The conversation around increased urban residential densities in Ireland has in recent times turned to the theme of sustainable development, writes David Rouse.
Engineers Ireland’s recent report 'The State of Ireland 2019 - A review of housing and infrastructure in Ireland' is an assessment of the country’s housing stock. Among the topics considered are compact urban growth, and densification, including apartment construction.
Practitioners will be familiar with the 'March 2018 Design Standards for New Apartments - Guidelines for Planning Authorities'. Chapter 6.13 of the guidelines requires that planning applications for apartment developments must include a building lifecycle report ('BLR').
Intended to include an assessment of long-term running and maintenance costs of an estate, a BLR is key to proper management of a development into the future.
The report should demonstrate the measures considered by the developer to manage effectively and reduce running costs for the benefit of residents.
The guidelines also require the consideration of the manner of compliance of a development with the Multi-Unit Developments Act 2011, including the establishment of an estate owners’ management company ('OMC').
OMCs are the not-for-profit companies made up of all the owners in an estate. They own and control the estate common areas.
Under the direction of a board elected by the owners, OMCs arrange services to the estate’s shared spaces- maintenance and upkeep, block insurance, waste, recycling collection and so on.
From media reports or professional engagements engineers will be familiar with the legacy construction and financial issues facing many OMCs. High-profile cases such as Priory Hall, Longboat Quay, as well as other less prominent estates have featured in press coverage in recent years. Corporate governance failings in OMCs receive periodic attention in court reporting.
The largest of the country’s OMCs have multi-million-euro annual service charge budgets. Untrained, and for the most part unpaid, directors are entrusted with the stewardship of these companies and their finances. (The term 'volunteer director' is consciously avoided, because there is no such thing in law- a director is a director.) It is estimated that there are 7,000 to 8,000 OMCs in the country.
A recent independent report entitled 'Owners’ Management Companies - Sustainable apartment living for Ireland' considers issues familiar to those with even a passing knowledge of managed estates and OMCs.
The report was jointly commissioned by the Housing Agency, and Clúid Housing. The Housing Agency works with the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, local authorities, and approved housing bodies (AHB) in the delivery of housing and housing services. Clúid is the country’s largest AHB, managing a stock of a little more than 7,000 homes.
Issues receiving attention include the inadequacy of annual service charges, failure to provide for building maintenance (sinking) funds, and the persistent problem of mounting service charge debts.
The report examines international best practice in apartment management and regulation. New South Wales and Ontario are among the jurisdictions considered.
The future demand for high-density housing is signalled in the context of the government's new policy, such as the National Planning Framework, and the Climate Action Plan. Recommendations for reform are put forward.
Of particular interest to the engineering profession will be the recommendations around fire safety. It is recommended that every five years an OMC commissions a fire safety report. Such a report would identify necessary fire safety works, and recommend upgrades based on industry practice.
In order to assess compliance with fire safety procedures, and health and safety obligations, periodic inspections of multi-unit developments are proposed. Evaluation of conformity with building regulations would come within an inspectorate’s remit.
The report recommends measures for improvements in insurance cover and sinking fund provision for apartment blocks. Regulation of OMCs is recommended, together with dispute resolution processes designed to avoid costly visits to the courts.
Training for OMC directors, legal changes to enhance lease covenant enforcement, and improvements to communication with OMC members, are other measures put forward for the sector.
The overarching objective of the recommendations is to support OMCs as the glue binding the shared spaces, services and interests key to sustainable high-density housing.
Change of mindset
The 'State of Ireland 2019' proposes that living in higher density communities, including apartments, will require a change of mindset. Reference is made to 2018 research for the Housing Agency into housing attitudes and aspirations.
Feedback in that research noted that apartment living was viewed as suitable for renting, but held little appeal for long-term living and bringing up families.
Attitudinal change in Ireland to high-density living demands discernible improvements in the long-term management of this key component of our housing infrastructure.
'Owners’ Management Companies - Sustainable apartment living for Ireland' delivers recommendations to bring the governance of the management of Irish apartments in line with international best practice.
Author: David Rouse is an advisor with the Housing Agency, a director of the Apartment Owners’ Network CLG, and a director of one of the country’s largest OMCs. Views expressed are those of the author.
'Owners’ Management Companies - Sustainable apartment living for Ireland' is available at www.housingagency.ie/publications/owners-management-companies-sustainable-apartment-living-ireland