School building that had serious structural and fire safety defects built in just 20 weeks when usual time was 60, court hears

By Tim Healy for

A school building which suffered from serious structural and fire safety defects was built in just 20 weeks when the usual time to do so is 60 weeks, the High Court has heard.

Co Tyrone builders, Western Building Systems Ltd, achieved the “record” 20 week construction time through a combination of hard work and driving subcontractors to ensure they completed Ardgillan Community College in Balbriggan, Co Dublin, in time for the opening-of-term deadline in 2009 as required by the Education Minister, the company’s counsel John Trainor SC told the court.

The Minister for Education and Skills is suing Western over defects in Ardgillan some of which have been agreed between experts and others which are in dispute.

Western, which was set up in 1991 in Coaisland by Martin McCloskey (68), a joiner by trade who got into the prefabricated timber building business, denies the claims.

Having to deliver such a project at “breakneck speed” created the risk of shoddy works by contractors and subcontractors and it was in those circumstances the minister’s architects and structural engineers overseeing the project had a clear duty to monitor the work which Western understood would be the case, Mr Trainor said.

Counsel said as a result of that failure to monitor and inspect the work in process by design team members pre-qualified by the minister, KSM Architects, Oppermann Associates engineers and Teague and Sally Architects, the minister is morally responsible for the cost of remediation works to the school. Certification of completion was provided to the minister to state the work was according to standard, he said.

The minister says the remediation cost is €11.5m while Western says the works could have cost as little as €1.2m if they had been carried out expeditiously. It says the minister’s claim is vastly exaggerated.

Western also argues 50pc contributory negligence because the minister knew site inspections were going to be a guarantee of quality.

A number of third party subcontractors and other companies brought into the case on the basis of seeking a contribution or indemnity against them are no longer in the case and those matters have been settled, the court heard.

David McGrath SC, opening the case for the minister, said Western built some 42 schools under a build and design scheme introduced in 2007 and in circumstances where there was an urgent need for school places in the era of the Celtic Tiger and expanding populations which could not be accommodated in existing schools.

When the external wall of a school in Edinburgh, built under the rapid build scheme, collapsed because of inadequate ties to an internal wall, it led to inspections in Irish schools where a number of defects, including fire safety defects, were discovered.

Ardgillen, alone among the schools, had to be closed and students relocated and others accommodated in temporary accommodation.

While remedial works on the other schools, which are the subject of separate proceedings, were carried out with students in situ, a significant number of works still need to be carried out at Ardgillan, Mr McGrath said.

Counsel said a baffling feature of Western’s defence was it denied there was an express implied term that the schools would be structurally safe.

The idea that a company would take on the job of building 42 schools and not think it was responsible for making them structurally safe was “staggering”, counsel said.

Mr Trainor, for Western, said the terms of the contract did not mention the words structurally safe but obviously that was an implied term within the specifications for the schools that they would comply with all requirements.

It was wrong for the minister to plead this in a general, vague and nonspecific way it has been pleaded, he said.

Earlier Mr Trainor also said that if one was to take what Mr McGrath said one could be forgiven for thinking Western was not just “another shoddy cowboy builder”, but one that was consciously or recklessly a company which built with complete indifference to proper standards.

Western’s position is that it acted “exactly as it was expected” under the design and build contract put in place by the minister.

While it had legal liability for the defects, Western says the moral responsibility and liability lay with the minister and particularly with others, namely the minister’s own design team members and advisers, he said.

The case resumes on Wednesday before Mr Justice Brian O’Moore.