Mica debacle set to cost taxpayers dearly

Building products standards were tightened only after emergence of mica and pyrite issues

Campaigners looking for 100 per cent redress for homes effected by defective blocks were protesting outside the Dáil ahead of the release of the report from the working group. Video: Enda O'Dowd

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The crumbling bricks on display outside Leinster House on Thursday are a disaster for homeowners, and a huge political and financial liability for the Government.

For everyone else they present a salutary lesson in how not to oversee the production of building material and the construction of homes, most people’s biggest single investment at a cost repaid only over decades.

As Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien moves to boost the State remediation plan, the bill for fixing and rebuilding thousands of homes is on track to exceed €1.5 billion.

The rules have been strengthened in recent years but far too late for people stuck with mica-affected homes in Co Donegal and other counties, though the full scale of the numbers is unknown.

Most of the affected homes were built between 1999 and 2009. The Expert Panel on Concrete Blocks, which examined the affair for the government, made it clear in its 2017 report that “standards existed” then for both the constituent materials and the manufacture of concrete blocks. There were also codes of practice for structural design, construction and the rendering of concrete block walls. Still, those rules did not prevent the use of bricks unfit for purpose in Donegal.

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The panel found it was “not normal” for bricks to fail as they did, saying that was primarily due to excessive amounts of “deleterious material” in the form of muscovite mica in the aggregate used in the blocks. The panel also reported “deviations” from standards on the make-up and thickness of render, the absence of cavity weep holes and for control joints. Citing harsh Donegal weather, building experts say privately that the smooth render on some homes exposed bricks to serious water ingress damage. They would have better protected by pebbledash render.

The enforcement of construction product laws was at the time performed within the budgets of local authorities. The panel noted specifically that they did not have the technical resources in-house to test products which may have been non-compliant. “Given the limited resources available and their application over 31 separate local building control authorities, enforcement action relating to construction products is generally carried out on a reactive basis.”

That market surveillance activity was typically triggered only on foot of information received from complaints seems now like a glaring gap. This raises serious questions both for local authorities and for central Government, which has a responsibility to ensure functional oversight of the sector and could have pushed for tougher regulation if it wanted. This mica saga, however, is but one of several in which taxpayers have been saddled with huge costs from shoddy Celtic Tiger practices.

Donegal County Council declined an interview request from The Irish Times to discuss questions such as whether the enforcement of regulations was sufficient. “As the Government is about to finalise its work with the [mica] working group, it would not be appropriate for John G McLaughlin, chief executive, to conduct an interview at this time,” the council said.

New State body

These days a new State body, the National Building Control and Market Surveillance Office, has overarching responsibility for the sector. Hundreds of quarry operators were told in a letter earlier this year that its surveillance programme would focus on aggregates for concrete and mortar, bituminous mixtures and other materials.

“This campaign will include routine announced and unannounced inspections and surveys of your quarry, pits, place of manufacture and storage locations, the taking [of] samples of aggregates and blocks and other products for testing. We will also be requesting documentation,” the office said. It has powers to access any place of manufacture or storage of any construction product, any related technical documentation and any vehicle carrying such products.

Standards governing building products have also been tightened, but only after the emergence of the mica issue and the problem of expanding pyrite floors.

The National Standards Authority of Ireland (NSAI) first certified the manufacturing of concrete products in 2013 but it is [the] process it certifies, not the actual blocks. The regime now defines the requirements for aggregates used in products including blocks. Manufacturers must commission a petrographic test of the chemical composition of material in quarry and a geologist’s report. NSAI of audits of the block manufacturers’ processes also assess whether such testing is in place.

All of that is designed to provide reassurance into the future but it is no comfort to mica homeowners in Donegal and beyond.

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