Builder claims examination of school buildings causing serious damage

Construction firm WBS says it witnessed use of ‘crocodile-type saws’ to cut plasterboard

The construction company at the centre of a controversy over potential structural defects in school buildings has accused the Department of Education of using “primitive methods” to investigate the buildings.

The department last year said that “precautionary measures” would be needed at 22 schools built by Western Building Systems (WBS), and that considerable sums of money had already been spent on temporary repairs.

Costs were again expected to escalate when more detailed structural investigations of the schools got under way in January to determine the extent of work required to ensure all schools are safe.

In a letter to the Office of the Chief State Solicitor, which was part of correspondence on the investigation into schools, WBS claimed last week that it had witnessed the use of “crocodile-type saws” to cut through plasterboard, and that the methods being used to investigate the schools were causing “serious damage”.


‘Significant damage’

The letter, which has been seen by The Irish Times, continues, "We have witnessed first-hand cutting with crocodile-type saws through plasterboard damaging the sheathing and causing significant damage to the breather cavity membrane which is impossible to repair from the internal opening, and the disturbance and knocking off of fitted wall tiles.

“We understand that the outer sheathing and breather membranes have not been repaired properly at times. The original works to this vital part of the system is now damaged, and the non-reinstatement of these materials allow internal and cavity external temperatures to change thereby leading to condensation and risk of mould growth which will have a serious detrimental effect on the life expectancy of the building envelope.

“Furthermore, new insulation is being used which is not compatible with this building type.

“It is our view that the methods being used for investigation are primitive and may be causing serious damage. Where the school walls are opened and closed without proper methods, WBS does not see how it can be responsible for such alterations to the building.”

‘Serious consequences’

Furthermore, the letter goes on to say that the decision to close any schools has “serious consequences” as “pupils’ studies are disrupted”.

The letter also states that WBS is “taking legal advice” over what it has labelled as a “publicity campaign” that has caused “very serious damage commercially”.

The firm has asked for a meeting with Minister for Education Joe McHugh.

It is understood that the department has singled out five schools to examine up until mid-February.

These include schools at Portarlington, Carrigaline ETNS, Gaelscoil Eiscir Riada, Scoil Chaitlín Maude and St Paul’s Ratoath.

More schools will then be examined in late March or early April, with the remainder of schools investigated over the summer break.

The Irish Times questioned the department on the allegations that the methods being used to investigate the structure of the schools are "primitive" and also about the complaint that the investigation methods are causing damage in the schools.

A spokesman for the department said their investigations into the schools were “detailed”.

Second phase

“On January 18th, 2018, the department commenced the second phase of structural investigations at schools designed and built by Western Building Systems, following on from the initial assessments that took place during the mid-term break late last year. These investigations are progressing as planned to date.

“The investigations are detailed and the resources used to carry them out reflect this. Resourcing also reflects the requirement to have the investigations carried out over weekends to mitigate any disruption to the schools involved.

“The department is not, otherwise, in a position to comment on matters which are or may be the subject of legal proceedings.”

‘Very disappointed’

Fianna Fáil education spokesman Thomas Byrne said he was disappointed that the examinations have not yet completed.

“I am very disappointed at the slow pace of progress of these examinations. We had initially been told that this would be finished by Christmas.”

He said the fact that the investigations were likely to extend until the summer time was “extremely disappointing”.

A spokesman for WBS declined to comment on the contents of the letter.

Jennifer Bray

Jennifer Bray

Jennifer Bray is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times