tuskar Rock Press