Irish Times

Quality of Irish Construction – Unacceptable ?

2009-02-12:   So … Anglo-Irish Bank has been caught – finally – playing with numbers and cooking the books.  And … because of inadequate (i.e. a complete lack of effective) control by the National Financial Regulator, this was regarded as a routine, ‘smart’ transaction by privileged individuals.  “What is the problem ?” … they ask … “no laws were being broken”.

 

Holding firmly onto those thoughts, let us briefly turn our attention to the Construction Sector … and the Energy Performance of Buildings …

 

A new Home Energy Savings (HES) Scheme was recently announced by Mr. Eamon Ryan T.D., Minister of Communications, Energy & Natural Resources … €100 million Insulation Scheme to Benefit 50,000 Homes – Programme Will Create 4,000 Jobs … according to an article in The Irish Times, on Monday 9th February 2009, by Mr. Harry McGee.

 

Reading the Department of Energy’s own Press Release for the Scheme Launch, dated 2009-02-08 … it is evident that public relations consultants, marketing gurus, senior academics (who should know better) and civil servants were involved in producing ‘paper’ numbers to justify and support the miserable grants being offered in the HES Scheme.  Numbers were even presented for ‘Typical Net BER Improvement’ ?!?

 

When the Scheme is eventually up and running, Thermal Insulation Contractors will be required to comply with a voluntary Energy Ireland (SEI) ‘Contractors Code of Practice & Standards and Specifications Guidelines’ (version 1, 2009-02-03) … and SEI may or may not carry out control inspections in order to monitor the quality of their work.  Does all this sound familiar ?

 

 

But … are these paper energy numbers ‘real’ ?   If he thinks so, Mr. Eamon Ryan is living in Alice’s Wonderland !

 

This is a photograph, taken back in 2000, of expanded polystyrene insulation which was badly installed in an external cavity wall … very badly installed !   When the Irish Construction Industry would later enter extreme ‘over-heat’ mode, the quality of typical construction would deteriorate sharply.

 

Colour Photograph of an External Cavity Wall, showing 'Floating' Thermal Insulation (and, in the background, an Inclined Steel Wall Tie which will later facilitate water ingress). Click to enlarge. Photograph taken by CJ Walsh. 2000-01-19.

Colour Photograph of an External Cavity Wall, showing ‘Floating’ Thermal Insulation (and, in the background, an Inclined Steel Wall Tie which will later facilitate water ingress). Click to enlarge. Photograph taken by CJ Walsh. 2000-01-19.

Who can know what is happening inside that cavity when it is all finished and covered up from view ?   Nobody.  Unless, that is, you manage to take an Infra-Red Thermal Image during the next winter heating season – which is far too late to remedy the problem.

 

This is an example of an Infra-Red Thermal Image, taken back in 1998 …

 

Colour Image, with explanatory Text and Horizontal Temperature Bar below, showing the 'Real' Energy Performance of a Building. Click to enlarge. Project Architect: CJ Walsh. Image taken by sub-contractor in 1998.

Colour Image, with explanatory Text and Horizontal Temperature Bar below, showing the ‘Real’ Energy Performance of a Building. Click to enlarge. Project Architect: CJ Walsh. Image taken by sub-contractor in 1998.

 

 

Explaining the Current Context in Ireland …

 

It was 10 Years after the Dublin Stardust Fire Tragedy (February 1981) … before the first legal, National Building Regulations were introduced (December 1991); they became operational during the following summer of 1992.  Around the same time, Building Control Authorities were being established in every Local Authority.

 

Prior to this, legal Building Bye-Laws were operated in just a small number of our major urban centres.

 

Dublin Corporation’s Bye-Laws with respect to the Construction of Buildings, adopted by Dublin City Council on 27th June 1949, were an interesting mix of functional, performance and prescriptive requirements.  An Application, containing detailed construction information, for Building Bye-Law Approval had to be made for every construction project … and I mean ‘every’ project … prior to any construction commencing.  And, ‘every’ project was inspected at the foundation and drainage stages of construction … no exceptions.  The more complex projects were inspected as they progressed further, with special attention being paid, for example, to fire safety related construction.  I know, first-hand, that the surveyors and inspectors in Dublin Corporation’s (as it was then called) Building Control Section had built up a considerable wealth of knowledge and understanding about construction conditions and practices right around the city and suburbs.

