O’Cofaigh: Competitiveness issues & BC(A)R SI.9

by Bregs Blog admin team


Implications for competitiveness in the Irish Construction Sector: Building Control (Amendment) Regulations 2014, S.I. 9 and 105 of 2014

1. Background to the Building Control (Amendment) Regulations 2013-2014

The building regulations were introduced in 1991 in response to the “Stardust disaster”, in which many people lost their lives, a tragedy never to be repeated. They were welcomed by the construction sector and did raise building standards. But the construction regulation in Ireland is always reactive; and already in 1992 and repeatedly in the years afterwards, architects – among others – called for better enforcement of the regulations. Despite promises from Ministers and the Department of the Environment, the resources for a system of comprehensive inspection and enforcement were never put in place.

It took the pyrites and “Priory Hall” disasters to introduce the next round of changes. An Irish solution to an Irish problem:- “When there’s a problem with enforcing a law: change the law.”

The Building Control (Amendment) Regulations 2013, as subsequently amended and re-introduced as S.I. 9 of 2014, seek to respond to pyrites and “Priory Hall”. The Minister’s intention was and remains lauable, even if non-enforcement was the problem; and even if the new system is a complete disaster and will not make matters better for house buyers.

2. What’s wrong with the Building Control (Amendment) Regulations?

S.I.9 of 2014 (as amended by S.I. 105 of 2014):-

  • Impacts on every significant building and interior fit-out project (not just on the speculative residential sector where the problems were caused);
  • Confers a de facto monopoly on building design and inspection of construction on registered architects (also “registered surveyors”, but of whom there are only about 150 in Ireland compared with 2500 architects, and “chartered engineers”, most of whom work entirely outside the construction sector);
  • In return requires those architects to certify (not “give as their opinion”) that everything designed and built complies in every detail with the building regulations, and places the architect between the house buyer and the builder;
  • Excludes experienced competent architectural technologists from earning a livelihood in this field any longer;
  • By requiring a competent builder to be appointed, closes down the centuries old tradition of “self-build” in rural areas – a tradition still flourishing in well-regulated countries such as the United Kingdom and Sweden;
  • Does nothing for a new house buyer except set up a paper trail for them to follow in the event of building failure;
  • Distances the local authority building control inspectors from the practicalities of the entire process;
  • Exposes valuable intellectual property to internet theft (Foreign Direct Investment projects);
  • Introduces two key gateways to every project: a Commencement Certificate and a Completion Certificate, to be signed by the architect but which the local authority can reject as invalid, putting the opening of new projects at significant risk.

3. The implications for competitiveness of these regulations

Recent studies have ranked Ireland as having the 115th most competitive construction sector out of 189 countries in which to do business. These new regulations will have a further and considerable adverse impact on competitiveness in construction.

They introduce new gateways (“Certificate of Compliance – Design” and “Certificate on Completion”) along the construction process. These certificates require new, extensive documentation submissions to building control authorities. Those authorities must validate those submissions before the building or works may be opened or occupied and have the right to reject them as invalid with consequent delay and cost implications. Local authorities have up to five weeks to validate the submissions. These are provisions for “rapid validation” but this process must be started several weeks in advance of project completion.

Interior fit-out projects in shopping complexes, schools, or other places of assembly, are commonly undertaken with tight deadlines to meet opening dates in advance of shopping seasons, school term starts, or suchlike. The provision to prohibit occupation or use of a premises in advance of local authority validation is likely in practice to add complexity, cost, and delay.

By conferring de facto monopoly on certification of design and construction, the regulations remove the established rights of architectural technologists to manage construction projects. Last April, the Minister for the Environment said that the system was “likely to add to the overall cost of construction projects”:- the regulations will increase cost by requiring the employment of a registered professional.

They introduce additional layers of information into an already complex system and miss the opportunity of aligning with other construction permits, including the closely-linked fire safety certificate and disability access certificate, both of which are required under building control regulations.

The regulations miss the chance, flagged in the Programme for Government, to implement a national building inspectorate. The efficiencies of such a system – which would be self-funded – would reduce the overall compliance cost.

That cost will increase through the cost of the sourcing, collating, and lodging the extra certification required from all participants in the design and the construction process; the time delays on sites caused by the new regulatory gateways; and the recurring cost of obtaining and providing product certification at interim payment stages on the site.

4. So what should be done with S.I. 9?

S.I. 9 should be scrapped. It impacts unnecessarily on all sectors of construction, as it imposes unnecessary cost and complexity of paperwork, and achieves nothing useful except monopoly conferral on a small number of construction sector actors in return for unacceptable levels of liability.

A proper system of independent third-party inspection, by experienced architects and engineers paid for by the developer but licensed by and answerable to the local authority, would achieve better results; would level the field for the self-builders; would allow experienced technologists to participate; would guarantee local authority-backed inspection of 100% of building sites; would solve the intellectual property issues; and could be done for €2m per year.

Such a system can be seen in operation in both Northern Ireland and in England. Such a system can and does work, can deliver better building, and can cost the State nothing. The small cost to set-up and administer a register of Independent certifiers could be paid for by the Developer through increased Commencement Notice fees payable to the local authorities.

The above opinion piece was submitted by previous president of the representative body for architects (RIAI) Eoin O’Cofaigh on 25th April 2014.