Building control in Ireland relies on “self-certification” by architects, engineers, surveyors or builders that new buildings comply with statutory requirements – a light-touch regulatory regime introduced in 1990 by then minister for the environment Pádraig Flynn.
“Primary responsibility for compliance with the requirements of the building regulations rests with the designers, builders and owners of buildings,” the Department of the Environment says.
“The role of the local . . . authority is to monitor and enforce the building control system.”
The Building Regulations 1997-2009 are elaborate and exhaustive legal requirements for design and construction that provide for – at least in theory – “the health, safety and welfare of people, conservation of fuel and energy, and access for people with disabilities.”
Part B of the regulations specify that there must be adequate means of escape in the event of fire, that buildings are constructed in such a way as to inhibit the spread of fire and retain their structural stability for a “reasonable period”, and that adequate access is provided for the fire service.
An explanatory leaflet produced by the department in 2010 notes that “there are heavy penalties, including fines and imprisonment, for breaches of the regulations” and warns that homeowners “may have difficulties” in selling apartments if the requirements have not been met.
But whereas local authorities are “empowered to carry out inspections and undertake, where necessary, enforcement action in order to ensure compliance”, the reality is that few have the resources to do so on a continual basis; only when problems arise is action taken.
During the boom, so many apartment buildings were under construction at any given time that it would have been impossible for building control or fire officers to inspect them all. Thus, in most cases, they relied entirely on certificates of compliance supplied by the builders.
Solicitor Sonia McEntee said she had come across several flawed schemes which were “signed off using the same short-cut system whereby the planners rely on information from the architects, who in turn rely on information from the builder, who is trying to keep costs as low as possible.” All a builder needed to do at the outset was to serve a “commencement notice” – a notification to the local authority that work was about to start on a project covered by the building regulations within 28 days; this was subsequently shortened to just seven days by amending legislation.
The Department of the Environment says it is “continuously reviewing and updating” the building regulations and technical guidance documents. But it took two years for a “commencement order” to be signed in 2009 to bring sections of the 2007 Building Control Act into effect.
One of its provisions was that a building “shall not be opened, operated or occupied . . . unless a fire safety certificate or disability access certificate (or, as the case may require, a revised certificate of either kind) or a regularisation certificate . . . has been granted”.
According to the department’s explanatory leaflet, a fire safety certificate granted by a local authority “certifies that the building or works, if constructed in accordance with the plans, documents and information submitted to the authority, would comply with the requirements of Part B”.
Alternatively, the builder could apply for a “regularisation certificate”, which covers cases where a building has been “commenced or completed without a fire safety certificate, where such a certificate is required and certifies that the building work is in compliance with Part B”.
The Society of Chartered Surveyors has been working on proposals to “improve the regulatory environment” by having more inspections carried out, according to Krystyna Rawicz, one of its members. She said a survey of boom period properties had shown up at least one defect in every case.
(The Irish Times, 19th October 2011)