The legacy of the ‘rapid build’ Celtic Tiger schools
Analysis: Up to 40 schools built within the last decade face structural assessments
Ardgillan Community College in Balbriggan, Co Dublin. Its first phase, constructed during 2009, involved a building period of just 26 weeks. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire
When an engineer working on behalf of the Department of Education knocked through the plasterwork of a classroom in a north Dublin secondary school last Friday he was shocked by what he found.
Ties that should fix the exterior and interior walls were either absent or inadequate in places. Wooden panels which form part of the walls were not bolted to steel girders.
Officials concluded there was an 80 per cent chance of an external wall falling out during storm-force winds, and a 20 per cent chance of an inner leaf wall collapsing.
“It is unacceptable that the lives of students, teachers and staff have been put at risk,” Minister for Education Joe McHugh said in the Dáil this week, referring to the school.
The building at Ardgillan was closed immediately, forcing almost 100 transition year students to remain at home this week.
Two more primary schools – Tyrrelstown Educate Together and St Luke’s National School, which share a campus in west Dublin – were ordered to close on Tuesday. Some 1,200 pupils have been sent home.
All three schools were built by the same contractor, Tyrone-based Western Building Systems. Temporary accommodation is being sourced for the schools ahead of the resumption of school following the midterm break.
This, however, may just be the start of it. Some 40 schools built by the same construction company face structural assessment tests over the coming weeks to see if they are safe for students and staff.
Thousands of students potentially could be affected by closures or partial closures of schools once checks get under way.
So how did we end up in a situation where the structural integrity of schools built less than a decade ago is in serious doubt?
Ardgillan Community College is a good place to start. The school building in question was one of dozens built under the department’s so-called rapid-build scheme between late 2007 and 2013.
It was aimed at dramatically speeding up the delivery of new schools at a time when rapid population growth was putting the education system under acute strain.
Up until that point the vast majority of school buildings were built the traditional way. A design team of architects, engineers and surveyors were contracted to oversee the design of the building, secure planning permission and obtain fire safety certificates. The construction of the building, on the other hand, was the responsibility of the builder.
The entire process – from design to completion – took anywhere between three and five years. But this was not anywhere near fast enough to deliver school places for a rapidly swelling young population.
Controversy flared up in particular in parts of Dublin such as Balbriggan, where many children – especially those of immigrants – were unable to find school places.
The government’s response was to dramatically change the way schools were built through a new “design and build” scheme. In essence, it meant the design and construction phase were in the hands of a single body.
The emphasis was on delivery and, because of the urgent need for school accommodation, time periods were compressed. In September 2007, for example, it was announced that 32 school projects would be opened within a year.
It was highly ambitious and put extreme pressure on the construction period, given that schools had to be ready for occupation by the end of August.
In fact, timelines were so tight that the construction phase had to be condensed into just three months. It led to contractors using “off-site” construction methods, where key structural components were put together in manufacturing plants before being transported to the site.
It is a common form of construction used widely in the industry. However, the time frame for the “design and build” programme was so condensed that it created its own risks in managing quality.
For example, the first phase of Ardgillan Community College – constructed during 2009 – involved a building period of just 26 weeks.
Building regulations at the time simply relied on “opinions of compliance” to certify the buildings. It was a loose form of regulation that was typical of the boom-time era.
While many buildings during this time complied with regulations, it became woefully clear during the crash that these rules were not strong enough: a legacy of defective apartment blocks and residential homes was testament to that.
New regulations were introduced in 2014, with a somewhat stricter certification process. For schools, independent certifiers were required, and contractors were required to comply with an inspection regime and provide certification for all aspects of the construction.
There was also a longer lead-in time for construction. For example, the construction phase of a large secondary school nowadays takes about 60 weeks. Over the past year or so the department has adopted a policy of appointing clerks of works who are present on site every day to monitor the construction.
In the Dáil this week, it was clear where the Government sees the blame.
“It does certainly appear to me that corners were cut back in the Celtic Tiger period when it comes to the building of some of these schools, which is truly disgraceful in my view,” Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said.
Western Building Systems is the subject of Department of Education legal proceedings in relation to about four schools linked to fire safety issues.
He added that if the company has not built other schools up to standard the State would “pursue the company in the courts for that as well”.
The Fine Gael-lead Coalition is hoping this is a controversy it can also lay at the door of the main Opposition party: changes in the way schools were built were introduced under Fianna Fáil.
The main Opposition party, however, is keen to point out what it sees as failings of oversight and communication since fire safety concerns were first flagged in these schools a number of years ago.
One question which will puzzle many is why it took so long to identify these problems in the first place.
The former principal of Tyrrelstown Educate Together national school spoke yesterday of a litany of potentially dangerous problems such as doors collapsing and wobbling walls within a short time of the building opening.
Western Building Systems insists it has been operating for 35 years and had placed considerable emphasis on delivering “high quality work on each of our projects, always ensuring compliance with regulatory requirements”.
“Until now our integrity has never been questioned. Each of our Department of Education projects, both before and since the amendments to building regulations in 2014, were subjected to inspections during construction. Every time each was certified as meeting compliance standards.”
It says that for now it wants to establish the facts, and has pledged to resolve any issues which arise.
In the meantime, there is an anxious wait ahead for up to 40 schools and thousands of pupils and teachers to see whether their school buildings are structurally sound.