Irish Daily Mail
OUR CELTIC TIGER ‘FIRETRAP’ ‘Belmayne is just the tip of a very big iceberg’
It was the poster child for the boom... but then Belmayne became a symbol of the bust. Now a fortnight after the Grenfell fire, alarming new claims have been made about one of Ireland’s most notorious housing developments
‘I found countless defects that can’t be rectified’
IT WAS billed as a glamourous new suburb, replete with celebrity endorsements and a provocative advertising campaign that led to a string of complaints. Belmayne, the largest boomtime housing development in north Dublin, hit the headlines in 2007, with a promise of ‘gorgeous living’ depicted by the glitzy image of swimsuit-clad women spraying champagne by a water feature.
The glossy unveiling of the Phase II showhouse drew celebrities and models, including Andrea Roche and broadcaster Derek Mooney, and was even honoured by the presence of hired glamour in the form of Louise and Jamie Redknapp.
But almost a decade after the launch of the €1.2billion development, the poster child for Celtic Tiger excess has become what experts claim is a deadly blueprint for thousands of firetrap homes constructed during the boom.
‘That development should be condemned,’ fire safety expert Noel Manning, a fire researcher and expert in the area of structural fire engineering, told the Mail this week. ‘I’ve been in there. I’ve stripped the walls and I’ve seen what’s lurking beneath. It’s a death trap and no one is being held accountable. It’s happening all over the country and sooner or later there’s going to be a very tragic fallout.’
Mr Manning has over 40 years experience in his field. His development of engineered design solutions to protect against fire spread within and between buildings is now part of the Diploma in Fire Safety Practice at the University of Dublin, Trinity College, where he lectured on the subject. He was retained as an advisor to homeowners in Priory Hall.
Despite the fanfare of its racy launch, sales of homes in Belmayne quickly stalled.
Less than half the apartments — which ten years ago ranged in price from just under €300,000 to almost €500,000 — were built, and a large number remained unoccupied for several years after construction, turning the development into a ghost estate. Dublin City Council later stepped in and purchased vacant properties for social housing and at one point Belmayne housed some of the evacuated Priory Hall residents.
The dream had soured. But for those who had invested in the scheme, hope remained that things would work out.
Then, in 2011, serious problems started to emerge.
‘There were sound issues, which led to the opening up of several areas in our home,’ says one owner who did not want to be named due to ongoing legal proceedings. ‘This led to the discovery of serious fire safety breaches. A report was done by Noel Manning and presented to the chief fire officer at the time.
‘He agreed that the buildings looked dangerous. A fire prevention officer was assigned to investigate in April 2011. After he filed his report, we were told that the properties were safe and that there were no issues at Belmayne. Stanley Holdings then announced the development was safe.
‘My wife and I had serious concerns on the back of Noel’s report and we vacated the property and rented elsewhere. Then in 2012 a statement was put out saying that the developer was repairing damage after a burst pipe and this alerted them to non-compliance/ fire safety issues.’
It emerged that up to 300 of Belmayne’s 960 residential units were in need of extensive repair work due to fire safety problems with the structure of the buildings, although evacuation was not necessary. An inspection by Dublin Fire Brigade’s chief fire officer revealed defects in the timberframed construction of the houses which meant the buildings could not meet regulations.
The problems involved the firestopping features of the construction. A small gap where there should be a layer of plasterboard was left in the wall in the space above some of the apartment ceilings, which would allow smoke and fire to travel laterally in the building in the event of a fire.
According to reports at the time, the problems came to light in February 2012 after a pipe burst in an unoccupied home. When parts of the ceiling were removed, the absence of the plasterboard layer was discovered. Investigations of other properties indicated the problem was widespread and the fire brigade was contacted.
Dublin City Council said remedial work, to be carried out by the estate’s developer Stanley Holdings, was due to be completed within three months. However, some affected residents, including those who spoke to the Mail this week, sought independent advice about the proposed work and refused to allow it to take place.
