Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 4 December 2012
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht
Building Regulations: Discussion
We have decided to bring in the representatives of both the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government and the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, together to discuss the building energy regulations and the new draft building regulations. I welcome from the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland Dr. Brian Motherway, chief executive officer, and Mr. Tom Halpin, head of information. I also welcome from the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government Mr. Michael Layde, assistant secretary, housing and planning division; Mr. Aidan O'Connor, principal adviser, and Mr. Martin Vaughan, assistant principal officer in the architecture and building standards section. We will begin with an opening statement from Dr. Motherway, to be followed by one from Mr. Layde. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I draw attention to the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the joint committee. If they are directed by it at any stage to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to do so, they are only entitled thereafter to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against a person, persons or an entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. The same well established practice of courtesy applies to members of the committee. I now invite Dr. Motherway to begin his presentation.
Dr. Brian Motherway:
I thank the Chairman and committee members for their invitation. I do not propose to read the written statement we submitted which sets out our presentation in detail. Instead, I will highlight the points we would like to make and we will be happy to discuss other aspects in more detail.
We represent the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland and today our focus is on energy efficiency in buildings, in particular, an area of activity that has grown strongly in recent years, with many home owners, businesses and public bodies acting to reduce their energy costs through energy efficiency measures and in the process reducing their environmental impact. To provide a sense of the scale of the sector, driven by Government grants we administer on behalf of the Government, more than €250 million was spent in Ireland last year on energy efficiency measures. This activity supported more than 5,000 jobs. By our reckoning, energy efficiency actions in the past few years have, in total, reduced Ireland's annual energy bill by more than €500 million.
I propose to make a few points on energy use in homes and the trends in that regard, talk a little about building energy ratings and provide an update on some of the work being done on energy retrofitting in buildings. Buildings in Ireland account for over 40% of national energy use and are, obviously, a large user of energy. Homes, probably, account for the largest proportion of this, accounting for 27% of all the energy we use. Within a home, approximately 80% of the energy is used in heating the space and the water, while the other 20% is used in providing electricity for appliances and lighting, etc. Energy use in homes has been steadily declining for many years, driven in the main by the building regulations. A new home built today will use only approximately 25% of the energy used in a home built in the 1970s, which gives some idea of how much has changed. We are at a point where we can envisage quite soon what we might call "near zero energy" buildings which virtually use no energy. The improvements in the energy performance of new buildings put an additional focus on the retrofitting of homes built in previous eras in order to improve their energy performance. I will return to that issue.
On building energy ratings, members of the committee will be familiar with the building energy rating, BER, certificate which is obligatory when a home is offered for sale or rent. This certificate has been in use since 2006 when the European Union's energy performance in buildings directive was transposed. Oversight of this certification is shared between the SEAI and the Departments of the Environment, Community and Local Government and Communications, Energy and Natural Resources. The SEAI has been designated as the issuing authority for BERs. This means our responsibilities cover developing the methods by which BERs are calculated, registering and ensuring the quality and competence of assessors, holding the national register and database of all building energy ratings carried out and published and performance and awareness.
To date, approximately 330,000 building energy ratings have been carried out and formally published, most of them for homes but some for non-residential buildings. Approximately, 1,000 building energy rating assessors are registered with us to carry out assessments. In 2010 the overarching directive for this area, the energy of homes and buildings directive, was recast and a number of changes are on the way, one of which will commence in January. From that date, the BER will not just be mandatory as part of the sale transaction but must also be displayed in all advertisements relating to the sale and letting of property. This will bring a new profile and awareness to the rating and help people to make decisions.
Ireland's approach to the building energy rating certificate has always been to use this instrument in a positive way, not just to see it as a compliance tool. It understands its usefulness in bringing the energy performance of homes and other buildings to people's attention, perhaps allowing them to factor it into their decision making when buying or renting a home. The rating also lets them know what is possible in terms of improving a building's performance and lowering costs. We provide a building energy rating as part of our retrofitting grants scheme, Better Energy Homes, which provides home owners with a formal measure of the improvements they secure when they upgrade their homes with the support of Government grants.
I now turn to the issue of retrofitting existing buildings. I have mentioned that with standards for new buildings having improved so much in recent years, much of the policy focus is now on how to improve the energy performance of the large number of buildings built in previous times which could benefit from significant improvements in their energy efficiency performance.
The retrofit idea is now well understood, namely that existing homes can have their insulation and heating systems upgraded and hence benefit from significantly lower energy bills, as well as improving their environmental impact. We deliver a number of programmes on behalf of Government and they have delivered directly, or supported via grants, the retrofitting of about 250,000 buildings and all of the benefits that accompany that, including lowering energy bills, making energy more affordable, bringing greater comfort to homes as well as the wider societal benefits such as reduced fossil fuel imports and reduced carbon dioxide emissions. It is also a very important sector for job creation, with approximately 5,000 people fully employed in the various retrofit programmes that are going on at the moment.
Better energy homes is the most well-known grant scheme, under which people can apply for a grant that is the equivalent of 30% of the cost of a range of measures they can carry out in their homes. That scheme has been operational since 2009 and to date we have grant-aided more than 130,000 homes to improve their energy performance. In tandem, the better energy warmer homes scheme offers direct provision of home energy upgrades, free of charge, to vulnerable households and to date, since the beginning of that programme, we have upgraded approximately 90,000 homes. Finally, in 2012 we introduced a new programme on a pilot basis called better energy communities, which tests the delivery of innovative energy efficiency upgrades at community level, under which we engage with a number of people in the residential, commercial and public sectors together as a community rather than as separate entities. This year we supported 18 projects in that sector and we hope to see that part of our work grow in the coming years.
We are now at a point at which the benefits of improving the energy performance of the building stock are quite clear and activity and awareness has grown in recent times. In terms of where we go next, the issue is one of scale. We want to see more buildings participating and we want to see them doing so to a greater level. By that I mean deeper retrofits, where the work that is done in a home is the best possible package of works to bring the home up to the highest standard; this is preferable to people just undertaking one or two smaller measures. In that regard, the idea of engaging in retrofit in a larger number of homes at a deeper level was highlighted recently by the National Economic and Social Council, NESC, in its report on climate policy, which highlights that the home sector is very important to climate change policy because home retrofits offer one of the largest and cheapest routes to significant reductions in carbon emissions in Ireland.
On the question of increasing the levels of participation, three issues are important. The first is quality; a lot of what we do in retrofit is about building consumer confidence so that homeowners, if they are contemplating a retrofit, can be sure that the service providers offering them upgrades will do a good job to a high standard and will deliver the benefits claimed. We put a lot of emphasis on enforcing quality and high standards among our contractors, as we do with other schemes such as the building energy rating, BER, scheme. We believe that the quality dimension is very important for building a fully functioning market. Second, at this point all energy supply companies have targets for energy savings to meet at a national level and we monitor their performance vis-à-vis those targets. This means that all of the energy supply companies, including the ESB, Bord Gáis and Airtricity, are now mobilised to generate retrofit activity in all sectors and are leading a number of new initiatives to encourage participation in retrofit. This area will grow in importance in building new levels of retrofit activity. Finally, the third issue is obviously finance. We know from our research - and it is obvious - that the biggest barrier to participation in grant schemes is that the homeowner has to pay two thirds of the cost and for a lot of people that is a fundamental no-no at the moment, in terms of availability of savings or their ability or willingness to access credit. If the market in retrofit is to grow, particularly in the context of the programme for Government's schedule to end grants by the end of 2013, we need to find new ways of helping people to finance retrofits. The solution we are seeking is to acknowledge that retrofits pay for themselves over a number of years in energy savings. In other words, the up-front cost of works in the home are more than paid for over several years by the energy savings that the homeowner experiences through lower bills. The concept of pay as you save as been introduced to find ways whereby, over a number of years, those energy savings that we know will happen can be directly linked to financing the up-front cost of the retrofit. At the moment we are working in earnest with our departmental colleagues on the development of a pay-as-you-save scheme for Ireland, which is in line with the commitments in the programme for Government.
