Fire-Safety Failures Again Highlight Lack of Independent Oversight

Oppermann Associates, which was also the architect on the troubled Priory Hall development, was architect on at least one of the schools recently found to have fire-safety defects.

In a written statement entitled “Belmayne Temporary Schools”, Oppermann said that all of the schools were designed to be in compliance with the fire-safety certificate, building regulations, and Department of Education and Skills guidance documents.

“The schools in question were constructed some 9 years ago,” the statement said. “There is ongoing engagement with all relevant parties including the Department of Education, its advisors and Dublin City Council Fire Officer on this matter.”

Last Friday, the Department of Education released a series of fire-safety audits of schools built by Tyrone-based company Western Building Systems.

The five schools – St Francis of Assisi in Belmayne, Gaelscoil Na Clocha Liath in Greystones, and three Educate Together schools in Belmayne, Mullingar and Powerstown – all had defects of varying seriousness. (The Powerstown school has since been demolished.)

We had asked for the records under the Freedom of Information Act in December 2016, but the Department of Education had refused to release them, arguing among other things that this would be “contrary to the public interest”.

Earlier this month, the information commissioner had ruled in our favour that the records should be released. The Department of Education on Friday put out a press release and published the records – sparking considerable media coverage.

Luke O’Shaughnessy, spokesperson for Educate Together, said that its national office had “made seven written requests for information in relation to building inspections between October 2015 and August 2017 for these schools”. But the Department of Education hadn’t provided them.

In December 2014, Educate Together had also formally raised with then Education Minister Jan O’Sullivan TD that it needed funding for a building officer.

The organisation “had to increasingly advise and support Boards of Management on serious issues with recently delivered new buildings due to major issues of fire and building standards”, said O’Shaughnessy, by email.

According to a Department of Education press release issued at the same time as the audits, the works to fix the defects “are currently being carried out or will shortly commence”.

Different parties involved in the design and construction of the building say they aren’t to blame for those faults.

David McCavery of Serious PR, on behalf of Western Building Systems, said that the company are “not sure when the alleged defects arose, but they appear to have manifested themselves post our delivery of the project”.

The Department of Education didn’t respond to queries about how much it has cost to remedy the defects so far, and who has paid for what.

In the statement issued on Friday, it noted that it thought that Western Building Systems had carried out the most urgent and important works in summer 2016. But “it became apparent following review (…) that this was not in fact the case.”

According to McCavery of Serious PR, “Western [Building Systems] undertook the red item critical items in good faith to assist the Department in resolving the issues without any admission of liability which was accepted by the Department.”

Building Controls

In a press release issued the same day as the school fire-safety audits, the Department of Education said that it is commissioning fire-safety audits for a sample of up to 25 schools built over the last 20 years.

According to the tender notice, the school buildings that will be looked at will be primarily those built before new building regulations came in in 2014.

That means that they will be schools built between under the old regime of “self-certification”, which ran from 1990 to 2014.

During that period, an architect or engineer would give an opinion that said, in their view, the new building substantially matched the drawings submitted when the development was given planning permission.

The professional wasn’t required to have been involved in the development throughout the construction process, which meant she or he could easily miss defects inside the walls.

Also, the professional giving their opinion on compliance was an employee of the developer, which could make it awkward to say that the building was defective.

(Oppermann Associates didn’t respond to queries as to whether one of its architects okayed the school buildings, how it thinks the faults arose, or whether it thinks the schools should have been evacuated pending repairs.)

Some have said they are concerned that the new regime isn’t much better. While there is now an “assigned certifier” who has to sign off on the building and is therefore liable, they can still be an employee of the developer, said architect Mel Reynolds, back in 2015.

The Department of Education didn’t say for sure whether or not any buildings built under the new regulatory regime will be included in its audit. “A small number of post-2014 buildings may also be included as a benchmark,” it said, in the tender notice.

Changing Contracts

There may be other reasons too why defects aren’t being picked up, says Orla Hegarty, assistant professor of architecture at UCD.

“Aside from regulations, one of the reasons why building defects are more likely to be missed is because of changes in building contracts,” she said.

“Traditional contracts were set up so that the architect was working for the client and controlled specifications and the release of monthly payments to the builder,” said Hegarty.

That’s changed a bit though. “It has become more common for government departments to use design-build (‘turn key’) contracts where the builder controls the process, the client has less control, and the architect is engaged directly by the builder in a limited role,” she said.

“Construction problems are far less likely to be picked up in these ‘hands-off’ contractual arrangements,” she said.

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