Skip to content

You are reading 1 of 2 free-access articles allowed for 30 days

The house that ‘Angola’ built

When Hawkins House in Dublin 2, which is home to the Department of Health, is finally demolished, few people will shed a tear, it seems.

Arguably one of the capital’s most disliked buildings, plans for its redevelopment have now been lodged with the local authority and the Department’s staff will soon move to the former Bank of Ireland headquarters on Lower Baggot Street, a move that is planned to commence next year.

The Office of Public Works (OPW) told the Medical Independent (MI) that the new premises is expected “to be ready for occupation by Quarter 2, 2017”. However, it is believed that for a period of time, Department staff will be working in both buildings.

There are currently 369 WTE staff working in Hawkins House, according to figures provided by the Department of Health to this newspaper. This number is significantly down from the pre-recession staff numbers that hit a high of 510 in 2008.

There have been reports that some Department staff members are unhappy with the move and MI has learned that management have held a number of ‘town hall’-type meetings with staff to discuss the challenges posed by the move. A Department spokesperson did not confirm whether any discussions have taken place with union representatives regarding the move.

However, the spokesperson did confirm that there have been no extra payments negotiated with staff because of the relocation.

“There is ongoing communication and updates for and with our staff about progress in relation to the move, including through the Department’s Partnership Committee,” a Department spokesperson told MI.

As well as ‘town hall’-style meetings hosted by the Department’s Secretary General, “civil servants are not eligible for removal bonuses or pay increases outside the normal pay and grade structure”.

The move to Lower Baggot Street for the Department has been confirmed as a permanent relocation by the OPW.

The Department currently pays no rent on Hawkins House, as the OPW is the landlord. The OPW and Department did not provide answers to queries regarding the rental cost of the new location in Lower Baggot Street. The premises on Lower Baggot Street were bought by leading beef processor Mr Larry Goodman three years ago.

An unloved building?

Hawkins House often tops polls for the ugliest building in the capital, however we asked our readers would any of them miss it when it is gone?

Although the response was not universally negative, the broad consensus is that when Hawkins House comes face-to-face with the wrecking ball, it will not be a moment for national mourning. 

“Will miss the views from inside on my occasional visits #HawkinsHouse.” (See photo below)

Tim Delaney, @FrancosBruvva

“Definitely no.”

John, @AnGobanSaor

“I’m okay with this. Let it go.”

Kevin Moriarty, @kevinpmoriarty

“No.”

Dr Amy Morgan, @amymorgangp

MI Sub-Editor and Editor of Irish Pharmacist, Mr Pat Kelly, spent a year working in Hawkins House some decades ago: “Even by 1980s standards, it was a depressing place to work. The combination of layout, architecture and decor was enough to suck the joy out of even those with the sunniest disposition.”

New Ministers

Hawkins House has welcomed a number of recent arrivals — the new Minister for Health Simon Harris and also four new Ministers of State at the Department, who will all have office space available in Hawkins House in its final few months, although some may also use space in other Departments, this newspaper has been told.

According to the briefing notes supplied to Minister Harris, the move from Hawkins House will the “priority item” for the Corporate Services Unit (CSU) at the Department in the coming year.

“This will be a significant project that will require extensive liaison with the OPW to deliver a modern, fit-for-purpose headquarters,” read the briefing notes.

“At the same time, the Unit will need to make plans to decommission Hawkins House and oversee the conclusion of contracts and services at the building. This will also represent a significant block of work. It is envisaged there will be an overlap where both locations will be running simultaneously.”

Redevelopment

Earlier this month, the OPW and Mr Tom O’Brien and Mr Simon Coyle of Mazars, as Joint Receivers to Cuprum Properties Limited, appointed by NAMA, announced plans to redevelop Hawkins House and its neighbouring building Apollo House.

The applications were lodged separately but together and “represents one of the most significant redevelopment proposals in the heart of Dublin city centre,” claims the OPW.

The proposed development consists of the demolition of the existing Hawkins House building and the construction of a commercial office building, including the provision of café/retail units and associated services (see panel).