In conclusion, significant progress has been made in improving the energy performance of buildings in recent years, both in new buildings and in older buildings through retrofitting. The concept is proven in terms of the benefits that accrue from that work and there is considerable further potential to improve our building stock and to capture all of the benefits that go with that, including job creation, cost reduction, greater comfort and affordability and environmental gains. That is the agenda we will continue to work towards. I thank the committee members for their attention and would welcome any questions they may have.
Mr. Michael Layde:
I thank the Chairman. We are also pleased to be here to discuss the related subject of the prospective substantial amendments to the building control regime. These measures were announced by the Minister in July 2011 and essentially they involve the commencement of a section of the Building Control Act 1990 requiring the submission to building control authorities of certificates of compliance with the building regulations before, during and after construction and the amendment of the building regulations setting out the form of the proposed certificates of compliance and the administrative procedures governing their use. They also involve engagement with the City and County Managers' Association to make arrangements for a move to a regionalised and shared services model for the administration of building control functions; for the agreement of standardised approaches and common protocols to ensure nationwide consistency in the administration of building control functions and the meaningful oversight of building activity; and for agreement on common measures for the support and further development of the building control function nationwide.
In order to put the above measures in context, it is first helpful to appreciate the provisions of the Building Control Act of 1990 and how they may apply in practice. The Act of 1990 sets out a clear statutory framework for construction activity based on clear legal standards, as set out in the building regulations. They provide detailed guidance on how these standards can be achieved in practice, with the burden and responsibility for compliance resting first and foremost with developers and builders, designers and building owners. They include a statutory responsibility for professionals to design in accordance with the building regulations, with responsibility for enforcing compliance with the building regulations resting with the 37 local building control authorities. The Act sets out clear roles and responsibilities for a number of parties, namely the Minister, the owners and developer, designers and local building control authorities. The role of the Minister is to ensure that appropriate regulations and technical standards are in place in order to give practical effect to the Act. Contrary to common perception, the Minister has no role with regard to enforcement activity, which is delegated exclusively to local building control authorities who are independent in the exercise of their statutory powers.
The Act places responsibility for compliance with the building regulations first and foremost on the shoulders of owners and developers. Where concerns regarding non-compliance arise, the Act enables the local building control authority to serve enforcement notices on the owner and the builder. Remediation of defects is a matter between the parties concerned - that is, the owner and the builder or developer and their insurers. If satisfactory resolution cannot be achieved through dialogue and negotiation, the option of seeking civil legal remedy may be considered. In such situations, the statutory requirements provide a yardstick by which the owners or builders, their technical consultants and the courts can determine whether a building is fit for purpose.
The role of local authorities is to administer the building control process and to enforce statutory obligations. Local building control authorities have strong powers under the Act to scrutinise proposals and inspect works in progress, serve enforcement notices for non-compliance, institute proceedings for breaches of regulatory requirements and seek High Court injunctions if non-compliance poses considerable and serious danger to the public. Failure to comply with the building regulations may result in a fine of up to €5,000 or imprisonment for a period of up to six months, or both, following a successful summary prosecution. A successful conviction on indictment may result in a fine of up to €50,000 or imprisonment for a period of up to two years, or both.
The Department has set a target inspection rate of 12 to 15% of all buildings covered by valid commencement notices.
The statistical returns for 2010 show that all but five building control authorities met or exceeded this target. There is a general average inspection rate of 24%, or almost one quarter, of all buildings. The Building Control Acts provide for statutory processes for fire safety certificates and disability access certificates, which further enable local authorities to positively influence the quality of certain buildings. That is a summary of the arrangements for building controls.
In keeping with the Minister's announcement of July 2011, we have prepared draft building control (amendment) regulations. This is the reason we are here today. They set out the forms of mandatory certificates of compliance and the administrative provisions governing them, and they require the lodgement of drawings demonstrating compliance. We regard this as a significant change from the existing regime. These proposals were released for public consultation earlier this year. There is evidence of the keen interest in the process. More than 500 submissions were received. We have fully considered these and recently we finalised a definitive draft set of regulations that are with the Minister for his consideration. We anticipate that he will be in a position to approve them and to sign them into law in the near future.
I will outline how the proposed regulations will strengthen the current arrangements by requiring the following criteria with regard to all significant building works. Drawings and particulars used for the purposes of construction will be submitted to the local building control authority and will be accessible to anyone who subsequently acquires an interest in the building concerned. Design will be undertaken and certified by competent professionals prior to works commencing. Owners will formally assign a competent builder to undertake and certify the works. Owners will also formally assign a registered professional, tasked with preparing an appropriate inspection plan for the building works during construction, carrying out inspections and overseeing inspection works by other parties in accordance with the inspection plan and certifying the works for compliance with the building regulations when completed. Statutory certificates of compliance will be required from designers, builders and certifiers to confirm compliance with the regulations and accepting legal responsibility for their work. It will be an offence to occupy or use a building before the final certification of compliance on completion has been included on the statutory register, which is maintained by the local building control authorities. The amended regulations will thus establish a clear chain of responsibility starting with the original owner of the proposed building works prior to the commencement.
A code of practice for inspecting and certifying works is being developed. This will clearly outline the roles and responsibilities of various parties, including owners, designers, builders, etc. under the Acts and provide guidance on how these obligations can be complied with in practice. For the first time the statutory building control process will provide a legal obligation to assign competent registered professionals to design, inspect and certify work and a competent builder to undertake and certify the works. This does not exist at present. Building works will be also be subject to a comprehensive inspection plan to be drawn up and executed during construction and subject to clear unambiguous statutory certificates of compliance signed by the responsible parties.
The other measures included in the Minister's commitment relating to shared services and regionalised models of service delivery and enforcement will better support and develop the building control function, although they are technically outside the scope of the regulations. These are being pursued by the Department in consultation with the local authorities as part of the wider process of reform of local government. I hope these comments have been of value to the committee and we are happy to take questions from committee members.
I address my first questions to the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland. Much of what has been discussed amounts to a no-brainer. It is good for the environment and the retrofits are good too. We may end up with a trade surplus if we are not obliged to import all our energy and we produce energy savings and so on. Utility bills are a major issue for people at the moment. I am interested in two particular aspects, one of which is the pay-as-you-save scheme. I do not understand why it has taken so long. Is the blockage related to the legislation? I understood it was almost ready to roll at the end of the lifetime of the previous Government, but it is likely to be at least a further year to 18 months before it is rolled out. Given that it has the potential to offer gainful employment as well as everything else, I am curious about such a delay.
