Margaret Thatcher introduced neoliberal economics to Britain and reduced state intervention and regulations, especially with regard to finance. Many of the changes removed safeguards which may have prevented the recent banking crisis. However the British building control system reminded intact. In Britain the local Authority will visit all construction sites and check that building regulations are being complied with and review design calculations.
However in this country we have the neoliberal model of self-regulation. Like the banks, the residents of Dublin’s Priory Hall have unfortunately discovered the downsides of self regulation. These apartments were evacuated by order of the High Court when serious defective work was discovered. Substantial remedial works are required before the residents can return. To date the original developer has not completed this work. Dublin City Council has been tasked with providing the residents with alternative temporary accommodation. Until all the works are carried out to the satisfaction of inspectors, the residents are homeless and their properties of questionable value. This is a dreadful and extremely stressful situation for the residents.
The instance above calls into question the whole self certification process used in Ireland. The standard of engineering design in Ireland to date generally seems to be first class, but this should not blind us to the advantages of more robust checking procedures. As a structural engineer working in Ireland I have only had my work checked three times by an outside engineer. Two of these times, clients generously paid to have a checking engineer employed to satisfy an adjoining owner whose property we were building beside. The third time a site I was working on was visited by a building control officer from Dublin City Council to check that the structural design was satisfactory. Under the Irish self certification process there is no requirement in Ireland to have calculations externally checked. As fees come under pressure in these recessionary times there is a risk that suffering design companies could be tempted to compete by reducing design time on projects. This means then that an engineer who takes time to do full, correct and thorough designs is at a disadvantage to a competitor who takes less effort. If this happened it would be hard for the client or design teams to know as generally they will only see the engineering drawings and not the substantial calculations upon which these drawings are based. But I believe the full benefit of a more robust building control will be in relation to domestic extensions where it is possible to have neither an engineer nor architect involved with potentially disastrous consequences.
To avoid a dangerous race to the bottom, many countries have some form of building control to which design drawings and calculations are submitted prior to work commencing on site. When I worked as a structural engineer in Australia, I was interested to note that when we were finished designing various projects, we had to send the structural calculations and drawings to a checking engineer, who was in private practice. This checking engineer reviewed the documents and issued comments for our inclusion. Only when they were satisfied would our design be certified. For the client and general public it was an important safeguard to ensure that buildings were designed properly and minimum standards maintained. But it had an added benefit as the client or design team couldn’t introduce late changes and as a result I felt it helped to make the projects run smoother. In one particular case we were adding two additional floors to an existing 50 story building in central Melbourne. This was to provide additional M&E space and allow lift access to the roof. The checking engineer signed off on the design, I enjoyed having his input and learned from considering someone else’s fresh perspective.
In my opinion a mandatory system of checking should to be reintroduced into Ireland, but for both design and site work. There is no better time as it would create employment opportunities and protect the general public.
It will add some additional costs but it is surely worthwhile. But that is only half the story, the design half. During the construction stage, there needs to be a constant engineering presence on large sites to ensure that buildings are being constructed to the design teams’ specifications. At present this usually only happens on large public projects, where the Clark of Works or Resident Engineer fulfils this role, in my experience it rarely happens on private projects, and especially not on private residential projects.
Where the size of the project cannot justify a full time engineering presence then these should be subjected to mandatory visits by building control as in the UK. At present I understand many local authorises only inspect their own public housing projects. A few years ago I experienced the restricted level of our own building control when I was walking past a building site in a small town and noticed that a major support for a steel roof was sitting directly onto a precast concrete lintel. Knowing that this wasn’t good practice and not seeing any signage for an architect or engineer I rang the County Council in question to let them know. However after waiting for an age while the receptionist tried to locate someone I was informed that the council in question only inspected public housing and were not interested in private developments.
The Priory hall debacle shows that the local authorities are dragged into these situations when things go wrong, so perhaps policing by them at design and construction stage will prevent later exposure. I will leave the final words on this topic to Thomas L. Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum who wrote the following in their recent book, ‘That used to be us – what went wrong with America’:
“Markets are not just wild gardens that can be left untended. They need to be shaped by regulations that promote risk-taking but prevent recklessness on a scale that can harm everyone.”
I am sure the residents of Priory Hall would agree.