The new building is expected to have “a new public plaza in the centre of the block, opening up new pedestrian routes, opportunities for café/restaurant commercial activity at ground floor levels and an appealing, vibrant working environment for the office occupiers”.

Worries over asbestos

A recent asbestos survey of Hawkins House has been completed by the OPW as part of its plan to demolish the building, this newspaper has been told.

“Please note that a full suite of surveys has been completed on Hawkins House by OPW,” an OPW spokesperson told MI.

“As part of the evaluation process and to prepare plans for demolition, an asbestos survey was included in the range of surveys.”

The OPW did not supply details of the survey findings.

Concerns over asbestos in the building have been raised a number of times over the last two decades.

In 2005, the OPW confirmed that in June 1998 a preliminary survey of the boiler room in Hawkins House revealed small quantities of asbestos-based thermal insulation. In February 1999, during the course of refurbishment works in the main foyer, further quantities of asbestos material were discovered in pipework embedded in the concrete floor. A more detailed survey of the building carried out in July 1999 uncovered isolated pockets of asbestos-based materials in various forms such as ceiling tiles, duct linings and fire doors.

“The asbestos material discovered on pipework embedded in the concrete floor during the refurbishment works in the main foyer was not removed. It has been left in situ and completely sealed within the floor area, where it poses no threat,” former Minister for Health Mary Harney told the Dáil in October 2005.

“The OPW advised that the isolated pockets of asbestos-based materials in various forms such as ceiling tiles, duct linings and fire doors should be left untouched. At present, left untouched, they pose no health risk.”

The asbestos material in the boiler room in Hawkins House was removed in February 1999.

“Air tests were carried out by specialist consultants before, during and after works to provide assurances that there were no airborne fibres present and that, consequently, there was no danger to staff. Clearance certificates were issued at the time,” Minister Harney also told the Dáil at the time.

Obsolete

Hawkins House as it presently stands is described as “obsolete” by Minister Seán Canney, Minister of State with special responsibility for the OPW and Flood Relief.

“My office works closely with its client departments and it is clear that Hawkins House is now obsolete and no longer meets the demand for modern, flexible workspace,” he says.

“The development of this site will provide up to 60 per cent more office space, will offer significant savings in running costs and will facilitate my office to reach sustainability targets and free-up older leased buildings throughout the city.”

The cost of this significant building project is not known, however there has been strong speculation that it will cost approximately €50 million.

It was not meant to be this way. When Hawkins House was first under construction in 1962, the idea that it would be “obsolete” in just over five decades would have shocked its architect Sir Thomas Bennett. The building was constructed on the site of the former Theatre Royal.

Sir Bennett told The Irish Times in 1961 that the “average man should be housed in a first-class manner” and that could not be done with buildings that were just ‘thrown up’. This, he added, had been proved from the experience of architects in modern cities in America and Britain. Sir Bennett also spoke of the simplicity of construction that was a mark of the new architectural style, like that represented by Hawkins House, in contrast to older buildings at the time.

So the then-new Hawkins House was a bright, shiny creation of international modernist theory and architectural practice. But now, half a century later, it is one of the most disliked buildings in Dublin, often topping polls as the ugliest structure in the capital.

Of course ugliness, like beauty, is a subjective thing, yet Hawkins House has few defenders.

On a recent interview assignment to the fifth floor of the building, this journalist was taken by the wonderful view across the south side of the city, over to the Dublin mountains, and towards the coast. 

It seems that Hawkins House, like Liberty Hall, is one of those buildings that it is more pleasurable to look out from, then in at.

The heavily-criticised structure is probably overused as a metaphor for health service difficulties. A decade ago, former Sinn Féin Health spokesperson Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin was already in on the act talking about a “crumbling” Hawkins House, “which, a view not unique to me, is the ugliest building in this city. At times it has struck me as a very appropriate symbol of this Government’s health policy”.

Safety concerns

But it has not only been wielded as a handy political metaphor, the health and safety of the building has also raised concerns. The worries over the building are not merely aesthetic in nature.

In 2005, when the economy was booming and there was talk of investment and moving the Department, Ministers felt more open about describing Hawkins House in an honest fashion.

