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Ex-builder: suppliers ‘must have known’ about defective blocks

Former construction professional recalls being told crumbling blocks were ‘too fresh’ but notes all blocks are tested before they are sold

A PYRITE crisis has been predicted in Clare by a former construction sector professional, whose own home is now beginning to show signs of defective concrete in its blocks.

The man, who spoke to The Champion on condition of anonymity, shared his experience of working during the years of the Celtic Tiger building boom.

He recalled instances where bales of concrete blocks would “crumble” on site, and have to be returned to the supplier.

He said that when construction companies raised concerns, they would be told those blocks were “too fresh”.

The man also believes that those making and supplying the products must have known of wider quality issues. He added that while people are paying 15-30 year mortgages, some homes won’t last that long and he warned of the toll of the issue on people’s mental health.

In the early 2000s, then working full-time in the sector, the man built his own family home.

“Thanks to his contacts, he said he was able to work with some of the best tradespeople in the business.

“They were all good lads and I had the best block layer,” he said.

“To me, the blocks seemed rock solid. Everyone commented on the quality of the block work.”

Around two years ago, cracks began to appear. “I began to see horizontal and vertical lines appearing on three external walls,” he outlined.

“I saw a jigsaw pattern and I knew something wasn’t right. You can getting setting cracks, this was something different. I made vent holes in one of the walls and the blocks were literally drowned wet under the render. I contacted a friend of mine, who is a senior construction engineer, and sent him photos. He was back to me in a couple of days and said: ‘I’m really sorry, you have pyrite and you’re going to have to knock your house’.”

His initial response was to find a way to fix the problem, but he was warned about his options.

“I have a construction brain, so I was thinking of solutions,” he said.

“My engineer contact told me I would have a battle on my hands. He advised me to join a group and I then found out about the Clare Pyrite Action Group (CPAG) who have been brilliant.”

The engineer contact also confirmed the prevalence of the problem.

“After he told me I had pyrite, he added that I was the third person that week that he had had to break the same news to. It was only Tuesday.”

The former construction professional immediately began to think of the projects he had worked on over the years.

“I was involved in a lot of builds and the blocks came from the same source,” he said. “Recently, I’ve driven around some of them and I’ve seen the same pattern of cracking. It’s unmistakeable.”

The man recalled experiences on site, but said tradespeople didn’t have any sense that defects in blocks could be a widespread issue.

“During the boom years, you might get a bale of blocks where some of them would start crumbing in your hands,” he said.

“When we would get on to the supplier, we’d be told that the crumbling blocks were too fresh. We didn’t have any reason to think otherwise. The fact is that blocks are tested before they’re sold. Everything is based on strength and the companies who made and supplied the blocks must have known there were problems on a wider scale. They had to know, and they should have to pay into a support scheme.”

As to the scale of the defective blocks issue, the man said that, based on his knowledge and contacts, thousands of homes will have to be fully demolished.

“The government is talking about a housing crisis,” he said. “At the same time, thousands of homes will have to be demolished. There’s no other solution for them.

“Down the line, the stress of this will kill people if proper support isn’t provided.”

The man urged others affected to join CPAG. “I would say to people seeing these kinds of cracks that they shouldn’t ignore them,” he said.

“Don’t fill them and re-plaster. You are only throwing money into a big empty hole. Go to your politicians. Let them know how bad this is. It’s a crisis and it’s only going to get worse.”

Core sampling is currently the officially-recognised test for deleterious materials in blocks. With the minimum cost at around €7,000, the man has not yet gone down that route.

“I was actually advised to hold off on the testing until Clare gets access to the [Defective Concrete Blocks] Grant Scheme,” he said.

“I contacted one company who told me three rounds of testing could be needed and that that would come to a total price of £20,000 sterling.

“Unfortunately, I know now what I’m dealing with. Cracks on the front and back are one thing. Your corners are the strength structure, though, and to see them cracking is a big concern.

“There’s a sun room at the back and when it rains, it’s like a sponge. The water is coming through and dripping onto the floor.

“In a couple of years, the house will be down around me.”

The man, who had his house pumped to insulate the wall cavities around seven years ago is sceptical of a possible connection to the cracking issue.

“To me, that’s a lame excuse,” he said. “Concrete blocks shouldn’t have any kind of chemical reaction in that situation.”

About Fiona McGarry

Fiona McGarry joined The Clare Champion as a reporter after a four-year stint as producer of Morning Focus on Clare FM. Prior to that she worked for various radio, print and online titles, including Newstalk, Maximum Media and The Tuam Herald. Fiona’s media career began in her native Mayo when she joined Midwest Radio. She is the maker of a number of radio documentaries, funded by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI). She has also availed of the Simon Cumbers Media Fund to report on development issues supported by Irish Aid in Haiti. She won a Justice Media Award for a short radio series on the work of Bedford Row Project, which supports prisoners and families in the Mid-West. Fiona also teaches on the Journalism programmes at NUI Galway. If you have a story and would like to get in touch with Fiona you can email her at fmcgarry@clarechampion.ie or telephone 065 6864146.

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