Within moments of entering Barrie Kidd's home at the Hardwicke complex in Dublin's Smithfield, you can tell it was built by the man known as the "shoebox king". It bears all the hallmarks of troubled developer Liam Carroll's building style.
Although the space itself is bright and cheery, this is more a testament to the pride which its owner shows for his home than the quality of the build.
The dimly lit long corridors of the apartment block, complete with rows of doors leading off the main passageway, immediately tell that Carroll's oft-repeated development formula has been heavily employed here.
Another sign is the apartment's narrow hallway leading to a small living room, with an even tinier 'galley'-type kitchen on one side of the room. So too is its cramped bathroom, thin walls, and the lack of storage space.
Kidd says there are around 300 apartments in the sprawling complex, most of which are investment properties rented out by their owners.
Again, this is typical of Carroll's 'pile-em-high' approach to development, which is evident in most of his other apartment complexes around the city landscape.
Kidd chose the Hardwicke mainly due to its location, and bought there in the late 1990s just after it was built.
"To be honest with you, I quite enjoy it. It is quite central and because I own it myself that makes a difference, I look after it," he says. "I put the electric shower in myself. The bath was here. I put down the tiles on the wall and floor too. They had finished them with tiling but it fell down so it had to be replaced.
"The apartments are not made for storage... Every bit of stuff I have has to be hidden away. It's a real chore."
* * *
Liam Carroll started his career in development 20 years ago with a rather unremarkable apartment block and townhouse scheme at Fisherman's Wharf in Ringsend, Dublin 4.
His company Zoe Developments – and associated companies with names such as Danninger and Royceton – went on to thrive during the following two decades.
Frequently, his calling card involved buying inner-city sites that no one else would touch, availing of the various urban regeneration tax breaks in the process. He is said to have built more apartments in Dublin city centre than all of his rivals put together.
These included developments at Bachelors Walk, Arran Quay, Ushers Quay, Dorset Street, Brunswick Street, Charlotte Quay, Jervis Street, Abbey Street, much of Mountjoy Square, and in Christchurch and Smithfield.
Later on, it also included the landmark Gasworks development on Barrow Street, as well as hotels and other commercial developments further afield.
Now, Carroll's empire is in crisis and he is in serious debt to the banks, which are owed a total of €1.3bn by Zoe.
Earlier this month, the Supreme Court ordered the liquidation of key companies in the group following a protracted court battle with ACC bank, which is owed €136m by Zoe companies.
Meanwhile, Carroll's two Tallaght hotels – the Glashaus Hotel and the Tallaght Cross Hotel – have closed and their rooms are being rented out as apartments.
But while his business empire may be crumbling around him, Liam Carroll's legacy remains in the architecture he leaves behind.
Despite attempts to contact him for an interview, the notoriously media shy Carroll was unavailable to speak to the Sunday Tribune.
One former associate describes him as "very hands on – he did every deal and signed every cheque".
His was very much an inhouse operation, initially at least even eschewing the use of architects. "He was renowned for sticking to minimum sizes as allowed for in the legislation. He didn't really look towards sustainability or anything like that – it was all cheap and cheerful. If there was a less expensive way of doing it, he would do it," the former associate says.
"For example, he used slimline electric storage heaters which are major consumers of energy. It was very much that the fabric of the building would be to the standard, and nothing above. So wall insulation would be kept to a minimum too. He wouldn't go the extra mile.
"It was a nightmare place over the years for architects to work, especially those with a bit of flair. It wasn't about winning awards – it was about getting the job done and moving on."
"So he would look at plans that had been drawn up and say: 'We're not using stainless steel. We'll use galvanised mild steel', which is less costly."
* * *
The results of Carroll's approach are to be seen all around the capital city.
Posing as a potential tenant, we visited a three-bed townhouse located where it all began – Fisherman's Wharf in Ringsend.
Situated close to the Eastlink toll bridge, it is directly across the Liffey from the 02 arena with cars whizzing by at all hours of the day and night.
Twenty years on, time has not been kind to the property.
You enter from the street, and are greeted by an almost obligatory long narrow corridor, with an equally narrow kitchen to the right as you walk in.
Then there are cramped stairs, leading to a small living room with dated furniture that would not look out of place in an episode of the Royle Family comedy television show.
Next door is a small single bedroom, with a bed and little else apart from a closet.
Up another narrow flight of stairs and there are two more small double bedrooms.
The main bathroom is basic – a bathtub, electric shower, stand-alone sink unit and toilet. There is clear evidence of mould on the ceiling.
We are told that the landlord decided to drop the asking price for the rent – to €1,150 a month – rather than invest in doing the place up.
Next we visit a two-bed apartment at Bertram Court in Christchurch, Dublin 8.
It is accessed via wrought iron gates, behind which is a gravel driveway with cars parked in front of towering apartment blocks.
This apartment has a small living room, with an archway segregating it from the rest of the room. Behind this is a tiny galley kitchen.