‘The developer was fully aware of the serious fire safety breaches within our building,’ says a homeowner. ‘They proceeded with a patch-up job and most residents agreed to have it done. There was no attempt by the builder or their consultants to open up the properties as we believe they should have done, and address the array of fire safety breaches that lay waiting.
‘Roll on four years later — well over the statutory time frame for other residents to take a case — and they have acknowledged the fire safety breaches in our property and are willing to rectify. However, this is still not satisfactory to three separate engineers’ opinions. Bottom line is that we will never live there, nor would we rent it to a family in the knowledge of how dangerous the buildings are.’
Robin Knox, a fire safety consultant and advisor to the families of the 48 victims of the Stardust fire in 1981, inspected up to a dozen properties in Belmayne. Mr Knox, who was chief building control officer in Lisburn for 10 years from 1974 to 1984 during the height of the Troubles, is damning about the building standards he saw in the Dublin estate.
‘The problem goes far deeper than what the remedial work covered,’ he says. ‘It really is chronic. There is an ongoing issue with fire safety out there. I can’t stress it enough. The remedial work has not addressed the issues. I have inspected a number of properties out there and I found countless defects that cannot be rectified.’
The common feature in the countless other developments where fire safety has become an issue is construction using a timber-frame model. Timber frames require a high degree of precision in installing prefabricated units. Precision in construction and in following design criteria was sadly missing in some quarters throughout the years of frantic building.
Timber-frame and other similar lightweight forms of construction, such as steel-frame housing, have an obvious advantage for builders. The various panels can be made in a factory, brought to the site and rapidly assembled into a weatherproof shell.
Where the technical guidance documents used to insist that walls between houses must be non-combustible, in other words, concrete, it is now possible to have party walls of timber, sheeted with plasterboard on both sides and maybe with a sheet of fibre board in the middle. In simple terms, a wooden firewall.
If the construction of the party wall is sub-standard, or there are no cavity barriers in the walls, fire can simply skip between one house and the next through this unprotected cavity. ‘When I stripped back the building I found that they had concealed what I would say is the most lethal construction ever seen in this country,’ says Noel Manning.
‘Then I did carbon monoxide tests. I put smoke into the cavities and it was coming out at the end of the street. Then after that they
didn’t do the corrective work properly. I went out and met their experts on site. They were talking about all the corrective work they had done and I got a hammer and I pulled the slabs off the walls in their presence.
‘I said, “Let me show you what you what you have done wrong during construction. You have come in and alleged that you carried out corrective works, so let’s see.” And I pulled off what they had done and I said, “Is this what you are signing off on for the second time?” They didn’t put in proper fire protection in the cavities of the walls. They didn’t put in proper fire protection on top of the walls in the attics. When a fire gets into that cavity the carbon monoxide and whatever else will travel between that cavity.
‘A few years ago in Newbridge, six houses burned to the ground in 26 minutes. There were four party walls, not one of them survived. Those walls should have separated the houses for 60 minutes each but the fire went down through the cavities and over the party walls in the roof space. Belmayne is built in exactly the same way except we are now four storeys high.’
The incident Noel is referring to happened on March 31, 2015, when a fire spread rapidly, destroying a terrace of six new-build houses in half an hour in Millfield Manor, a timber frame estate in Newbridge, Co Kildare. An investigation was launched by the local authority which found major fire safety deficiencies.
In September 2015, the then Minister for the Environment, Alan Kelly, announced a review to ‘develop a framework for general application’ in homes where concerns had been raised about fire safety. This move was in response to a number of instances where it has been discovered that buildings thrown up during the boom years were done so without due concern for fire safety.
A full 15 months after the review was completed, the Government has still not published it.
Like Noel Manning, fire engineer CJ Walsh, who visited one of the affected properties in Belmayne, believes what happened in Newbridge is a warning of the potential risks in similar builds.
