There is no doubt that the housing crisis in Ireland has further deteriorated since the pandemic hit and the construction industry was put on-hold. Demand for accommodation is of growing concern – not only in the capital, but across the country. Whilst looking for a sustainable solution, the repurposing of existing properties seems like an obvious choice – but restrictive conservation legislation currently in place in Ireland limits the feasibility of this option. Tim Cahill of Grayling Properties discusses how an alternative approach to our conservation laws could help solve this problem.
The Issue with Current Legislation
The blanket approach
Conservation laws in Ireland have long adopted a one-size-fits-all approach, in that a building is either a protected structure – or it is not. Under current legislation, if a structure is listed on the RPS (Record of Protected Structures) then all fixtures and features forming part of the interior, exterior of the structure, and all within the building’s curtilage are protected, and all future changes are subject to planning permissions. Therefore, if a building is deemed to be a protected structure, there are strict guidelines in place surrounding building maintenance and renovation. These unwieldy guidelines have made the path to renovating these buildings extremely uneconomical, with even simple works such as painting the interior or replacing windows potentially requiring planning permission. As an example: a recent conservation project undertaken by Dublin Civic Trust for the restoration of a single building took over three years to complete, at the high cost of €650,000.
One issue with this current legislation is that it does not consider the state of the site. All structures are granted the same ‘blanket’ level of protection. As a result, many of these sites which could be used for much-needed housing, are left vacant and likely to fall into disrepair. While historic and protected sites have value to offer, we need to have a broader conversation around how best to incorporate that value rather than utilising a blunt instrument legislation and treat all sites equally.
The question of sustainability
With ambitious plans to transform Dublin into the 15-minute City and a growing housing crisis, changes are needed to this legislation to deliver on the vision of enhanced liveability in our cities. With EU leaders already implementing the sustainable 15-minute city model, we must deliver on this approach.
The average EU citizen spends over 200 hours commuting each year. During the pandemic, globally we experienced a reduction in our CO2 emmissions, after people began working remotely. The idea of the 15-minute model is that citizens would find themselves within a 15-minute walk from essential urban services – reducing the number of cars on the road and the amount of CO2 in our atmosphere. However, currently the link between this vision and the affordability of the renovation of listed properties is broken and must be fixed.
In 2006 Ireland adopted the Energy Performance Building Directive into law, to promote the improvement of the energy performance of buildings within our communities, with one important exception, protected structures. Under our current conservation laws, not only do protected structures not require a BER (Building Energy Rating certificate), but there are also restrictions placed on those who do wish to make their building more energy efficient. This apparent contradiction requires a practical solution if we are to meet our climate-change commitments of net-zero carbon emissions by the year 2050.
What can be done? Simply put, the best and most sustainable way of preserving buildings is to make them relevant, useful and fit-for-purpose for their owners and occupiers. We need to transform older buildings into the comfortable homes the modern city-dweller desires. If we look to the UK as an example, they have a three tier, graded system in place which allows for the protection of heritage sites of value while sites that are likely to sit derelict are subjected to more lenient planning permissions and controls – allowing them to be transformed into accommodation. By implementing a similar model in Ireland, we can protect the sites worth protecting, while revitalising the sites that have fallen into neglect.
To make the renovation of these sites feasible and economical for property developers, we must also review our Fire Safety laws in conjunction with our planning laws. There is a need to be sympathetic and in harmony with our traditional buildings which were not constructed with current regulations in mind. Fire Safety legislation and Conservation Principles are non-cohesive to protected structures and there needs to be more onus on Fire Safety Management post works. Typically, if a Fire Safety Certificate is required, a Disability Access Cert (DAC) is required. Whilst there has been attempts in recent years to relax this requirement, it is not enough. In a multi-unit residential building, a more pragmatic approach is needed.
In 2020, the Minister for Housing and Planning, Darragh O’Brien gave an undertaking to review the rules currently in place surrounding Architectural Heritage Protection. The easing of such rules would allow for sites of significant heritage value to remain protected, while allowing sites of lesser value to be repurposed to meet our growing need for housing. We can, and must, seize the opportunity to change our approach to conservation, ensuring a more sustainable solution to the regeneration of our cities, while simultaneously making great strides towards the easing of our housing challenges.