Is Ireland any closer to avoiding its own Grenfell Tower disaster?

The Building Control (Amendment) Regulations represent a vast improvement in consumer protection but, in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower tragedy, John Brennan asks: how do we address the issue of existing substandard buildings in Ireland?

The Grenfell Tower fire occurred on 14 June 2017 at the 24-storey Grenfell Tower block of public housing flats in North Kensington, in west London. It caused an estimated 80 deaths and over 70 injuries.

The tragedy reminds us all, of the disastrous impact of fire spread in older buildings, especially where upgrade works may have taken place without consideration for how they affect existing fire performance standards. Time and time again since the tragedy, ORS has been asked, “Could this happen in Ireland?” Unfortunately, the answer is yes and although the answer is simple, the fixes are not quick.

Our industry is all too aware that a portion of buildings constructed in Ireland during the Celtic Tiger years do not meet the relevant Building Regulations, with high profile examples being Priory Hall and Longboat Quay in Dublin. Simply put, these issues have resulted from a regulatory system that was based on self-certification by owners, designers and builders.

The Fire Services Act came into force in Ireland in 1981, following the Stardust nightclub tragedy in which 48 people lost their lives. The Act states that while a “duty of care” in respect to fire safety in buildings rests with the owner/occupier, the fire authorities have various powers of inspection and enforcement for fire prevention and safety in existing buildings.

The Building Control Regulations were first implemented in 1991 and it was then that we saw a new system of self-compliance by owners, designers and builders. This was coupled with limited independent checks by under-staffed local authorities. This process also saw the implementation of fire-safety certificates for the first time and subsequent certificates of compliance, issued by suitably qualified professionals who often only relied on visual inspections.

In March 2014, the Building Control (Amendment) Regulations introduced a new inspection and certification regime. The new legislation requires mandatory design certification, lodgement of plans, builder’s supervision and certification and mandatory inspection by an appointed assigned certifier, with reliance on ancillary certification by key parties involved in the building process.

While the new regime is not without its critics, it certainly represents a vast improvement in consumer protection. With this in mind, the question still remains: how do we address the issue of existing substandard buildings in Ireland, particularly those constructed in the Celtic Tiger years?

Crisis over inadequate construction standards

For obvious reasons, the Government’s attention is focused on the housing shortage. But there is also a mounting crisis over inadequate construction standards. It is widely accepted by all involved that Ireland has a major issue with substandard building and that high-profile cases such as those mentioned above are the tip of the iceberg. But what is most surprising is the length of time it takes to address these issues.

In April 2015, six terraced timber framed houses in Millfield Manor, Newbridge, Co Kildare were destroyed by fire in under 30 minutes. If constructed correctly, this fire should have taken at least 60 minutes to spread from one dwelling to the next, and over three hours to consume the entire terrace, assuming no intervention by the fire services.

A subsequent fire consultant’s report concluded that numerous deficiencies existed including inadequate fire stopping between units. In this particular case, it was found that timber-frame partitions did not extend to the underside of the roof. ORS has seen upwards of 10 cases of similar construction issues in managed apartment blocks over the last 12 months when carrying out inspections for clients.

Given the similarities in construction methods between the UK and Ireland, it is vital that we learn lessons from the Grenfell tragedy and act on those lessons learned. In July, the new Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Eoghan Murphy told local authorities to ensure early warning systems for fires are in place at all multi-storey social housing units across the State. He said that while there was “no known immediate cause for concern”, he asked local authorities to ensure that fire alarms and means of escape were fully functional.

He instructed the Residential Tenancies Board to notify all landlords of their responsibility to ensure their properties are fully compliant with the relevant fire safety standards. We know that the management board of the National Directorate for Fire and Emergency Management has been asked to meet and assess the capability of the authorities to respond to emergencies like the Grenfell Tower fire.

But what is being done to assess existing building stock – and, more specifically, those that have undergone upgrade works that may have been deemed to constitute a material alteration to the building?

In the case of Grenfell, the main issue is that the fire spread much faster and more intensely than was expected. It would appear that the main issue was flammable cladding constituting aluminum panels with foam insulation installed in a recent effort to improve the building’s energy efficiency and appearance. It is claimed that additional insulation underneath the cladding may have released hydrogen cyanide, which as it burned may have overcome residents as they tried to escape.

Add to this that the building had no automatic sprinkler system and had only one single stairway, the same one being used by fire fighters as they tried to ascend the building to fight the blaze.

Passive fire protection

In Ireland and indeed the UK, we predominantly take an approach called ‘passive’ fire protection, which means we rely on the ability of the structure of a building to contain the fire. This means that we stop fire spread between areas by using non-combustible materials or products to separate them. Obviously, this will only work if the fire is initially contained.

Because the Grenfell building was designed to prevent fire spread, the adopted fire safety plan did not call for immediate evacuation. This is the crux of the issue at hand. When the new external cladding was installed, did anybody assess that these works constituted a material alteration of the building and essentially had a major impact on the original design and the agreed fire safety plan? It appears not, but we will only know the answer to these questions in time.