‘It’s all part of the same problem, these hyper-efficient, airtight buildings that have gone up all over the place,’ he says.
‘We are looking at serious flaws in design and construction. In Newbridge the fire spread so rapidly that the fire services could not arrive in force to deal with it.’
According to Walsh, the lack of independent inspection of buildings during the construction stage and thereafter has led to a glut of properties that are effectively defective. He argues that the State should acknowledge its responsibility to people who now find themselves with hazardous properties not constructed in compliance with the building regulations.
The abolition in 1990 by Fianna Fáil of rigorous independent building control inspections carried out by local councils, and its replacement with a system of selfcertification by builders, has proved disastrous.
This system, which was reformed in 2014, now involves sign-off by an architect or qualified professional hired by the developer. Certification is issued based on an opinion that the buildings are constructed in compliance with the building regulations rather than an actual independent verification that the regulations are adhered to.
‘We will continue to have problems until independent supervision controlled by the State is reintroduced,’ says Walsh.
‘Even with the changes that were included in 2014 there has been no improvement in the situation, just self-regulation with added paperwork. Our building regulations are inadequate, they are based on the building regulations originally from England and Wales.
‘We have seen what happens when they are followed in England — we have Grenfell.
‘We don’t have any effective national system of building control.’ Mr Walsh believes an immediate upgrading and revision of building regulations is needed, alongside an independent technical inspection system for new estates by people with no connection to developers or designers. ‘We have Belmayne, Priory Hall, but these are just the tip of a very big iceberg.’
In responding to queries, a spokesperson for DCC said there are 158 units currently managed by Dublin City Council or by an approved housing body on behalf of the council in Belmayne.
‘Dublin City Council, through Dublin Fire Brigade, was notified in January 2012 by the developer, Stanley Holding Ltd, of a construction defect in some of the properties at Belmayne housing complex,’ he said.
‘The developer, acting responsibly, in consultation with their fire consultant, contacted the local authority immediately and undertook to carry out remedial works to the properties identified.’
The spokesman added: ‘Dublin Fire Brigade has no statutory function in terms of oversight or supervision, under the Fire Services Act 1981 & 2003; the responsibility for compliance rests with the owners/ occupiers/developers. Dublin Fire Brigade is aware that there are some ongoing litigation issues in relation to this development, precluding Dublin Fire Brigade from commenting any further.’
The Belmayne development was constructed by LM Developments, which was employed by Kitara Ltd, a Stanley Holdings company. LM was a privately-owned company that went into liquidation after completion of the project.
In response to queries, solicitors acting on behalf of Kitara Limited said that four units in Belmayne are currently the subject of litigation. They said that LM Developments was employed as ‘a design and build contractor who along with their appointed design team were fully responsible for the construction, certification and regulation compliance for the homes they were building on behalf of Kitara Ltd.
They added that ‘its independent team developed a remedial scheme’ to address the issues identified in 2012. The company took action on 225 of the 232 affected units between 2012 and 2016.
‘The remedial scheme was fully agreed with the Dublin City fire officer,’ the lawyers said. ‘A remediation scheme has been prepared and submitted to the legal representatives of the owners of the four remaining units subject to litigation.’
While the legal arguments rumble on, for the homeowners finding out they have purchased a home with major deficiencies ultimately leads to fears the property will become devalued. Many don’t discover the defects until several years after purchase, leaving them little or no recourse.
If a local authority or individual fails to take effective building control action against a developer within five years of the completion of construction, a statute of limitations kicks in. This lets the developer off the hook and transfers the responsibility on to the unsuspecting homeowner. There is no accountability for the developer, who has sold a substandard and unsafe home, and little recourse for the homeowner.
‘The apartments in Belmayne are absolutely and unquestionably in breach of fire safety standards,’ says Robin Knox. ‘But a lot of the owners just don’t want to know. Many of them have their life savings involved but they are living in death traps. No one was policing the construction and they’re left with the consequences.’