Unreal estate

What's to Stop Old Buildings From Falling Apart?

There is a stately Victorian home at 69 Palmerston Road in Dublin 6, with a “dangerous building” sign, overgrown garden and broken windows.

The door seems new enough, but a closer look at the planning permission pinned to the gate shows there hasn’t been much change in almost eight years.

The planning permission, from 2009, was for a full restoration and renovation. But the architects concerned, dePaor Architects, said they received no further instructions after it was filed, and don’t know what happened.

The owner listed on the planning permission was John Morrissey, a developer recently at the centre of lengthy court proceedings against the state, and there is no sign that renovations will continue.

There is another home from the same period, a short walk away at 20 Palmerston Park. This one has no site notices, planning permissions, or warnings.

It’s stripped, with boarded-up windows to the front, open windows to the back, and plant-life spilling from the gutters.

Residents in the older parts of Dublin city are used to the sight of derelict buildings. Remnants of the city’s history are everywhere, but protected-structures regulations and difficulty in tracing ownership are only part of a wider issue when it comes to preserving our historical buildings.

At 20 Palmerston Park.

Graham Hickey, the conservation director at the Dublin Civic Trust, says that there was an issue in the 1970s and 80s of deliberate dereliction, making sites of protected buildings available for new development.

The widely reported destruction in 1965 of the Georgian Mile for the ESB headquarters was a landmark case, which saw nearly 1, 000 protesters come out against it, supported by Dublin Corporation.

This isn’t much of a problem anymore, says Hickey. But “there’s a wider problem – that historic buildings are vulnerable to vacancy”.

It’s still easier to build something new, than to convert an old building, he says.

Even if buildings are, as far as we know, not deliberately being left to ruin, what legislation is in place to protect them from dwindling?

Who’s in Charge?

Under the 2000 Planning and Development Act, owners of protected structures are obliged to keep the buildings maintained.

Planning authorities also have an obligation to enforce the legislation, making sure the buildings don’t become endangered.

But that doesn’t stop it happening still. “There’s an endangerment to the north Georgian core of the city,” says Hickey. He sees unauthorised developments and the rise of Airbnb units as potential problems, as landlords carve up historic properties into multiple flats.

“There’s a lack of planning enforcement, not enough staff and no political buy-in for conservation in Ireland,” he says.

If water gets in, it can damage roof structures, he says. Windows get left open. Slates begin to disappear. “They’re just buttressed up, but they’re still salvageable.”

It isn’t always easy to keep protected structures in good shape, but some of those who live in them say that it’s possible.

Niamh Plunkett said she’s had several rounds of work done on the home she lives in, in Rathmines. It’s a protected structure.

“We think the basement hadn’t been used for about forty years. The floorboards were rotting, and fallen-in,” she said.

There are grants available as long as you apply at the right time of year, and make sure you have a conservation statement and loads of photos. “Basically back up your case,” she says.

The conservation website seemed to have several links to other websites, which made it hard to follow. “You’re not exactly sure what the conservation office wants you to do. Talking to them was the best way of getting information,” she said.

“There were dreadful things done before there were conservation laws and guidelines. Some of the houses around here have PVC windows, and get terrible damp because they can’t breathe,” she said.

Then there’s the other side of the coin. “We have friends living on the northside, and they’re in a house which is older than ours, but it’s not a protected structure, because it’s not a ‘fancy’ area,” she said.

Niamh’s sister, Mary, lives in the same area, and says that the challenge of the conservation depends on what you want to do. “We just wanted to get it back to being a living, working house, rather than gutting it.” In her case, there were few restrictions.

No Money

Many protected structures were probably purchased speculatively during the boom years, “but the applicants went bust – they don’t have the money”, says Donough Cahill, the executive director of the Irish Georgian Society.

Vegetation in the gutters, open or boarded-up windows and slipped roof slates are tell-tale signs of considerable damage, he says.

“If the owner is no longer in a position to maintain, they should sell. More often than not, the owner has no money, or there’s a legal issue – not ill intent.”

Councils have powers to issue enforcement orders, carry out the work themselves and seek remuneration, or even issue compulsory-purchase orders.

But “the legislation is only effective for those willing to comply,” says Cahill.

A Staffing Issue?

Nicola Matthews is the current conservation officer for Dublin City. She was also the first person to be appointed to that role in 2000.

In English cities, there are generally 1,200 buildings per officer, according to Matthews. In Dublin City, she alone is responsible for 8,500 protected structures.

The role includes statutory duties and strategic elements of conservation. Enforcement lies with a separate planning department, but Matthews is often called on for technical advice.

The number of staff available to enforce the legislation is due to retirements conflicting with public-service hiring embargos, rather than lack of will, she says.

There used to be a buildings-at-risk officer who could pursue owners, enforce planning requirements, enter sites and stop buildings being stripped.

She says that it’s not a case of dwindling staff numbers as much as the loss of a specific buildings-at-risk officer, a post unique to Dublin.

He retired in 2009, and hasn’t been replaced. “The buildings-at-risk officer was a huge loss,” says Matthews, adding that people behaved better under his watch.

“You need a buildings-at-risk officer tasked with the role of targeting historic/protected structures which are endangered by neglect or inappropriate works,” she said.

“Dangerous buildings have a ten-year rule of thumb before their fabric starts to fail significantly,” she says.

Water seeps in, pervades the bond timbers and seriously damages them. But dangerous-building declarations can’t always lead to demolitions, says Matthews, because sometimes that’s what owners want.

In 2010, an amendment was made to the Planning and Development Act, giving rollover permissions to owners of protected structures.

That meant that if the properties began to deteriorate, the money owed on their conservation would be continually rolled over, if the owner could demonstrate economic reasons for not maintaining them.

Matthews says a lot of buildings became locked into these rollover planning permissions.

During the recession, the National Asset Management Agency (NAMA) would only deal with complete property portfolios, and wouldn’t release or sell properties individually, she said.

Property developers with large portfolios, sometimes specialising in particular postcodes, would have restored a number of the properties, but lack of funds meant others within the same portfolio would fall by the wayside.

Does It Matter?

“Buildings don’t lie. They’re a manifestation of people, culture and locality. Dublin is a brick city, and it gives it a distinct character with materials that can’t be sourced today,” says Hickey of Dublin Civic Trust.

Cahill says there should be more done to make people understand why the structures need protection. “People will appreciate beauty; our architectural heritage will bring beauty to rural and urban areas. In the long term, failure to do so can blight urban areas.”

He says “we need to look at incentives. The penalties for failing to maintain are onerous, and there are conservation grants, and new tax reliefs are being rolled out this year. Historic properties need to be occupied – someone needs to care for them.”

Matthews says that people need to see the potential in undervalued areas. “People have a negative way of looking at historic buildings; they think they’re expensive to buy and maintain. There’s evidence that a Georgian House can be remodelled to a B1 rating.”

(A B1 rating refers to a Building Energy Rating (BER); A1 is the most efficient, G the least efficient.)

“Conservation sees greater diversity of housing needs, rather than carving up structural integrity. Some people want to subdivide, but this is not good for the finite resources of a historic city,” she said.

“Dublin City Council have provided a fantastic opportunity for diverse housing,” she adds. “The assets already exist, we don’t need to start over.”

Housing diversity would address the needs of a range of buyers and renters, with individual needs, and not subdivide properties into identical units.

Zuzia Whelan portrait
Zuzia Whelan

Zuzia Whelan is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer. You can reach her at zwhelan@dublininquirer.com.

 

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