The bedrooms are located at the back of the apartment. They can fit a double bed but not much else. It is on the market for €1,200 a month.
On the other side of the city, Peter [not his real name] shows us around his one-bed apartment on Mountjoy Square.
He moved in recently and doesn't plan to stay there for too long. It soon becomes apparent why.
He has placed his TV on the mantelpiece, next to a small table and two chairs squeezed into the corner.
The small galley kitchenette is clearly dated, its white fixtures and fittings well past their prime.
"I don't do a whole lot of cooking, to be honest with you," Peter confides.
With two of us in the living room, it already feels pretty cramped. Peter has had to leave a lot of his other personal belongings in storage with family members.
"There just wasn't the room here."
He says the lack of a built-in wardrobe eats into the space of the bedroom. The green carpet, worn and tatty, has definitely seen better days
"The worst thing is probably the lack of storage, "he says. "It needs to be repainted too. I was looking for a short-term lease so it suits me for the moment. Even two people [there is a double bed] would struggle for space, I think."
* * *
Carroll may have stuck to the 'letter of the law' when it came to building regulations. But sometimes he did not even do this much when it came to the people who worked for him (see panel).
Building Energy Rating (BER) certificates for several developments built by Carroll, seen by the Sunday Tribune, also suggest another hidden side-effect of his 'no-frills' approach to development.
Often, they are very poorly insulated, scoring as low as 'E' on a scale which only goes to G.
The exception to this is the 'prestige' Gasworks development on Barrow Street, built later on in his career, where most ratings are in the region of Bs and Cs.
As we prepare to leave the Hardwicke, Barrie Kidd points out the crumbling paint on many of the balconies and railings overlooking the common areas.
These are a major bugbear for residents, he says, but cannot be fixed without major hassle.
He says this is because Carroll chose to use cheaper aluminium in their construction, which was then painted over to improve its grey appearance.
The paint on the aluminium railings started to peel within one or two years of the apartment being built, Kidd says, and cannot be painted over due to the type of material used.
But it got the job done cheaply, served its purpose for the time being, allowing Carroll at least to move on.
"You are entitled to make profits on the sweat of your workers, but you are not entitled to make profit on the blood and lives of your workers. You are a disgrace to the construction industry and ought to be ashamed of yourself."
So spoke Justice Peter Kelly in the High Court 12 years ago, addressing Liam Carroll in a hearing precipitated by the death of James Masterson, a 24-year-old construction worker, who fell to his death on Carroll's Charlotte Quay site.
Kelly had earlier agreed to an interim injunction closing the Zoe Developments site in question, having heard that 13 breaches of the health and safety regulations had been noted there.
Referring to Carroll's company, he added: "This defendant that you are responsible for is a criminal, and a recidivist criminal at that, and is so thanks to you."
One close friend of James Masterson, who worked with him on the Charlotte Quay site, last week described him as a "gentleman" who would "do anything for you".
His father, Dinny, has since died. Unfortunately, James Masterson's death was not the first such tragedy on a Zoe site.
On 23 January 1990, a worker on one of its sites at Grove Road, Rathmines, Dublin 6, was crushed to death when a crane collapsed on him.
The company was subsequently found guilty of five major health and safety breaches and fined £1,400.
Meanwhile, on 7 March, 1996, a worker died after falling from scaffolding at a Zoe site on Parnell Street, Dublin.
Masterson's death marked a turning point of sorts, resulting in the company donating €100,000 to the court poor box – and belatedly introducing much needed changes to its health and safety practices.
By that stage, however, Carroll was already well on his way to building the empire for which he has since become infamous.
Developers build to make money. The Planning authorities are the real "criminals" in this story.
Their standards were obviously even lower than Mr. Carroll's and believe me nothing has changed.
These planners are just as bad as the banks and they should be made answerable to the residents who now have to live in them. Tenants should be able to bring legal actions against DCC for allowing the sub standard buildings to be built in the first place. There is a difference between some "yoke of a thing" that complies with planning law and something that is suitable for human beings with families to live in. Many of Dublin City Council's planners do not know that difference.
The article makes it sound like The Hardwicke is some sort of complex suited to hobbits,this is not the case at all,the apt are a good size and well finished,the walls contrary to the article are not thin,I lived there happily for years and never heard a peep from apts either side,the corridors no less narrow than any other apt complex anywhere in Ireland,it is a well run,quiet,well maintained complex and I liked living there both from its centrality to everywhere and the fact there was never any social problems.
It is run by a management company made up entirely of owner occupiers and Landlords,who are those best placed to ensure that the money is properly spent.
There are not 300 apts more like 238 and owner occupiers are now more the norm than rented properties.
I was watching a documentary about Fleetwood Mac on the television this evening. There was one comment about a period in the bands life, when they fired their band manager and gave over the management duties to their drummer. Accordingly, things got very 'big' all of a sudden. They had to hire separate limousines for each member of the band at airports. Each limousine represented a different style of music within the band.
