'Absolutely reasonable' to expect competent builder to complete school in 22 weeks, court hears

The Minister for Education has taken an action against Western Building Systems over the alleged systemic defects in the construction of Ardgillan Community School in Balbriggan
'Absolutely reasonable' to expect competent builder to complete school in 22 weeks, court hears

An assistant secretary in the Department of Education has told the High Court it was "absolutely reasonable" to expect a competent builder to complete a new school in 22 weeks under a rapid system-build process, rather than by traditional methods which can take more than three times longer.

Hubert Loftus, who has headed the department's planning and building unit since 2017, was giving evidence in the ongoing action by the Minister for Education and Skills against Tyrone-based Western Building Systems over the alleged systemic defects in the construction of Ardgillan Community School in Balbriggan, Co Dublin.

The Minister says remediation works will cost some €11.5 million, whereas Western says it could have been done for as little as €1.2 million if the works had been carried out expeditiously, adding the Minister's claim is vastly exaggerated.

The court has been told, during the 10 days of the hearing via a hybrid Trialview video/physical courtroom before Mr Justice Brian O'Moore, that among the defects were failure to properly tie inner and outer walls, fire safety problems and electrical defects. The school in Ardgillan had to be completely rewired despite only having been built in 2009.

Rapid scheme

Under cross-examination on Wednesday by John Trainor SC, for Western, Mr Loftus was asked if the 22-week timeline for completing the Ardgillan school under the rapid design/build system was what would have been expected.

Mr Loftus replied that the timeline was expressed by experts and from experience of other schools built under this system it "was absolutely reasonable to expect a competent builder to achieve the standard required".

Mr Loftus earlier told the Minister's counsel, David McGrath SC, that when the department first learned of the defects in Ardgillan, the reaction was one of “shock, horror and dismay that a company could have built a school which had such defects hidden away in the bowels of the building and covered them up until we could open them up".

He said Ardgillen was closed down when the defects were discovered and the department immediately went into crisis management mode because it was an unprecedented situation in terms of the issues and scale of the matter.

'Sense of dread'

Given that Western had built 39 other schools, it was with "a sense of dread" that Mr Loftus and others went out to another school in Tyrrelstown, Dublin, when opening up works were carried out after the Ardgillan inspection had taken place, he said.

He felt it was important to be there on that day, adding their "worst fears" were realised when the opening up took place. That school closed early for the term due to the issues and an inspection programme in the other Western-built schools began.

What was found was "a mountain to climb and it was an Everest in terms of what we were facing," he told the court. The crisis management unit relocated to Tullamore and daily press releases were issued, aimed at the various school communities as there were concerns about whether it was safe to keep the schools open.

Mr Loftus said there were some 16,500 pupils attending 46 schools surveyed, including non-Western schools.

In Mr Trainor's earlier cross-examination of Mr Loftus, counsel asked if his "strong and understandable reaction" following the discovery of the defects meant he believed there was a deliberate or reckless decision to leave such issues.

Mr Loftus said he supposed it was hard to know, but in circumstances where they were continually going into school buildings and "finding surprises, none of which are pleasant" it was not what one would expect from a competent builder.

He also said Western did not meet its contractual responsibilities, which was clear to him when the defects were discovered and also "as I sit in the witness box today".

Asked if, in conversations he had with Western's founder Martin McCloskey, he held the view that Western was solely responsible for all the problems, Mr Loftus said his conversations with Mr McCloskey were "quite limited".

He added Western had not been forthcoming in supplying information about the builds which would have helped "understand what was before us in 2019".

The department's experts had to effectively "reverse engineer" the buildings because what was found when they were opened up did not correspond with the drawings.

Mr Loftus also told the court the first time Western accepted any responsibility was effectively "on the steps of the court" last September.

The hearing continues.

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