Which Department is the authority dealing with? I received an answer to a question last week from the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources but some weeks beforehand the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation rolled out a scheme in this area. I am curious about what is going on.
I was involved with someone who was trying to put together a better energy communities pilot scheme. We were considering partners who might be compatible. The timeframe on the pilot scheme was remarkably tight and I am surprised there were 18 schemes. Will the authority outline the findings and whether 18 schemes is sufficient to give the authority a robust overview of what could be gained from the scheme? I see the merits in it.
The building control regime sounds great in principle and it is the right thing to do in policy terms. Will it work in practice? I have serious concerns about it. I have seen the inner workings of local authorities. In my experience developers do not take much notice of enforcement notices. They do not take them as seriously as they sound because there is no follow through and no ability to follow through, although there should be. The Department stated that the Minister has no role in enforcement but he has a role with regard to the embargo on staffing. If there is insufficient staffing to provide the enforcement required, then there is a doubt about whether it is workable.
My experience has been that because there are 37 different local authorities, they do not share the relevant information. If someone is a serial offender, she could run out of offences in one area and then move to the next. We saw a good example of this with the developer of Priory Hall, who previously developed in Laois or Offaly and left a trail of destruction after him. The lack of a co-ordinating function to watch particular individuals means that often these people have done the damage before they are caught. Is the Department satisfied that sufficient sanction is in place? Is the sanction available if one does not get it through the courts with a judgment and if it takes so long? I know that some enforcement notices relating to planning infringements take two or three years to get to the courts. If someone decides not to pay any attention, some notices will not even get that far because there are insufficient staff available to deal with them. Unless we examine the practical delivery in addition to the improvements in the legal framework, it will not be possible to provide the cover that people require.
Dr. Brian Motherway:
I will answer the questions that pertain to us. I thank Deputy Murphy for the questions. The pay-as-you-save scheme was discussed in the era of the last Government. Obviously, the timing is a policy matter but as far as I am aware it became policy formally in the programme for Government of the current Government, which set out the timeframe of its introduction by the end of 2013. This remains the timeframe we are working to.
Just a few weeks ago, the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources formally established the national co-ordination group for the design and delivery of the scheme. The group is working now on the various legal, billing and detailed design questions. It falls under the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources.
The document the Deputy is referring to is the recent paper from the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation on the green economy which highlighted a number of initiatives across a number of Departments. We work under Deputy Rabbitte's Department on the development of the pay-as-you-save scheme.
I acknowledge that the timeframe for the pilot programme for better energy communities was tight this year. It was a small pilot where we found ourselves, I suppose for budgetary reasons, able to free up enough money to do a pilot in the second half of the year, acknowledging that it would bar the participation of some projects that would take a longer time than that. We were pleasantly surprised to get 47 applications, even in the tight timeframe, of which 18 have been funded. This has taught us enough about the potential of that sector to continue the programme on a more rational and reasonable timeframe next year, now that we know that taking a communities approach does seem to unlock participation and new opportunities that we have not seen through the other programmes. We are hopeful we can continue that initiative and allow access to projects that would take a longer timeframe.
Mr. Michael Layde:
Deputy Catherine Murphy commented on the building control system. We must consider the regulations themselves and also the issues of enforcement and the capacity of the local government system. The Minister is on the point of introducing the new regulatory framework. This is a recognition that there are inadequacies in the current framework and a need for a more robust system. I note the Deputy welcomed the proposals to make explicit the requirement for compliance by those involved in the delivery of buildings at various stages where there is an absolute and clear legal accountability. For that reason, the regulations will represent a step change in the approach to building standards and building control.
It is valid to query how one turns the new legislative framework into practice and the capacity and legal recourse of local authorities. The Department's engagement with local authorities in their role as building control authorities is about ramping up the capacity of the local authorities as the enforcement authorities. They will be working on a regional basis which is in line with the overall approach to reform of the local government system.
Of course, there are staffing difficulties, as the Deputy mentioned, given the prevailing public expenditure circumstances. It is a question of organising and deploying the resources available to the Department and to the local authorities to best effect. We are, and will be, working closely with the County and City Managers' Association to ensure the enforcement system is as fit for purpose as we believe the regulatory system will be.
It will be an ICT-based electronic system. It will be possible to monitor and track the progress of individual developments in a way it has not been in the past. There will, potentially, be the capacity to share information more quickly and more widely between the various regions, for enforcement and to identify people who are, as the Deputy put it, recurrent offenders.
The sanctions are considerable, including periods of imprisonment when cases are taken on indictment. The courts are independent in the exercise of their functions but it is important that the local authorities, as enforcement authorities, are proactive in taking cases forward and, where possible, because it is a complex process, taking appropriate cases forward on indictment, with the consequent higher penalties that arise in that case. The Department will continue to work with local authorities to ensure the new system is properly and completely enforced.
I apologise for being late. I was in the Dáil Chamber. For some strange reason, questions to the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government were scheduled for the same time as this meeting. The committee can do nothing about that.
Two energy saving schemes are in place at present. There is a problem in how they are being policed. A grant of €200 is available to insulate an attic and of €250 to insulate the walls of a terraced house. These grants are not adequate and are not having the desired effect. Could Mr. Tom Halpin or someone from the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland reply to this query? When I speak of policing I am referring to work being checked when finished. Constituents of mine have had work done under the scheme where pipes have been run up the outside wall of a house to a tank in the attic inside a metal frame with no insulation. The first time the temperature falls below zero the pipes burst in the attic. A question hangs over the type of work being done and the contractors on the approved list. Overall, however, the schemes have brought benefits. Many houses are much warmer because of them.
What level of engagement has there been with financial institutions to persuade them to free up money for retrofits? Credit unions could be useful in this respect because a relatively small amount of money is required. Many of the houses that are in need of energy upgrades are old terraced houses, council houses or privately built bungalows which are occupied by people on low and middle incomes. Has any work been done with credit unions? Credit unions tell public representatives they are anxious to help initiatives such as this.
The party I represent put forward proposals for a ten-year scheme that utility companies could buy into. Has work been done with utility companies on such a scheme? Let us suppose it costs €150 a month to heat my house but it would cost only €100 if it were insulated properly. If I have my house retrofitted, I could continue, for ten years, to pay a utility bill of €150 and €50 of that could be repayment of the cost of retrofitting. Some pension funds are interested in schemes like that. Has any such work been done with pension funds on such schemes? Figures released recently indicate that €89 billion are held in savings and €80 billion in pension funds. Could some of that be tapped into to get housing stock up to an acceptable standard?
Why is the Department allowing apartments to be built that are separated by plaster slabs? I have heard all the technical jargon and I have even seen diagrams sent from the Department that claim to show this is safe. I have heard regulations on the Continent being quoted. I have not travelled much but when I do I look at these things and I have seen how apartments are built. In other countries, apartments are separated by concrete under, over, beside, in front and behind. Floors, ceilings and walls are made of concrete. This means they are soundproof and fireproof and residents have a level of privacy. In the town I live in, two neighbours had a row and one neighbour put his boot through the wall separating the other neighbour's apartment from the staircase. The wall separating the apartment from the staircase was made of plaster slabs. I have discussed this with officials of the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government.
I have had enough of listening to the argument that this is acceptable. I have seen the diagrams showing how fire would go around plaster slabs. This is a case of bolting the stable door when the horse has gone; these rubbish apartments have been built and they have been allowed to be built. Why are plaster slabs between apartments permitted?
