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Changes to Building Control in Ireland

31st January 2014

building regulations

On the 1st March there will be a massive overhaul to the way construction projects are officially documented and monitored in Ireland. Up until now, for a new house or an extension of over 40m², only planning permission was required. When you were ready to build, you sent a commencement notice into the local authority; but after that, you essentially headed off into the sunset with the council's blessing and your paths never crossed again.

Well - all that is about to change.

Building Regulations
The changes are happening because of the many disasters which were built during (and before) the boom, with little or no regard for the requirements of the building regulations. Building regulations, while sometimes seeming burdensome and/or onerous, were introduced with the health and safety of building occupants in mind and they are constantly being updated as new research/information/building methods emerge. It is a good thing that buildings should be constructed so that they will not blow over in a storm, that the occupants will enjoy good comfort levels, that the potential for the spread of fire should be minimised, that people with disabilities should be able to use the buildings on an equal par, that the indoor environment will be healthy, etc.

When Building Goes Wrong
Unfortunately in the past, certain stakeholders in the construction industry neglected to adhere to regulation requirements, either through ignorance, lack of understanding or to drive up profit margins at the expense of the building occupants. Complexes such as Priory Hall were thrown up with none of the mandatory fire safety details installed between apartments. Unsuitable material was used below floor slabs and foundations in the case of pyrite, where the ferrous component in the stones expanded and destabilised a large number of houses. People found themselves living in homes that were unsafe, unhealthy, unsound, under-insulated or with very low standards of workmanship. These were buildings that had been signed off, i.e. someone had inspected the works and declared them to be satisfactory and to comply with the building regulations.

Cowboy Builders and Professionals
The problem of cowboy builders is rife in this country. Often, even perfectly good builders are not up to speed on the current regulation requirements. I know of a few current building projects in the area near where we live and they would not pass the 2005 energy building regulations, let alone the current 2011 requirements. Considering that your home will probably be the biggest financial investment of your life, wouldn't you want to be sure that when it comes to selling it or to passing it on to your children, that it is regulation compliant? Having a non-compliant house on your hands is an expensive liability.

In the past, having a building professional oversee the construction phase of a one-off house was largely optional. The mortgage company may have required a signed certificate to release stage payments during the build - and to be honest, I always wondered who were these professionals who signed these certificates, when there were clearly very obvious aspects to the houses that were non-compliant? Yes, I know that unfortunately there are cowboy architects and engineers out there too.

The aim of these new building control regulations is to address all of these issues - to force everybody involved to take more responsibility in building to acceptable and safe standards.

Responsibilities of Building Owners
Building owners will be required to take on more responsibility in appointing the appropriate, competent professionals and builders to undertake the work.

Bear in mind that the building professional you engage to oversee the construction of your home should possess sufficient training, experience and knowledge appropriate to the nature of the work to be undertaken. If you intend self-building a naturally-built home, use an architect or engineer familiar with natural building. Not all architects/engineers are the same!

Responsibilities of Building Professionals (Architects, Surveyors, Engineers)
Building professionals will have to submit drawings, specifications and details of the project to the Building Control Authority before works start on site, proving that each of the building regulations is satisfied. The Building Control Authority will have to assess this information and agree that the regulations are indeed being met. If not, a new set of drawings/details/specifications will have to be submitted before construction can start on site.

The building professionals will also have to provide a schedule of inspections to the Building Control Authority, e.g. check that the foundations have been correctly built, ensure the proper level of insulation has been correctly installed, check that the correct size/amount of floor joists are used, check that appropriate materials are being used in the correct locations, etc., etc. They will then have to follow through and physically inspect the progress at each of these milestones and keep a record of each inspection. The Building Control Authority will also have powers of inspection and it is anticipated that in the first year, the level of site inspections by Building Control Officers will be very high.

Only three types of building professional can take on the role of Assigned Certifier, the person who confirms that all the works to date are built in accordance with the drawings and specifications, and that the construction meets the building regulation standards. This can be a regsitered architect, a registered building surveyor or a chartered engineer. All of these professionals have insurance and have to carry out intensive professional training every year (for architects, we have to log 40 hours of continuous professional development per year).

For many architect-designed house-building projects, on-site inspections and signing certificates of compliance have always been par for the course. During construction, the architect signs off on the progress of works and signs a final certificate when everything is finished. This is an important legal document when it comes to the sale of the house in years to come. However, as outlined above, many people have built their homes and drawn down their mortgages and lived happily ever after with little or no involvement from any architect, engineer or surveyor.

Completion Certificate Required to Move into Your Home
From the 1st March, this will no longer be possible because of a new rule governing the occupancy or use of a building. No-one will be allowed to occupy a newly-built house until a completion certificate has been entered on to the national register of the Building Control Authority. This will be filled out by the Assigned Certifier (architect, building surveyor or engineer), who will have inspected all of the building works as they progressed.

Responsibilities of Builders
The issue of who will build your home will also be under the spotlight and this will be of particular interest to self-builders. Currently there are two separate references to the type of builder in the legislation. There are registered builders and there are competent builders. This distinction is signficant, particularly for self-builders.