In October 2005, the former Minister of State at the Department of Finance with special responsibility for the OPW, Tom Parlon told the Dáil that “everyone agrees the building [Hawkins House] offers the most horrendous accommodation one could find for civil servants”.

However, Department officials and staff have been working in this “horrendous” accommodation for the subsequent decade.

It may seem strange that a building that is relatively young should be described as “crumbling’. However, when you take a brief look at recent challenges it has faced, it is hard not to visualise a building that is in need of some serious palliative care.

During Autism Awareness week in 2012, its deficiencies arguably entered the realm of the truly pathetic. The Department intended to mark the occasion by lighting up Hawkins House in blue. Former Minister for Health Dr James Reilly told the Dáil after the event that his officials had indeed “made efforts” to do just that. However, “due to the old lighting system in operation in Hawkins House, this proved to be ineffective”.

“My Department had an electrician recently install a test lamp on the roof of the building to see if it were possible to improve the lighting. Unfortunately, the cost of carrying out this project effectively is prohibitive.”

There have also been some more serious health and safety concerns that have emerged in recent years.

Issues with asbestos (see panel), seagulls attacking workers on the roof, and bits of the building falling off are among some of the challenges faced by staff and officials. 

Last November, this newspaper revealed that the 11th floor roof of Hawkins House is leaking and a unit at the top of the building is deemed a fire hazard.

Hawkins House has 12 floors, including ground level; the top floor (floor 11) is only used for storage and roof access. 

“The roof was leaking in a number of places and it is extremely cold in that part of the building in winter,” a Department spokesperson told MI.

“The significant reduction in staff over the last number of years allowed all staff to be accommodated across the remaining 10 floors from 2012 onwards. There is no cost associated with the 11th floor.”

There is also a now infamous penthouse apartment at the top of the building. Former Minister for Health Leo Varadkar visited the unit when he first became Minister. “There was this lurid floral wallpaper on the walls, a dirty avocado toilet suite and some old whiskey bottles scattered about,” he told media after his initial tour.

However, this unit has not been in use since the mid 1980s and since 2011 has been deemed a fire hazard, the Department said.

“The top of the building has a small unit, which has not been occupied since 1985/86 when it was used to accommodate a 24/7 security presence,” a spokesperson added.

“It was subsequently used as a store room. However, it has not been used since the end of 2011 as it was deemed to be a fire hazard, and not suitable for accommodation purposes or other uses.”

But it was not only the physical infrastructure where problems arose — difficulties also came swooping down out of the sky.  Early last year the Department introduced measures to deal with aggressive seagulls that had become a pest for maintenance staff working at the building. A British pest control firm was brought in to put netting in place on the roof to prevent nesting seagulls from diving down and attacking maintenance workers.

“There has been no further difficulty with seagulls at Hawkins House,” a Department spokesperson recently told MI.

Then in October last year, something that may have seemed impossible became a reality — Hawkins House became uglier.

Very unsightly protective scaffolding was put in place around the front and side of the building. While the protective decking might be unattractive, it was very much needed to protect the long-suffering occupants of the building.

A Department spokesperson termed it “a precautionary, protective measure to deal with the possibility of any surface material falling from the exterior”.

“This protective decking will remain in place for the foreseeable future.”

As it is the OPW that owns and maintains Hawkins House, it meets the cost of this protective work as part of the ongoing maintenance of the building.

Now, with its days numbered, Hawkins House awaits the departure of its staff — and the arrival of the wrecking ball.

Lower but with more ‘civic space’

The new plans for Hawkins House will see the new building drop from a 12 story to a six-to-10 storey building. However, the new building could have up to 50 per cent more office space then the current Department of Health headquarters, the OPW told MI.

The development will also consist of a new civic space between Poolbeg Street and Hawkins Street, including proposed ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ landscaping features and an illuminated boundary treatment between the site and the adjoining Screen Cinema/College House site.

The applications were lodged with Dublin City Council on Thursday, 2 June and the plans are available to view in the Council Offices during normal working hours.

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Scroll To Top