I was canvassing in an apartment block. I was at one end of the block and I could hear a radio playing in an apartment at the other end. I canvassed all the ten doors on the corridor and the radio could be heard. When the door was opened by the resident in the final apartment, the radio in her apartment was no louder when she opened the door. We could hear Pat Kenny's show. Why are we condemning people to live in such conditions? They are separated from their neighbours by one or two plaster slabs. The argument is that the plaster slabs are of high quality and are fire-proof. In my view, people must have a bit of privacy. Plaster slabs with timber frames between them will not stop fires from spreading. These fire hazards are being built. I have challenged this practice at every opportunity. When will the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government do something about it? If legislation is required then let us know so that we can take measures. No more apartments should be built in this State using that type of material. People are entitled to privacy, security and fire safety. The example of Priory Hall has been raised. That is a scandalous situation.
Mr. Aidan O'Connor:
If it is as the Deputy describes it, then that apartment block has not been correctly built. Timber frame guidelines indicate that they must be timber frame with a reinforcing strand board or plywood with the plaster board on either side. This is the guideline agreed by the committee set up to investigate and make recommendations about the construction of timber frame housing. A consortium issued a report in 2002 or 2003. Proper construction rests primarily with the timber frame supplier who is responsible for providing to the site timber frame in accordance with those guidelines. In other words, stick timber construction, as it may be referred to in the United States, is not permitted under the timber frame approval system. The Deputy seems to be implying that one could literally put a boot through walls of plaster board between adjoining premises. There would have to be a strand board or plywood timber built into that composite panel, plus plaster board, fire rating and fire stopping material. If, as the Deputy says, the apartment building is in that condition, it seems, from his description, not to be in compliance.
On the other point as to whether concrete can be used, of course this is the case. A planning application may specify masonry or concrete construction but subsequently timber frame construction is used. This is in the case where the contractor has substituted a timber frame. This might notionally be compliant but unless all the component parts are in place - the guidance documents are clear on that - then it is not in compliance. It is the responsibility of the timber frame manufacturer and the skills of the people on site. There are also right-on-site guidelines and a timber frame guidelines book. The information is available. What we have found in the examples to which the Deputy referred earlier is that the construction was not carried out in accordance with the very clear recommendations - in other words, vertical and horizontal fire-stopping within the cavities, the famous example of which is Priory Hall. We found there was fixing of the wall tiles to an ordinary piece of timber rather than to a structural piece of timber. These are issues that arise in those forms of construction and there should be supervision so this does not happen.
I have seen the guidance documents. No matter what way this is dressed up, apartments are being permitted to be built with plaster slabs. In any I have seen there is no timber at the back of the plaster slabs, except the timber frame itself. This construction is a fire hazard. I hope I am proved wrong but we are running the risk of a tragedy happening in an apartment block. Why are we continuing to allow developers to build these matchboxes with timber and plaster board? There should be proper standards. These apartments do not even have proper balconies; rooms are shaped more like a banana than a regular room. I was in an apartment where anyone of normal height sitting on the couch at one wall could stretch over to the far wall.
The officials and the legislators have a responsibility to do something to address this situation. Why is timber frame and plaster board construction allowed? The guidance documents state that fire will not travel through this construction; the fact of the matter is that timber burns and plaster slabs are not sound-proof. People have neither security nor privacy. Why do we continue to punish people by forcing them to live in such places? How many people in this room want to live in a place like that? I do not see any hands raised. Now is the time to do something before another crazy building boom starts. I ask the delegates to tell us what TDs need to do.
Mr. Michael Layde:
One is the question of building standards and the second issue is the enforcement of those standards. There are differing views about timber frame construction. From a legal perspective, as my colleague has said, some of the examples described would certainly suggest that those buildings were not constructed in accordance with the requirements and are therefore not in compliance. If the Deputy has details of specific buildings or sites, we would be happy to follow up on them.
Whatever one's opinion of the standards, they must be complied with. The system being put in place is a much more robust approach to ensuring compliance with the standards and an enforcement system. This is our aim. We would be happy to receive information - which may be confidential if necessary - about buildings which are not in compliance.
Dr. Brian Motherway:
The questions asked about finance are both very apposite. We meet all the financial institutions such as banks, credit unions and others, to encourage them to participate in helping people to upgrade their properties. A number of credit unions are very active. However, the point is well made that there is more potential for credit unions to lend. From a certain point of view, it is an education issue. We find that sometimes the financial institutions do not really know what retrofit is. We have a role in encouraging them to realise that it is financially beneficial to their members, that it will give a return for the money through lower energy bills. This is also part of the wider pay-as-you-save concept. The point is also well made about the potential for pension funds who look for big, straightforward investment opportunities for the funds. The trustees do not want to lend to individual households or buildings. An intermediary such as an existing financial institution or perhaps a specific green fund in which pension funds could invest, is required. This is being tried in other countries and we are considering it. That fund would then provide finance for the work.
I refer to specific questions about the operation of the grant scheme. I will ask my colleague, Tom Halpin, to comment.
Mr. Tom Halpin:
The grant levels are fixed on the basis of being approximately 30% of the cost of works for a typical three to four-bedroom, semi-detached home. Therefore, for smaller homes the proportion of money contributed by the grant is considerably higher. The better energy warmer homes scheme provides services free of charge to vulnerable homes.
They may be eligible for schemes to which they would not be obliged to contribute. The two schemes operate differently.
In the context of the policing of the scheme and the issue highlighted, the scheme operates on the basis of a very strict code of practice and technical specification which applies to all contractors in respect of the various measures they undertake. We carry out inspections in thousands of homes in which work has been done by the cohort of contractors involved. Contractors are obliged to revisit premises at which issues are identified and remedy them. Ultimately, they can run the risk of sanction up to and including de-registration for a period. If the Deputy would like to provide details of the particular property to which he referred in the context of the water supply issue, we could deal with it as an individual case.
I thank both delegations for coming before us. I commend the SEAI for the work it does through the various retrofit programmes. I also commend it for the important information and education programmes with which it is involved. I read recently about a dual initiative in which it was involved with the Department of Education and Skills, whereby information was provided for schools in raising awareness of energy issues. This is a welcome initiative which must be properly promoted. I am aware of a better energy communities project, whereby a day centre for the elderly and another community building in my constituency came together and put forward a viable proposal which proved successful. That is to be welcomed. There is major potential in the scheme to which I refer, particularly if we can expand it and give it the time and attention it deserves. Schemes such as this would create great awareness in towns and villages.
I have three questions for the SEAI. I am aware that it is not directly responsible for the smart metering initiative, but are there plans to drive this initiative forward? Information on energy usage is extremely important to households. The idea behind smart metering is that information is meant to be fed back to householders on where they are using most energy and what they might do to reduce their energy consumption. Are there other technologies available which might be used to inform householders about their energy consumption?