 

Anyway … after the introduction of the National Building Regulations, an unwritten national policy was put into action … having as an aim the winding down, and general ‘castration’, of the large, well-established Building Control Sections in Dublin City and County, and Cork.  Meanwhile … in the rush to establish the new Building Control Authorities throughout the rest of the country, it was common to hear of Road Engineers being transferred into the new Control Authorities … usually having little or no experience in dealing with the construction of buildings.

 

Site Inspections under our current system of National Building Regulations are random.  Inspection Statistics produced by the Department of the Environment, Heritage & Local Government (DEHLG) are not reliable.  Building Control Authorities are, purposefully, not sufficiently resourced to be ‘effective’.

 

Commencement Notices, under the National Building Control Regulations, do not have to be accompanied by detailed construction information when being submitted to a Building Control Authority.

 

Fire Safety Certificates, under the National Building Control Regulations, do not involve any Site Inspections – at any stage – by Fire Authorities.

 

 

 

Some Conclusions …

 

The above is a rather long, but simplified, explanation as to why a large number of privileged property developers and shoddy building contractors have been allowed to flourish on Irish Construction Sites without ever understanding the concept of ‘effective’ technical control.  When they do eventually meet this concept, head-on, the level of their resentment can be without limit.

 

Before the recent property crash, did you ever try to present a builder with a Snag List on a new house ?

 

This will also put SEI’s 70% rate of non-compliance into an understandable context.  See my earlier Post, dated 2008-12-12.

 

With regard to BER Certificates … BER Assessors without any sort of architectural background are not competent to assess the construction of existing buildings … and those BER Assessors with an architectural background cannot possibly evaluate, with reliability, the construction of existing buildings without the use, for example, of Infra-Red Thermography and Air Seepage Testing.

 

BER Assessment of Historical Buildings is unsuitable, and not appropriate.

 

An Energy Survey of a Building is an entirely different concept to a BER Assessment.  See our Technical Guidance Note No.95/101(a).

 

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Dublin Stardust Fire Tragedy – The End ?

2009-02-05:  ‘In the early hours of the 14th February 1981, a catastrophic fire swept through the Stardust Ballroom in Artane, Dublin, killing forty eight people and causing serious injury to one hundred and twenty eight others.  The overwhelming majority of the victims were in the age group of eighteen to twenty five and came from the neighbouring areas of Artane, Kilmore and Greater Coolock.  The scale and horror of the tragedy was such that it was, and remains, the greatest disaster to have occurred in the history of the State.’

 

Paragraph 1.2, Report of the Independent Examination of the Stardust Victims Committee’s Case for a Reopened Inquiry into the Stardust Fire Disaster.

 

In the middle of January 2009, relatives of Stardust Fire Victims were forced to hold a lengthy sit-in protest at Government Buildings, in Dublin … in order to gain access to this recent Report by Mr. Paul Coffey, Senior Counsel.  See the Photograph of four forlorn relatives, by Mr. Dara Mac Dónaill, on the Front Page of The Irish Times (2009-01-15).

 

 

In Paragraph 5.15(1) of the Report (no reference number, no publication date) … Mr. Coffey recommended:

 

         that the Government should consider whether it can … place on the public record an acknowledgement of the (Stardust) Tribunal’s findings that there is no evidence that the fire was started deliberately and that its cause is unknown ;

 

Paragraph 5.15(2) continued:

 

         in the event that this cannot be done, there should be a further inquiry … ;

 

 

On Tuesday evening, 3rd February 2009, in the Dáil (Irish Parliament) … the Irish Government moved, with haste, to formally correct the public record in accordance with Mr. Coffey’s recommendation in Paragraph 5.15(1).  See the Dáil Report on the Stardust Tragedy, by Ms. Marie O’Halloran, in The Irish Times (2009-02-04).

 

Should this be the end of the matter ?   No.

 

Have the events surrounding this tragedy been well managed ?   Yes.

 

 

 

In Separate Letters, dated 4th April 2006, sent by registered post to the Editors of The Irish Times (Dublin), The Irish Independent (Dublin) and The Irish Examiner (Cork), I wrote the following …

 

Re:  Stardust Fire Re-Examination Now Due !

