Frank McDonald: Another bonus for bungalow-builders in changes to regulations

Ministers fail to address ‘bungalow blitz’

Minister for the Environment Alan Kelly wants to make it even easier for people to build houses in the countryside by loosening the current requirement to certify that what they've built actually complies with the statutory building regulations.

That’s the inescapable import of a core element of the current round of public consultation on the regulations, which have caused deep division among architects over whether the prescribed certification regime really protects consumers.

The problem for the self-build sector is that most one-off houses are not designed by architects or even engineers, but rather plucked from popular pattern books such as Bungalow Bliss, by the late Jack Fitzsimons, a one-time Fianna Fáil senator.

Kelly and Minister of State for Housing Paudie Coffey feel the need to respond to "specific concerns which have been raised in relation to the cost burden of the regulations and the level of certification required" for those building one-off houses or extensions.


They claim “outlandish charges” have been quoted by architects and engineers for certifying such projects. And while they concede these should be checked and inspected, homeowners “should not have to pay an inflated rate for excessive inspection services”.

As a result, Kelly and Coffey say they are "open to the view that broadening the pool of persons who can design, inspect and certify buildings could also help the one-off housing sector of the market".

They have even suggested that there should be a “Minister’s list” for “practically trained architects, whereby they could be facilitated to continue in their work, subject to defined criteria” – in other words, covering people who have no professional qualifications.

Building regulations

It’s important to remember the stated purpose of the amended building regulations introduced last year was to ensure there would be no repeat of the “widespread failures” during the boom years, for which Priory Hall became the metaphor.

As the consultation paper notes, “common failures” associated with “stand-alone dwellings” include inadequate provision of drainage and sewage treatment, poor insulation and energy performance and “poor understanding, application of good building practice”. Although the first of these failures was addressed – under duress by the European Court of Justice – by introducing an inspection regime for septic tanks (of which we now have about half-a-million), the reality is very few such inspections are actually carried out.

‘Light touch regulation’

As planner Diarmuid Ó Gráda has written, rural housing “still lingers in the discredited era of ‘light touch regulation’, with a catalogue of damaging outcomes such as drink-driving, septic tank pollution, costly school buses and numerous other unsustainable public services”.

However, instead of addressing these downsides of the “Bungalow Blitz”, Kelly and Coffey now want to offer the builders of one-off houses yet another bonus – in addition to the relatively cheap sites that make them a more economical proposition than building in towns.

Every one-off house built in the countryside is another nail in the coffin of towns and villages struggling for survival. What the Ministers should be doing is to make it more attractive to build in towns.

Yet Coffey himself recognises that the “hollowing out” of cities and towns is contributing to urban sprawl and costing the State more in the longer term. “Existing sites in towns and cities are fully serviced and are ideal for development and for the provision of housing,” he said.

An Taisce, in its submission on the proposed changes, notes that 40 per cent of all new planning permissions for housing schemes consisted of one-off houses, generally much larger than houses on suburban estates and built by those with “privileged access” to land.

“The entire premise of this consultation seems to be designed to placate a certain section of ‘rural’ dwellers,” it says. “If standards are in place, then they should be universally applicable to all dwellings and all citizens regardless of location or whether it is [a] self-build.”

Furthermore, An Taisce points out that more than 5,000 professional architects or engineers are registered, so “there is no shortage of competition for undertaking compliance work” – and, therefore, little or no justification for extending certification to non-professionals.

“The Department [of the Environment] is simply paying the well-flagged price of not implementing a publicly-funded and independent building control system, as in other EU countries,” it argues, echoing the view of many architects that the current regime is inadequate.

*Anyone wishing to make a submission should send it to not later than Friday.