21 Nov 2006

Large parts of Irish cities and towns are made up of terraces of Georgian buildings. Many of these are Protected Structures (a very clumsy term which confuses people, but we’ll save that discussion for another day… it means their ‘listed’) and frequently they have a commercial use: auctioneers on the ground floor, dentists and solicitors on the second and third, backroom offices and storage on the top, that kind of thing. Usually the tenants are completely separate from each other. You know exactly the kind of building I’m talking about.

If you’re the owner of one of these buildings and you want to modernise or refurbish you (generally) have to lodge a planning application which will include a report from a recognised conservation consultant. Depending on the building, these reports cost a minimum of €2,500/€3,000 and sometimes a lot more. You usually have to submit ten copies of drawings and reports to the planning authority (the regulations require only six but at some point about two years ago, some local authority somewhere decided that where Protected Structures were involved, ten were necessary and the idea spread, but we’ll save that discussion for another day).

Because your building has a commercial use, you also have to make a separate application for a fire safety certificate. This application is made to the local fire department which is part of the local authority.

In the fairly recent past the following thing happened. The owner of a four storey Georgian building lodged a planning application for some general improvements. The building had a very nice façade but the interior had been messed around a lot and there wasn’t much interesting detail above the first floor. All of this was pointed out in a comprehensive report from a conservation consultant.

The owner figured on renting out his building floor by floor. So when he lodged his application for a fire safety certificate, the fire department requested that he put in ‘smoke lobbies’ on each landing. Smoke lobbies are little rooms which separate the tenants’ office space from the main stair case.

This is where the building owner’s trouble began. The conservation officer (an employee of the local authority) resisted the idea of putting in the smoke lobbies on the grounds that it would adversely affect the character of the structure. But the fire officer (an employee of the same local authority) was equally insistent that the lobbies should be built.

Now, we’ve had Protected Structures in Ireland for six years and with so many Georgian terraces around the country you can imagine that the scenario I’ve described above comes up again and again. You would think that the situation would have been addressed by regulation, act or guideline. But it hasn’t. Every time somebody makes an application on one of these buildings, the whole drama is played out again.

Anyway, here’s what happened to our building owner. After formal requests for ‘additional information’ from the planners and months of back and forth discussions between the owner, his architect, the conservation officer and the fire officer, no progress was made. It was suggested that the conservation and fire officers (employees of the SAME ORGANISATION, as I keep stressing) would get together and come to some arrangement but neither felt it was their obligation. Finally, when the building owner was at his wit’s end, he contacted a local TD and asked that he try to help out. The TD convened a meeting of all the players: owner, architect, conservation officer and fire officer. I heard afterwards that some of the participants found the meeting ‘constructive’ but from what I can tell no real progress was made. The stand off continued for many, many months and, as I remember it, the TD convened another meeting. Eventually, work began on the site and, although its been explained to me on a couple of occasions, how this happened I still don’t understand. The conclusion bore no relation to the procedures outlined in the building regulations as I understand them.

There are so many reasons why I found this story frustrating but I’ll rattle off only a few:

  • Why do we need smoke lobbies in Georgian buildings? How many people were killed in fires as they attended meetings with their solicitors in Merrion Square or the South Mall in the past, say, five years? If we’re going to ‘protect’ old buildings, can’t we just acknowledge that they don’t comply with building regulations and make them exempt?
  • Let’s say I’m wrong and that the situation is genuinely dangerous and we have to have smoke lobbies. Why, then, didn’t the conservation officer make the necessary compromise? In this particular case it had been pointed out that the interior of the building had been changed around quite a bit and there was very little ‘original’ material. This situation is quite typical – there are very few Georgian buildings out there in pristine condition and adding a small smoke lobby on an upper floor isn’t a big deal.
  • Why, when they work within the same organisation, wasn’t it possible for the conservation and fire officers to get together to discuss the matter? Can you imagine something like this happening in the private sector? Such arrogance.
  • Should we be paying TDs to chair meetings to deal with petty log jambs in the planning system?

The whole thing is ridiculous from beginning to end. And, while the involvement of the TD might make this particular case unique, the story is being repeated all over the country. So much time and money wasted, so much lack of respect for the public, such total incompetence.

Someone, somewhere has to stop this mess.

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