These property development firms are an awful lot like rock bands in a way. Some music bands do produce really good quality stuff which lasts. Others take advantage of the 'market' a little bit. What I do know, is that when you are working on the inside, there are strong personalties. Equally to survive within the group, your personality has to be equally big to withstand criticism etc. There were a lot of big personalities within Zoe, and maybe that distracts from the needs of the outside world.
Fleetwood Mac talked a lot about their 'bubble', their world within their world. Make no mistake about it, the guys in Zoe had their differences, but no one wanted to leave the band. It was an industry, a lot of guys worked themselves to exhaustion and beyond. A lot of them worked really hard. Hopefully now, many will have a chance to reflect. To think about some of the points this article by John Downes. Hopefully we can try to get in right in future.
Check out that documentary on the band Fleetwood Mac. They went through a lot of daft experiments in developing the 'creative process' also. Sometimes the creative process was exactly the thing that suffered. Also, many architects who made their names through Zoe developments, needed Zoe a lot more than Zoe needed them. There is that to think about too. For many architects, the creation of one's own image and fame is more important than anything else.
Best of luck.
Whats the bets Liam Carroll will ever see the inside of one of the grubby tenements he built for de little people?
No he'll live out his days in his Dublin 4 palace while young people slave away in their shoddy shoeboxes mired in negative equity, paying higher taxes to fund NAMA and the bank bailouts caused by Liam carroll and his greedy mates.
Its amazing to finally read an accurate description of Carroll's developments in an Irish newspaper. But its a pity the papers spent the last 20 years selling them.
Liam Carroll was one of the good ones. The media has made an example out of the wrong person I think. There are many more developers out there that I could name, have done a lot worse. Liam has been made a scape goat for the rest of them.
A shy retiring man who has been dragged through the mud because of his personality.
the hardwicke is one of the most claustrophobic developments I have visited in Ireland - even by smithfield standards
Where was the media, newspapers,journalists etc. when this garbage was being put up? There was no greater shill for this rubbish than the "property" sections of the main newspapers. As a frequent visitor from the US over the last ten years I was constantly astounded at the lack of oversight in the construction industry, from shoddy construction to a complete lack of enforced Codes for proper housing. Not only are the unfortunate buyers now left facing negative equity but are doing so in substandard housing which will further deteriorate with the passage of time. I may be dreaming but I do see sometime in the future a big business in demolition when hopefully a lot of this rubbish will be knocked and replaced with proper community responsible housing.
It was unfortunate that Carroll was picked out by the media. But he was prolific, which has a price in terms of PR.
At least Carroll liked the business he was in. That rubbed off on his staff as well. The company improved and so did its product as the years went by. If the whole construction industry was properly financed in Ireland, we might see very different products emerge.
Minister Lenihan has mentioned this point on a couple of occasions. We do need to develop a better financial model within construction.
What JD's article doesn't cover extensively, is how standards did improve over the years. As times changed, the process and the financial model improved somewhat.
It is like a factory. You start off producing the very rudimentary stuff as Taiwan, Hong Kong or Malaysia did years ago. Then you work your way up the ladder so to speak. Those countries are now building the microchips. Cambodia, Vietnam and others are only starting on the same journey as Taiwan began years ago.
What is a real pity, is that a suitable rental model had not emerged in Dublin, at the same time as the 'shoe box' hit the scene. In other words, to cut the absentee landlord out of the game altogether. It would mean today, we could rip down the lot and make more sensible use of those key inner cities sites.
We all focus on how badly they were designed and rightly so. But if design was of any importance to the absentee landlord class, as customers, then by definition Mr. Carroll would have gone out of business years ago.
What is really disappointing is: There was a market there for middle class people who wanted to become absentee landlords. They never wanted to live in the shoe boxes, so it didn't bother them if the specs were poor.
It is the absentee landlords, the owners as it were, who get painted today as the victims. I find this quite strange. I would say they walked into the deal with their eyes wide open.
These people are nameless and faceless today, unlike Mr. Carroll. No one knows who they are. Mike Davis wrote a brilliant novel called 'Planet of Slums' in which he described a similar phenomenon in third world cities. The mostly profitable property parts of many cities, being the most crowded and poorly built quarters.
I highly recommend that book by Mike Davies for anyone interests in this subject. Davies will give you a few good laughs also.
Comments are moderated by our editors, so there may be a delay between submission and publication of your comment. Offensive or abusive comments will not be published. Please note that your IP address (18.104.22.168) will be logged to prevent abuse of this feature. In submitting a comment to the site, you agree to be bound by our Terms and Conditions
Subscribe to The Sunday Tribune’s RSS feeds. Learn more.
There are many more Liam Carrolls around. They have left a blight of bad buildings around the country for future generations to suffer. I think they should be tried for treason such is the damage these people inflict on society. The mantra of keep costs low is a great a cost for everyone else to bear.