In Ireland, like in most countries, the Building Regulations that apply to a new building are those in force at the time of construction. As time goes by and we learn more, these regulations change and they can indeed be applicable if a material alteration takes place or if the buildings use changes. The problem is that the guidance is often open to interpretation with a net result that many buildings are not built to the standard they should be, or upgrade works are not assessed properly.

There are many large buildings in Ireland today, built 25 years ago, which will not comply with any new standards introduced since. This is not the case worldwide however, with building owners in the United States legally obliged to install sprinkler systems in all existing high-rise buildings – a direct result of a devastating fire in the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas in 1980, which saw 85 people lose their lives mostly through smoke inhalation. Combustible exterior cladding systems are also prohibited by most US fire codes.

In Ireland, the Building Regulations apply to (amongst others) “material alterations” to buildings with this defined as an alteration (other than repair or renewal) where the work, or any part of the work, carried out by itself would be subject to a requirement of Part A (Structure) or B (Fire Safety) of the Building Regulations.

Taking Grenfell as an example, the addition of cladding and/or insulation to the exterior, would be subject in Ireland to requirements of Part B3(3) which states “a building shall be so designed and constructed that the unseen spread of fire and smoke within concealed spaces in its structure or fabric is inhibited where necessary” and of Part B4 which states that “the external walls and roof of a building shall be designed and constructed that they afford resistance to the spread of fire to and from neighbouring buildings”.

It is also the ‘recommendation’ of paragraph 4.1.5 of the current TGB-B (Technical Guidance Document B Fire Safety 2006 (which is now long overdue revision)) that “In a building more than 18m high, insulation material used in drained and/or ventilated cavities in the external wall construction should be of limited combustibility”.

While the Building Regulations apply to material alterations to all buildings, such alterations may or may not trigger the requirement for a revised Fire Safety Certificate. It is worth noting however that a material alteration to an apartment building will always trigger a standard Fire Safety Certificate and the Building Control (Amendment) Regulations (BCAR) 2014 will apply.

Our experience with BCAR over the last three years would suggest that if works such as those carried out to Grenfell Tower were proposed in Ireland, they would trigger the need for a fire safety certificate which is positive.

Remediating building defects

At the time of writing, it has been identified that there are over 600 buildings in the United Kingdom with cladding similar to that used on the Grenfell Tower, with UK Government opposition calling for checks on almost 4,000 more buildings. There is no doubt that Ireland faces similar issues at present and numerous bodies have called for a study into the extent of the building defect issues in this country already – not just those that are fire-safety related.

The Pyrite Remediation Scheme (PRS) was set up in 2013 and its aim is to procure the remediation of certain dwellings with damage caused by pyritic heave of hardcore under floor slabs. While properties need to be located in a certain area and must have been built between 1997 and 2013, the PRS is an excellent template that could be easily adapted for the remediation of building defects. The setting up of such a scheme would also require an emergency fund to tackle the issues.

In June 2017, the Green Party brought a motion on Building Standards to Dáil Éireann that effectively calls for the establishment of an Irish Building Authority to would administer building control on a national basis and supervise the independent implementation of building control supervision by local authorities. It also calls for the preparation and publishing of options for the financing of a scheme to carry out remedial works nationwide on defective housing units.

In the United Kingdom, building control inspections are carried out by the local authorities and it is estimated that to implement a similar system here with approximately 150 new inspectors would cost approximately €15 million. To put that in perspective, the cost to the state for remediating the overall pyrite issue is close to €700 million.

As consultants, we would agree with the idea of an independent regulator because it could be easily set up in such a way as to complement the system of reinforced self-certification and the assigned certifier implemented in 2014 under the Building Control (Amendment) Regulations.

The issue with the motion however, is that it seems to be focused on housing units and does not take an overall holistic view of the building defects issue across the country. It lists potential solutions without any idea of the extent of the issues faced. The first step here is to establish the extent of the problem so that we can then devise workable solutions before implementing them through a national scheme, ensuring people are safe in their homes.

As professional engineering consultants, working in the industry for over 25 years, we sincerely hope that the Government finally ‘grasps the nettle’ and proactively establish a national regularity body to oversee the auditing of existing buildings, with the power to force all stakeholders to carry out the necessary remedial works. This is the first step to ensuring we do not see a tragedy like Grenfell in Ireland.

The Author of this article is John Brennan who is managing director of ORS. He is a chartered engineer and certified energy manager with over 15 years’ experience and specialist expertise in the built environment. ORS is a full-service firm of engineers and construction specialists. It offers design, planning and management advice that is supported by expert guidance in energy efficiency. Its people are highly skilled designers, consulting engineers, planners, scientists and surveyors. With offices in the east and west of Ireland, ORS can quickly respond to on-site requirements and be available for project meetings wherever the location. The firm also has an office in London to serve international project funding agencies. ORS is ISO 9001 certified.

John Brennan for Civil&Construction Ireland

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