Home heating systems for which grants are provided - geothermal, solar and wood pellet boiler systems - are those which relate to renewable initiatives. These are all very good systems, but ordinary householders cannot access them for two reasons, namely, they cannot afford them and they are difficult to understand. Given that fuel poverty is prevalent, does the SEAI consider advising people to install solid fuel stoves or dual systems that would heat water rather than their having open fireplaces only? I understand the former are 80% efficient, whereas the latter are only 20% efficient. The beauty of such stoves or dual systems is that they are affordable and much cheaper than the more complicated renewable technologies. In addition, they are also very easy to use. They go further in addressing fuel poverty and reducing the amount of material people burn in their households. We should consider the installation of simple systems of this nature. Irish society is predominantly rural in nature and many people would take advantage of an initiative in this regard if one were put in place. Such an initiative would help to reduce carbon emissions and improve energy efficiency in people's homes. Is the SEAI considering initiatives involving cheaper, easier to operate systems such as those to which I refer?
I agree with a great deal of what Deputy Brian Stanley said about the pay-as-you-save system. Energy suppliers and credit unions must be brought on board in this regard. Such a move would be very welcome in order that people might be in a position to access some of these schemes.
My final question to the SEAI relates to the public sector. I understand all public sector agencies and organisations will be obliged to either rent or own high energy saving buildings. Is the SEAI involved with the various agencies and organisations involved in achieving the very challenging target in this regard? After all, what is proposed must be achieved within six years. I stand open to correction, but I understand there is an EU directive which stipulates we must achieve this target.
I welcome the new regime for building regulations. There is a legacy issue in this regard by virtue of the fact that much of the construction work done in recent years was of a poor standard. This was evident the winter before last when many water mains froze because they had not been properly installed. Will the new regime address problems of this nature? Will utility companies be obliged to ensure the relevant infrastructure will be installed to the proper standard in new housing estates, etc.?
The committee previously discussed high radon levels in certain parts of the country. Radon is a dangerous gas and I am wondering whether there might be a proposal to introduce certificates similar to the BER certificates in respect of radon levels. Such certificates would indicate whether the levels of radon in a house were low, whether radon barriers had been installed or whether work had been carried out in order to address high levels of radon. There is a need for certificates of this nature. Will Dr. Motherway indicate whether there are proposals in this regard?
Dr. Brian Motherway:
I thank the Deputy for his kind words about some of our programmes. The smart metering initiative is led by the Commission for Energy Regulation. We work with it in that regard, particularly in encouraging people to change their behaviour and act on the information provided for them. It has announced a national roll-out of smart meters to all homes. I do not have the details in that regard with me, but the Deputy is correct in stating smart meters and the other technologies that are becoming available are empowering for consumers in understanding how they use energy in their homes. There are apps available for smartphones and other mobile devices, whereby people can interact with their heating systems, etc. This is exciting and will give rise to many benefits in the coming years.
I take the Deputy's point on the types of technologies consumers choose in order to upgrade their homes. The bread and butter of our grants scheme relates to attic insulation, cavity wall insulation, upgrading boilers and so on. There is no grant available for stoves. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the Minister to decide what is grant-aided. We do, however, encourage their use under our utility obligations. As stated, the utility companies all have energy saving targets to meet and we assign credits towards those targets to technologies the companies may wish to promote. Some utility companies are promoting the use of stoves and we encourage them to do so as part of meeting their targets.
We work actively and intensively with all of the various public sector agencies and organisations. The target is that the sector should become 33% more energy efficient by 2020. Some bodies are moving very quickly in this regard and a great deal of work is being done, with some very positive projects in train. A new EU energy efficiency directive was recently finalised and this will drive matters forward even further. We will continue to work very closely with the public sector, marking it out as a leader in terms of retrofitting and improving energy efficiency.
Mr. Michael Layde:
My colleague, Mr. Aidan O'Connor, will deal with the radon issue.
On the building regulations and the legacy issues which have arisen, the former are forward looking and will, therefore, apply from now on. There are already significant powers available to building control authorities under the current legal framework. Ultimate responsibility lies with the developers and owners of buildings. In fairness to local authorities, it was through the inspection regime that many of the more serious difficulties were discovered. These difficulties are being addressed in many instances. The most extreme example of legacy issues relates to buildings which are unfinished. These issues are being systematically addressed in site resolution plans designed to bring such buildings up to the appropriate standard, both in terms of the building and the surrounding infrastructure. As stated, however, ultimate responsibility rests with developers and owners to ensure buildings are fit for purpose and in compliance with the existing regime. The new regime will allow for a much more robust framework of enforcement which will allow us to avoid a recurrence of such issues in the future.
Mr. Layde referred to the new regulations and the emphasis on competent persons signing off on various stages of developments. I am concerned by the fact that competent persons - engineers and others - also signed off on many of the major legacy issues that have arisen in housing estates, etc. It is important that we should properly define what constitutes a competent person and we should make such individuals fully accountable for that on which they sign off. In the past the system in this regard seemingly did not work.
Mr. Michael Layde:
Agreed. That is very much what we are attempting to do. The new regime will require a system of mandatory certification by approved certifiers, with legal responsibility on the part of such individuals.
Contrary to common perception, that is not the position under the current legal framework where professional opinions are offered. This will be a mandatory system of certification with the person ultimately having legal accountability and it will be an appropriately qualified person. We believe it will be far more robust in that sense than the current arrangement. I will ask my colleague to reply on the radon issue.
Mr. Aidan O'Connor:
Radon comes under the Radon Protection Institute of Ireland, RPII. On the building regulations side, we insist on the putting in place of a radon barrier. Depending on the area and the location - a map is included in the guidelines - a radon barrier, which is a reinforced membrane that is stronger than the normal damp-proof membrane, goes in under the floor level. Included with it is a sump which can extract air. This would be in the filling underneath and hopefully there would be no pyrite in it. Air can gather in the sump and it is vented. It can then be enhanced with a fan to extract any radon that has built up, if it was drawn to the occupier's attention. That would be done in an area with a high incidence of high radon levels. There is also a retrofit programme in place, mainly led by a local authorities, in fairness to them. They intervene where a problem arises and, effectively, retrofit a radon barrier, a sump and an extractor fan.
Are there any proposals to introduce certification systems in areas where there are high radon levels? I know the incidence of it varies regionally and it is not in every area. Is there any proposal by the Department to implement a certification system, similar to the BER certificates, to reassure people purchasing or renting houses that radon levels are being properly controlled in those houses. I am aware of the radon barrier and all of that.
Mr. Aidan O'Connor:
The radiological authority would deal with existing stock. It has a programme in place and supplies kits for detection purposes which can be placed in a dwelling, one in the living room and one in the upstairs area. We are not directly involved in the programme but such kits detect the incidence of radon.
I accept that but my question is that given the danger of the incidence of this gas, should the building regulations not include a provision similar to the BER certificate, namely, that before a house is sold or rented the new occupant would be assured that the problem is under control?
Mr. Michael Layde:
We can look at that and liaise with our colleagues in the RPII. As my colleague said, the RPII covers this area and there is consistent and careful mapping of the country such that people would know if they live in an area with a high incidence of radon. Rather than certification of individual properties, and we can certainly-----
What Mr. Layde has said is a voluntary measure. It is important that we discuss this and have a full meeting to deal with this. The measure Mr. O'Connor mentioned is voluntary. Radon is such a dangerous gas that I believe, and it is only my opinion, certification in respect of it should be provided for in the building regulations.