Not only does the building professional (Assigned Certifier - architect, surveyor or engineer) have to sign off on the work (which has always been the case for architect-run jobs), the builder will have to sign off too. This is a new situation and it will be a legally binding document. If something goes wrong in 10 years' time due to bad worksmanship, etc., this document clearly names who was responsible for that construction and, therefore, who is at fault.

What does this mean for a self-builder? If you never intend selling your home and you have to live with the consequences of your own dodgy building skills, so be it. But, if you sell your home and something goes wrong for the new owner, you will be held legally responsible.

The role of the Assigned Certifier does not include for any responsibility for the supervision of the builder. The builder must be competent to carry out the work to the required standard on his/her own. How is this standard of competency defined?

Definition of Competence
A person is deemed to be a competent person when, " having regard to the task he or she is required to perform and taking account of the size and complexity of the building or works, the person possesses sufficient training, experience and knowledge appropriate to the nature of the work to be undertaken."

From my personal experience, while self-builders may be slower than conventional builders, their attention to detail and their level of quality control is extremely high. Generally speaking, if you are going to build your own home with your own hands and intend living out the rest of your days there, you will do the best job possible. However, it is important to be aware that from now on you will be signing a legal document to say that you are up to the job.

If you know you have shortcomings in any aspects of building your own home, please ensure that you acquire those skills, or know your limits and know when it is time to call in a professional builder. For example, I would have no issue with anyone building a cob wall. I would have no issue with most people putting on a simple roof or installing a floor, as long as they understand drawings and follow the details and specifications exactly. However, if your roof is particularly complicated and you are not that confident with a saw, then maybe it is time to call in the carpenter - and that is fine.

A project can have a number of builder certifiers and you only need to sign off against the work that you yourself have carried out. So be sure that you are confident that you have carried out that work adequately.

Don't forget that at Mud and Wood, we offer a service where we can come to your site and train up your work crew for each stage of your build. Also, if you get stuck during your building project, we can come to site to help you get over that particular hurdle.

Registered Builder versus Competent Builder
As mentioned above, the legislation currently recognises that there are registered builders and competent builders. At the moment, there is a voluntary register of builders being set up by the Construction Industry Federation which will be launched in March. To be included on the register, a builder must have a minimum of 3 years experience with a description of the building types and locations (one-off high spec houses, estate houses, warehouses, office buildings, etc.), up-to-date insurance and tax clearance, annual continuing professional development/training, a code of conduct and a procedure for complaints. It is anticipated that this will become a statutory register by 2015.

As long as there is also room for competent builders, there is room for true self-builders. There is a concern that the definition of competency may start to be tightened up in the future and that measurable criteria, such as attendance on courses, hours logged on sites, etc. might be required. We will cross that bridge if we come to it.

I will be speaking at the Earth Building UK Conference in Norwich in two weeks time and the Conference Topic is education and training. There will be a number of representatives from European Training Schools who have succeeded in getting their courses accredited. At Mud and Wood, we hope to start some conversations about getting our courses accredited and internationally recognised too.

Driving More Natural Builders Underground?
The new building control regulations are an attempt to make everyone in the building game step up to the plate and accept their individual responsibility for building well and building safely. However, there are obviously additional costs associated with providing all of these drawings/details/specifications to the Building Control Authority and also paying for an Assigned Certifier to regularly inspect the works.

People choose to build using natural materials for many reasons, and even though many claim they are doing it for environmental or aesthetic reasons, my experience is that the real rationale is cost. Not wanting a mortgage, not being indebted for 30 years of your life - that is an excellent thing to aspire to. However, the stark reality is that if you build by the book, you will end up paying more.

If you pay a professional to design your home and/or submit your planning application, pay the council development charges, bring water and electricity to your site, carry out percolation tests and install a proprietary waste water treatment system - you could have already spent anywhere between €15,000 and €20,000 and you haven't even turned a sod for the foundations yet. And this is before the new building control regulations kick in on the 1st March.

Building is an expensive game. Because natural builders rely on their own skills and materials that are largely free, they expect the entire process to be cheap. If you want to build a legally compliant home with full planning permission, you can still do it very cost effectively by self-building, but you will not do it for buttons. That is sadly unrealistic.

I understand why people build under the radar. I know of a number of families who literally could not have afforded to have a roof over their head if they had gone the authorised route. They live in very beautiful, cheaply-built homes, but they also live with a certain degree of paranoia. And even though they may not have spent €100,000 or €250,000, they still have invested €10,000 or €30,000 in a home that is illegal.

Rising to the Challenge
I am passionate about building with natural materials and I am passionate about doing it for environmental and health reasons. That is why I hope that there will still be plenty of natural builders who rise to the challenge, get planning permission for their homes and put them through the full rigours of the new building control process.

If we all build under the radar, natural building will always remain in the shadowy margins, a way of building for "the crazies and the hippies". Natural building projects need to be visible, they need to be legal, they need to meet the building regulations and they need to be built to very high standards. They need to be able to stand up to scrutiny, so that they can be recognised in the mainstream as an acceptable, valid, truly sustainable way to build.

Update 2015
Since this article was written, there has been considerable lobbying by homeowners, particularly those who want to self-build. The regulations governing inspection and certification are due to be dropped for one-off houses and extensions from September 2015. Click here to read more.

Copyright 2015, Féile Butler - Mud and Wood

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