The corners cut and shortcuts taken during Ireland’s property boom mean that Priory Hall, negative equity and half-finished ghost estates are but the very tip of a continental-shelf sized iceberg, and every day brings new titanic tales of grief and misery. The latest mayday to reach our ears came in a short, single word: Pyrite.
Pyrite occurs naturally in certain rock formations. Left alone in the ground it’s grand, but when a quarry in North County Dublin sold this ‘fool’s gold’ to developers for use as infill beneath floor slabs, disaster beckoned. Aoife McGee’s house was built in 2003 and tested positive for Pyrite in 2009. She discovered the problem when cracks began to appear and grow; “it was really when the kitchen floor snapped in half and I investigated by pulling up a few tiles I saw that the concrete slab had snapped in half underneath”.
Aoife also has a “visibly growing gable wall where you can see that the house is actually leaning forward. You come in from work every day and you are looking at the cracks and you assess what new damage there is. It completely takes over your life. Some days it gets to you so much, there have been times that I have driven into my estate and it’s just gotten too much and I have turned around and driven right back out again, it’s really devastating.”
Pyrite causes damage when it comes into contact with water and expands. Then it heaves and cracks leaving structural damage in buildings. Remediation work typically involves removing the concrete floor slabs and the infill beneath the floor, then replacing it with high quality material before replacing the floor slabs and repairing the walls and any other structural damage. This can run into the tens of thousands of euro.
Pyrite emerged first in North County Dublin in several new housing developments in 2007. Since then schools and community buildings have also tested positive. While the quarry that was selling Pyrite-infected materials has shut down and a number of houses in the first estates which discovered the problem have been sorted out, others are still waiting for their homes to be fixed.
Derek Cribbin, another homeowner living in a Pyrite-damaged home, explained; “it’s the psychological impact of it. I have three young kids… we try our best not to talk about it in front of them but the little lad, the five year old, the other day wanted to know when we were going to move out of the house and when were we going to get the Pyrite out”.
“Our careers are on hold because we can’t focus on doing any courses. Your attention is taken away from everything because when you are in the house you see the damage that is being caused everyday. There is also an awful sense of helplessness because we are outside the six years statute of limitations so we can’t go after anybody… there is nothing from a legal point of view that we can do. Our house is only seven years old but it is as if that’s tough shit, the law doesn’t see us as having a case against anyone.”
While the Government-appointed Pyrite Panel Report puts the number of Pyrite claims lodged with a structural guarantee insurance company at about 850, this is considered to be a conservative estimate of the numbers affected. All new homes that are sold come with a structural guarantee included. The main structural guarantee insurer in Ireland is Homebond which provides a low cost, minimal cover structural insurance system. The result has been disastrous for homeowners.
Sandra Lewis of Pyrite Action told rabble that, “everybody felt very comfortable that they had a structural guarantee from Homebond which was the industry leader”. However in August 2011 Homebond sent letters stating that they had no legal liability whatsoever and weren’t going to have any hand, act or part in repairing homes. The insurance, according to Sandra, was “not worth the paper it was written on. It’s like picking and choosing what you will and will not cover, what they did is they started to remediate them but then realised the extent of it and pulled back from it”.
While Pyrite damage in Ireland is a relatively new phenomenon it emerged as a significant problem in the UK in the 1960s and also in Canada in the 1990s. Since then most Western countries insist on rigorous and ongoing geological testing of quarries to ensure that Pyrite-infected materials cannot be sold. Despite recent problems with Pyrite, Ireland still fails to insist on any level of geological testing.
The response from County Councils, who have specific legal responsibilities as building control authorities, has been minimal. Fingal County Council, which was home to the quarry selling Pyrite, recently published a report claiming knowledge of only a handful of Pyrite-affected homes in their area. This is despite conservative estimates already published by the Government indicating that 570 homeowners in Fingal have lodged claims for Pyrite damage. Local authorities have generally failed to take enforcement action against developers who have breached building control regulations by using defective materials such as Pyrite.
Householders seeking to address the Pyrite problem have also had to contend with a culture of silence. Sandra told us that “it won’t get fixed if people won’t put up their hands and say they have a problem and unfortunately it is one of those things that people have been quite secretive about because they don’t want to be the one person on their road raising their hand about the problem. [They] don’t want to bring their property value down, or they don’t want to let it be known that their development has Pyrite, but at the end of the day everybody knows, Ireland is so small. Every engineer worth their salt going into your house will spot it straight away, there will be no mistaking it. So you won’t sell your house anyway, you know you have to acknowledge the problem to fix it and hopefully get certified. It won’t go away, it’s a one way thing, it will only get worse unless it is remedied.”
The pot of gold at the end of the Celtic Tiger rainbow is a steaming pile of Pyrite. While the lives of Aoife, Derek and hundreds of others have been destroyed, yet again those responsible are beyond reach, untouchable and laughing all the way to the bank. Unreachable, that is, until people stand up and speak out.