I will be as brief as possible. This is one of the most important presentations we have had because energy, energy efficiency and preservation is the direction we must go in to reduce our CO2 emissions. I notice the witnesses have presented some graphs and I will not requote them on how there has been an improvement per household in that regard. I recall a graph on CO2 output which showed that Ireland, per head of population, is seemingly performing better than England. In the analysis carried out by the witnesses, was the improvement in energy efficiencies due to the fact that we prefer not to, or cannot afford to, heat our houses much, or that we do not switch on the heat as much as people in the UK? Were all of those factors taken into consideration? I note the witnesses said that the temperature was taken into account.
I direct it to the representatives of the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland as it relates to energy and energy efficiency.
In the context of a code of practice that was mentioned, Deputy Coffey asked who would be defined as a competent person. The witnesses said such a code is being drawn up. When it is expected it will be available?
On the question of architects versus builders signing off on a development - this relates to the building regulations. We had a debate at a meeting of this committee on who is responsible in that context. An architect is responsible for drawing up the plans and giving them to the builders to ensure the work is carried out, but it is the responsibility of the inspector who carries out the inspection of the development to sign off on it, not that of the architect. That is my view, having regard to the person doing the work and the contractor.
Deputy Murphy suggested there should be liaison between the authorities. The Planning and Development Act 2001 provides that builders, or rogue developers as we would term some of them, who do not perform in one county should not be allowed to perform in another country but a local authority has to take a High Court action to ensure that. It should be made mandatory that one local authority would report to the other in this respect and there should be a striking-off mechanism for such developers or a second strike against them in this respect and they would be out of the equation. The current provision is cumbersome. It is not the witnesses' duty but ours, as legislators, to deal with this matter. This matter raised by Deputy Murphy is one area where we are falling down.
On the nearly zero energy building, NZEB, targets for 2020 that will apply for commercial buildings in 2018 and for residential buildings in 2020, are we on target to reach those? If the witnesses were to say that we are, that may be due to the fact that no new buildings are being constructed now or, if that is not the reason, they might indicate the position. I welcome the new regime of building standards enforcement.
Deputy Stanley commented on timber-framed structures and the witness's response in that respect was negative. I agree with the witness on that. However, it has been proven that timber-framed houses, if built correctly, can be the most energy efficient houses. We should not brand all timber-framed houses as negative.
The authority in its report refers to a cost optimal methodology and to an obligation on member states in that respect. The witnesses might elaborate on that. One of the Deputies congratulated the authority on the training it provides to educate people in this area. I will not mention the smart meters as they gave an answer on that. Is there a facility to train people who do DIY in their homes on, for example, fitting wrap-around insulation and that type of work?
The Oireachtas and the Seanad are organising an associated conference in the EU on sustainable energy and energy efficiency. While it is only in the pipeline it has been agreed it will be held in April or May and in advance of it I can advise that the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland will be invited to it. The authority is doing a very good job and I advise it to keep up the good work.
Dr. Brian Motherway:
The Deputy's questions regarding the competent person in this area and on inspections are probably better dealt with by our colleagues. I will ask my colleague, Kevin O'Rourke, to deal with the Deputy's questions on energy consumption per home compared with the UK, the energy performance of timber-framed houses, the cost optimal methodology and the training area.
Mr. Kevin O'Rourke:
The average Irish home is responsible today for approximately 6.4 tonnes of CO2. The equivalent figure not too long ago was well over 10 tonnes and at one stage it was 12 tonnes. Therefore, there has been a very dramatic reduction in that respect. The principal reasons for that are related to improved energy performance standards, insulation, better heating and more efficient systems and a switch in fuel to less carbon intensive fuels, most notably from solid fuel to gas, to put it crudely. The third area in this context is that we have had a decarbonisation of our electricity system to a considerable degree.
When it comes to comparison with the UK, the two key determinants are the average age of the housing stock here and the average floor area. Our housing stock is much younger than that of the UK. Our rate of new build during the past 25 years has been much higher than that of the UK and that is reflected in that fact on energy efficiency. Out of 1.7 million homes, more or less a million of them have been built since 1980, which is pretty unusual by international standards. Second, the average floor area of an Irish house is estimated to be about 119 sq. m. compared with 87 sq. m. in the UK, but hot water, lighting and other utilities are used in every house.
The average Irish house at the moment has a superior performance on a per unit floor area basis to the average UK house. On the question of timber frame versus concrete, it is possible to achieve very low-energy buildings with just about any construction method - timber, concrete or even a steel frame. It is a question of the detail in the specification. The issue is the overall functionality. There are factors other than energy, as has been alluded to earlier, which determine the optimum choice.
On the question of near-zero-energy buildings and how close we are to creating them, we were at 300 units to 400 units of energy per dwelling in the 1970s, but now for new-build we are at approximately 60 units of energy. It looks as though going below 50, and certainly going below 40, is a significant challenge. There is not yet a definition at national or European level as to what is near zero but it is fair to say that when one gets below 50 it is close to being near zero and one must start looking at renewable energy to supply that closing balance. We are nearer to it with dwellings than we are with non-domestic buildings. We do have another cycle of the standards review to take place. It is scheduled by our colleagues in the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government; they will perhaps refer to that.
Cost-optimal is an obligation placed on the national authorities of all member states by the directive on buildings. Essentially, it obliges the member states when they are reviewing their regulations to take a forward-looking, long-term-public-good perspective of 30 years plus when it comes to determining the optimum levels of insulation or any other performance they build into the regulations on the basis that buildings built today are going to have a life of at least 60 years.
Dr. Brian Motherway:
The great advantage of retrofitting housing, compared to many other areas, is that it is very labour-intensive. By our reckoning, the total cost of some insulation measures is 70% labour and 30% materials and technology, which rates very well compared to other areas. That is one of the reasons the schemes have proven popular and continue to be supported. It is labour-intensive in a sector that needs work. Ultimately, we still want to build on that. The more homes that are retrofitted, the more jobs are supported. From speaking to people in their homes, they often value that component strongly. They say one of the reasons they decided to spend money upgrading their home is that they wanted to create local employment in the construction sector. It is a major platform, but the more we do - particularly in the context of pay-as-you-save and other models - the more we can unlock greater participation, and the employment potential will grow as well.
It is good that 130,000 houses have been upgraded. I accept that it is a rules-based scheme. I contacted the SEAI and then got in touch with the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Rabbitte, about a case in which someone had hired a contractor to carry out specific work involving solar panels and a high-efficiency gas boiler. When the declaration of works was submitted, a different contractor carried out the works. That can happen for a variety of reasons such as the unavailability of the original contractor but, as it transpired, the contractor who carried out the work, based on the declaration of works that was sent back to the SEAI, was not registered for some of the work and therefore the grant was null and void. A low-income household was involved and the cost was approximately €5,000. I accept that rules govern the scheme but I am concerned about the rigidity of the scheme in such a case where someone conscientiously decides to engage someone to carry out the works for their own benefit in terms of heating their home and to make an environmental contribution. A genuine mistake was made. The applicant applied in good faith with a reasonable expectation of carrying out the work. The case has not yet been resolved. I inquired of the Minister about how to pursue the case further. There will be such cases in which genuine people will find they do not qualify for the scheme for reasons beyond their control. That is harsh.