 

As a young architect in private practice, I saw the Dublin Fire ‘Establishment’ disappear from public view, without trace, after the 1981 Stardust Fire;  it was almost impossible, for at least a year after, to have a meeting with a Fire Prevention Officer.

 

Would it not be reasonable to expect that, in 25 years, our understanding of fire behaviour in buildings, and of the practices and procedures associated with serious fire incidents, has improved ?

 

On 26th October 2005, the NIST Final Report on the 9-11 WTC 1 & 2 Tower Collapses was presented to Congress in the United States.  Chapter 9 of that Report contains 30 important Recommendations which must radically alter professional fire engineering practice in the case of all building types, of all sizes … even in Dublin !

 

The time is now due for an Independent and Impartial Technical Re-Examination of the Stardust Fire Incident, and any relevant events which occurred during a period of time beginning 6 Months before 14th February 1981 and terminating approximately 18 Months after that day.

 

Such a Re-Examination must exclude any involvement by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government (DEHLG).

 

Signed:  C. J. Walsh, Chief Technical Officer, FireOx International.

 

 

 

A Similar Management Exercise is taking place in relation to the series of Fatal Fire Incidents at the Oldcourt Local Authority Housing Estate in Bray, County Wicklow.

 

 

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Ireland’s Recycled Waste Statistics – Rubbish ?

2009-01-30:  On Wednesday last, 28th January 2009, Ireland’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) launched the ‘National Waste Report 2007’.  As usual, a Press Release accompanied the launch … and the contents of this Release are still beginning to appear in our national media.

 

You may also have caught some interesting waste-related newspaper articles just after Christmas.  It was those which really started my mental wheels turning.  Congratulations to Ms. Sylvia Thompson in The Irish Times (2008-12-30) !

 

 

 

Between 2001 and 2007, the total amount of waste (in tonnes) produced by this country – all of us together – under each of the ‘selected’ four categories shown in Appendix A – Indicators on Page 33 of the recent EPA Report, i.e. municipal, household, commercial and packaging … has increased dramatically.  Not only are we dirty, messy creatures on this beautiful island, but it is also clear that a much heavier, and more effective, regulatory hand is required to get to grips with this increasing problem.  We suffer from too many national marketing campaigns and too many national voluntary schemes … which “don’t amount to a hill of beans”, as John Wayne grunted many years ago.

 

But, just how ‘useful’ are the numbers we were presented with on 28th January ?

 

–  It took 13 Months to produce the National Waste Report for 2007.  Having had a brief conversation with a key person in the EPA (who shall remain nameless), I know that there are all sorts of reasons why this continues to happen year after year.  But, the time lag is ridiculous, and unacceptable.  To be ‘useful’, we need Reliable Waste Data and Statistics far, far sooner.  For example, if this Report had been ready for mid-September 2008 … National/Local Waste Policies and Budgets could have been adjusted in time for the start of 2009.  Does that make sense ?

 

–  In 2007, we did not recycle 36.5% of household and commercial waste.  We recovered this percentage of waste.  If, however, you were then to apply the following criterion … how much of this waste was actually processed for recycling within the island of Ireland and in a location no farther than 75 Km from the point of recovery … how quickly do you think the figure of 36.5% would nosedive into the ground ???  To be ‘useful’, we need a more developed Waste Indicator Set which will reveal the complete picture on national performance.

 

–  With Tables 5 & 6, on Page 7, firmly in the back of your minds … how ‘sustainable’ is it to be exporting our waste to countries as distant as China, India and the USA ?  This forces me to ask a strongly-linked question … does anybody within the EPA, or at the higher levels of any of our National Institutions, really understand the word ‘sustainable’ ?  Looking at the Environmental Aspects of Sustainable Human & Social Development, alone, is a pointless exercise.  In the long-term, it is actually counterproductive.  To be ‘useful’, we need Waste-related Environmental Indicators which are properly integrated into a Multi-Dimensional Matrix which also contains Waste-related Social, Economic, Institutional, Political and Legal Indicators.

 

 

Put very simply … our Aim should be to use as close to ‘real time’ Performance Indicators as practicable, with Benchmarking at Year 1990 … to target ‘real’ improvements in Ireland’s Sustainability, verify Target Attainment, and to continually re-adjust those targets at appropriate intervals thereafter.

 

 

 

Have a nice weekend !

 

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END

 

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