Dr. Brian Motherway:
We are certainly conscious of such cases. If the Chairman wishes to highlight a particular case to me I will look into it. One must strike a balance. We are expending public funds and we must do it properly. We want to ensure there is a quality driver in the sector as well as to make it accessible. We accept that cases and circumstances can change. If a person changes contractor that is one thing, but allowing an unregistered contractor to do work exposes the home owner in terms of the quality of the work. Issues arise such as whether the person is qualified or insured. That is why registration of contractors is important to us. We will examine the particular circumstances relating to the specific case to see whether we can do anything.
My question concerns local authority housing stock. It relates to energy and it is also aimed at the departmental officials. I have observed planned maintenance in my county in recent years. Houses that undergo planned maintenance and upgrades have had ranges removed and oil-fired central heating systems installed. From an energy efficiency point of view it seems that once one commits people to oil, one is restricting their choice in terms of fuel. Gas is not being installed and solid-fuel ranges are being removed. The best that can be done is that the range is left there until it falls into disrepair, or an open fire is sometimes left intact. The situation arises for people in local authority houses that they cannot afford a fill of oil. They either have a range that is still functioning or they have an open fire in a room but they cannot buy oil. One cannot buy it in small quantities in the same way that one can buy a bag of coal. There does not appear to be any prospect that the price of oil will decrease. From an energy policy point of view such expenditure by local authorities does not seem the right direction to take.
In terms of fuel poverty, it is shocking to realise that what is being presented is a supposedly better system. New windows and doors are also supplied. If people cannot afford to put oil in a tank they must survive in the cold. That is how it will be in the future. From the perspective of energy efficiency and fuel poverty, how do the officials from the Department propose to address that? It is a serious issue.
The questions are addressed to both groups. The energy efficiency aspect is aimed at the SEAI and the policy perspective is addressed to the officials from the Department.
I was a member of a local authority for many years. I do not think my local authority is alone in this regard but my perception is that enforcement of building and planning legislation and regulation is negligible. It seems to be an add-on. Invariably, the only enforcement that takes place is of easy targets and anything more difficult always seems to be avoided. There is a resource issue. Direction must come from the top that enforcement sections within local authorities must be properly manned by staff who know how to make a case forensically that will not fall flat when they go to court, which I have witnessed happening as well.
Dr. Brian Motherway:
I am not familiar with the particular situation in Mayo because our remit does not extend to what local authorities do with their housing stock, although we do work with some of them. We certainly encourage higher standards. The point has been well made about affordability and the environment. In general, if a range is old then any new system being installed would probably be more efficient and should cost less to run. If, as the Deputy outlined, new windows and doors are installed, that could dramatically reduce the heating requirement of the home, which will hopefully then lower the bills. However, I accept that cost could still be an issue for some people. As well as looking at the supply side it is important that the upgrades look at the demand side - whether the insulation and windows are as good as they could be. Where possible, gas-fired systems tend to be cheaper to run and more environmentally friendly, but the gas grid does not extend everywhere and then people tend to opt for oil.
That is where biomass-type systems will tend to come into their own in the future and begin to replace oil. Currently, they tend to be more expensive to put in and for certain types of housing practical challenges arise in terms of storing biomass and feeding it into the system. It is something we are in transition towards and the points are well made. Unfortunately, without details of that particular scheme, that is probably as much as I can say.
Mr. Aidan O'Connor:
On the question about the local authority replacing solid fuel with oil, it had other alternatives. It could have put in a wood pellet or a wood-burning stove. It may have opted for oil because of the slightly cleaner rating an efficient oil boiler may have, but that is a subjective decision and it should be a well-informed decision by the local authority official. It was given a range of options from which to choose. It was not that the Department insisted on one type of fuel. Obviously, gas would have been preferable to either oil or the existing solid fuel stove but also the wood-burning stove and, as mentioned earlier, the question of biomass and so on.
These houses were refurbished in recent years. They could be 30 or 40 years old. They will not be refurbished again. I am aware of cases in which people are living in one room because they cannot afford oil to heat the other rooms. One cannot buy oil in the same way one can buy a bag of coal. These are elderly people, some of whom are in their houses all day-----
Sorry, Chairman. I have not asked too many questions. I find Mr. O'Connor's answer bizarre, and I will follow it up. He said that several options are given to the local authority. What is his view regarding the choice of oil when he mentioned gas, wood-pellet stoves and so on?
Mr. Aidan O'Connor:
The local authority should have examined the problems. It should have a policy on fuel poverty and fuel poverty is what is driving the Deputy's question - that is, the issue of people who cannot afford a fill of oil or cannot get a fill over time. Sometimes people can reach an arrangement with a supplier that they can pay before the oil is supplied or supply it in advance and get paid later. There are various ways that is being done in local authorities. I do not know the particular case. I will be glad to examine it if the Deputy supplies the details and we will see what is behind that. It may have been well-intentioned but flawed thinking, if the Deputy knows what I mean. Obviously, the fuel poverty side of it should have been duly respected.
Mr. Aidan O'Connor:
Programmes were developed by the Department which were to be energy efficiency programmes and a percentage of the money - it was not 100% funding - was supplied by the Department. In terms of decision making, ranges of criteria were supplied to the local authorities and it was up to them to implement that. The Department does not implement the schemes. The responsibility rests with the local authority official, who should examine those ranges and decide what is the most suitable for a particular place. If it was upgrading, the entire house should have been adequately upgraded. I presume the entire house was adequately insulated. If people are retreating into one room it is a case of fuel poverty. When people can only afford a bag of coal or other solid fuel, they can buy by the bag. That is often a cost-inefficient way of heating a home, but that may be the way people have to budget. The local authority should have taken account of the fuel poverty issue.
Mr. Michael Layde:
That is at the heart of the new regulations we have been discussing this afternoon. There will be a much more robust system for dealing with certification from design stage to construction, including an inspection plan during the construction phase, and then final certification that the building has been built in accordance with the specification. The various professionals involved, including an overall signed certifier - that is the term that will be used - will be required to sign off at design, building and completion phases and will be legally responsible for that, which is not currently the case. That will represent a significant change when we introduce the new arrangements.
Mr. Michael Layde:
In terms of enforcement, it is a matter for the building control authorities. The issue of resources has been raised, and resources are an issue. One must acknowledge that in terms of the public service. Some 8,000 people have left the local authority system in recent years. However, we are working closely with the local authorities to ensure the new regulatory regime is accompanied by a much more robust enforcement regime working on a regional basis and using electronic documentation rather than the traditional paper-based system. The intent of the new regulatory system coupled with the new enforcement regime is to ensure that the types of issue to which the Deputy refers are better addressed in future, but within the resource constraints which are the reality of the current situation.
I have a question for the Sustainable Energy Ireland representatives regarding their views on the use of infra-red heating systems, which I am aware are widely used in countries worldwide, and whether there is an opportunity for us to promote that type of heating as we try to move away from fossil fuels. From what I can gather there seem to be good outcomes for users as well as economically and environmentally.
Regarding back boilers, do the witnesses believe that the efficiency of those being installed is sufficiently high? What is the minimum level they would accept?
With regard to the building regulations, do the witnesses have any policy on lifetime adaptable housing for developers into the future? It is clear that people want to remain in their own homes for as long as they can. If certain matters can be addressed at that stage, is that something on which they have a policy?
Mr. Kevin O'Rourke:
Radiant heat in general is a more comfortable form of heat than, say, convective heat. Traditionally, we had electric storage heaters, which have been a mixture of both, as have what we call radiators. In fact, much of the heat given out by radiators is through convection.
The issue as regards the efficiency of infra-red heating is not the technical efficiency but the actual cost of electricity. Currently, people are paying about two and a half times as much for a unit of electricity at ordinary day rates as they do for a typical oil- or gas-fired system. That is the big barrier at the moment, but as we develop our electricity system, particularly with more renewables, and enter into a smart-grid environment in which we have more time-based tariffs, for example, the use of electricity for heating becomes a real option. It also helps as a demand balance to counteract the variability of renewables, but that is a bigger issue. In principle it can have a role to play in that environment, but if the Deputy is asking about the technical efficiency of infra-red heating as against electrical heating of any kind, it has that challenge to meet.
In fact, night-rate electricity is really what must apply in terms of electricity being economical at current rates.
With regard to the efficiency levels of boilers, it is now mandatory under the building regulations for new homes to install highly efficient boilers. They are over 90% efficient. A traditional oil or gas-fired boiler in an older house has an efficiency rate of between 65% and 70% approximately. A solid-fuel back boiler is between 35% and 50% efficient, and an open fire is approximately 20% efficient. That is the scale of variation.
Mr. Aidan O'Connor:
With regard to lifetime adaptable homes, part M of the building regulations deals with access for the disabled and visitable ground-floor WCs. It is the minimum standard. With regard to quality, the matter is covered in our quality housing design guidelines document, produced a number of years ago. It advises that the principles of lifetime adaptable homes should be applied to the design of new homes. It is a question of not creating barriers to future adaptation. One should have built-in strategies as to how to adapt when the time arises. The more adaptable the house, the better the design in many ways. A heavy design input is required.
The Department and the National Disability Authority have a strategy on working together on these issues. It is very much part of our focus.
Dr. Motherway can relax as my question is for the departmental officials, including Mr. Layde. I accept what Mr. Layde said in his opening remarks and in some of his responses that we need more robust regulation and monitoring of regulations regarding our building control system. It is frustrating from everyone's point of view that we are examining this matter after the horse has bolted. It is critical that we do not allow circumstances such as these to arise again, not only in regard to the areas that are now being regulated but also in respect of those areas where we are leaving vacancies in the system. I want to focus on this specifically.
In January of this year, the water services legislation was before the committee. At that stage, the Minister and his officials committed to including provisions in the regulations we are discussing today to regulate contractors who are providing services to the public regarding the upgrading of the septic tanks. In my submission on the draft regulations under the water services legislation, I highlighted that specific issue again.
I was extremely disappointed, when I raised this issue through a parliamentary question in October, to be told there are no plans for regulation in this area. I was told it is the responsibility of the homeowner to ensure the contractor who carries out the work does so to the proper standard. There has been a litany of cases involving fly-by-night contractors putting down tarmacadam and roofing houses. During the building boom, the problem was exacerbated. Fly-by-night contractors were even building apartment blocks, and we now see the consequences.
The last thing we want is rogue contractors telling people, especially the elderly, that on foot of the upcoming inspection regime, their septic tanks will have to be upgraded, perhaps at a cost of €2,500. The contractors may dig a hole with a mini digger, fill it in again and leave with the cash in their back pockets. Six or 12 months later, a local authority inspector may say the tank is not up to standard and must be upgraded. There will be no comeback for an older person in such circumstances. It is crucial that the regulations before us be amended to take account, from February 2013, of contractors who will offer to carry out inspections of septic tanks in addition to the official inspections, or to carry out upgrading works. Contractors have already been advertising their services and making particular claims about what they can do to upgrade and improve septic tanks. This will be compounded next year once the inspection regime is rolled out across the country. I want an assurance from the delegates, as the regulators and supervisors in this area, that there will be proper regulations put in place and that vulnerable people will not be exploited by rogue contractors offering services that they cannot provide.
I want to clarify a matter. I was not talking about timber-framed houses because I actually live in one. I have no problem with them. I was referring to timber-framed apartments. I am separated from my neighbour by two plaster slabs.
Mr. Michael Layde:
I am not familiar with the exchange members had with my colleagues in the water services area of the Department, but I am perfectly happy to raise the issue and work with them. I take the more general point on builders and the certification thereof. We are working with the industry in regard to the development of a new system of certification for builders so people can be confident they are dealing with an appropriately certified builder. Initially, we are examining the potential to develop a voluntary code of practice that could, perhaps, be put on a statutory footing. One of the lessons from the recent past, which we acknowledge and which is part of the broader reform programme, is that there is a need for public confidence in the building sector. This is a view shared by the responsible members of the building sector. They are working with us at present on this. We will certainly pass on members' concerns to our colleagues in the water services section. We will be happy to work with them in the context of the regulations.
I am surprised to hear that they have not been raising this issue with the delegates. With all due respect, I believe a voluntary code is pointless. We now see the mess people are living in as a result of voluntary codes.
When the inspection regime starts in 2013, many people will be in very vulnerable circumstances. They will fear the inspector's visit although they will want to upgrade their septic tanks to an appropriate standard. I am told no regulation will be put in place in advance. In other words, there will be a cowboy's contract such that contractors will be able to exploit vulnerable people, especially the elderly. That is not acceptable. I ask the delegates to contact the officials in the water services section urgently to bring forward clear, unambiguous regulations in this area so people will not be exploited on foot of their fear of a potential inspection by a local authority official or the EPA.
When an issue arises on foot of an inspection, the required work, while obviously very unpleasant, will be very expensive. Can we ensure that the financial fallout will not bring itself to bear on the hard-pressed householder in so far as this is reasonably practicable?
I want Deputy Naughten to correct his statement that there will be no regulation and that there will be cowboys and a free-for-all position on septic tanks because that is not how it will be. It will not be a case of a cowboy builder going onto a site and pointing out a septic tank's faults and the required remedial action.
Mr. Michael Layde:
While we will raise these concerns with our colleagues who are dealing directly with it, as Senator Keane noted, the objective in this regard is to have a system in which septic tanks meet the national and European Union requirements. This means that where they do not, the work must be carried out to a satisfactory standard to ensure they ultimately will deal with it. I am aware that colleagues are considering issues pertaining to affordability of the works that must be done on septic tanks and there will be announcements in due course in that regard. In the meantime, we certainly will raise the concerns expressed with those colleagues and will ensure they are aware of the joint committee's concerns. They are already determined to ensure this will not be a mechanism by which individuals can be exploited by rogue builders or anyone else.
I was talking about people who are going about door-to-door offering to carry out remedial works. I do not believe an issue will arise in cases in which an inspection has been carried out and the contractor will liaise with the officials from the local authority. However, quite a number of people know there is a problem with their septic tanks at present and wish to have that addressed in advance of any inspection taking place.
These are the people I fear will be preyed upon by cowboy contractors unless a clear system of regulation is put in place. I flagged this issue with the departmental officials more than 12 months ago and it was discussed by this joint committee last January. I included this issue in my submission on the Water Services (Amendment) Bill and I am surprised that at year-end, those who have responsibility for the area of regulation have not been communicated with by the very same officials with responsibility for water services. In itself, that is surprising and it means a similar situation will develop as in the past, whereby in four or five years' time, members will come before this committee to ask what shall be done to deal with the elderly couple who spent €5,000 to upgrade their septic tank, only to then find out the contractor did not do it to a basic standard.