Minimum information requirements could be applied to demonstrate the suitability of products for use on building projects whilst product technical statements could be mandated and a central information portal for building materials could be developed as part of reforms which have been proposed to prevent dangerous or unsuitable products being used in construction throughout Australia.

The Australian Building Codes Board (ABCB) has released a Draft National Building Assurance Framework, which sets out fourteen proposed actions across five areas to improve building product compliance and to address concerns relating to use of non-conforming or non-complying products on building projects.

Throughout Australia, problems associated with non-conforming or non-complying building products have been known for some time and were highlighted in the Building Confidence report prepared Building Ministers Forum by Professor Peter Shergold and lawyer Bronwyn Weir.

Between 2010 and 2013, electric cables with faulty insulation and the potential to cause fires or shock were sold and installed into around 22,000 homes and businesses.

Meanwhile, various audits around the country have revealed the presence of flammable cladding on thousands of buildings.

An earlier survey of 400 businesses across steel, electrical, glass and aluminium, engineered wood products, paint and plastic pipes industry conducted by Australian Industry Group in 2013 found that use of non-conforming products was widespread across the building product supply chain.

In some cases, products are simply faulty and do not work as claimed by their manufacturer (such as the electric cable example above). These are referred to as non-conforming products.

In other cases, products are not faulty but are used in applications for which they are not fit for purposes and do not satisfy requirements of the National Construction Code (NCC) (such as the flammable cladding example). These are referred to as non-complying products.

In its paper, the ABCB proposes change across five areas.

First it proposes changes to the evidence of suitability requirements which are contained in Part A5 of each volume of the NCC. These require suitable evidence be obtained to ensure that materials, products and forms of construction and designs which are applied within construction meet requirements as specified and are ‘fit for purpose’.

The provisions specify six types of evidence which can be used. These include CodeMark certificates, certificates of accreditation, certificates issued by a certification body, reports issued by accredited testing laboratories, a certificate or report from an engineer or other suitably qualified people or other forms of documentary evidence such as product technical statements.

As part of several changes introduced in the 2019 update of the NCC, the provisions now require that the type of evidence which is relied upon be suitable and appropriate in light of the intended use or application of the product in question.

According to the paper, several concerns about this area remain.

Whilst the amendment now requires forms of evidence which are relied upon to be appropriate according to how the product will be used, the Code is silent about the situations in which each evidence type should be used. This is despite the fact the different forms of evidence vary in terms of the level of assurance which they provide.

Potentially, this could pave the way for suppliers to select the ‘pathway of least resistance’ as opposed to other forms of evidence which may deliver levels of assurance which are more suitable for the risk profile of the product in question.

Despite their processes of validation being very different meanwhile, current provisions make no distinction between the evidence required for bespoke performance-based designs which are applied to individual buildings as opposed to mass produced products.

Finally, the provisions fail to articulate the level of rigour or threshold requirements which are needed to deliver suitable levels of assurance that the product is fit for its intended use. This can lead to surveyors accepting various evidence types for similar products.

Put together, the paper suggests that these shortcomings create uncertainty both for building practitioners in ascertaining whether the level of evidence provided is appropriate for the circumstances of the intended use and for manufacturers that compliance information in which they invest will be accepted as evidence of suitability.

Changes it suggests include:

  • Amending evidence of suitability provisions to establish minimum and consistent requirements for information which is needed to demonstrate the suitability of a particular product for a proposed use. Under this proposal, all evidence of suitability would need to deliver consistent information that would be presented in a standardised format.
  • Increasing the level of rigour associated with use of the evidence types referred to above. Test reports from an accredited testing laboratory, for example, could be subject to a limited life-span after which products need to be retested. Instead of simply allowing an engineering report to be used, the provisions could instead require a ‘Declaration of Compliance’ from an independent and suitably qualified Australian registered engineer that details the qualifications, experience and area of speciality of the person who provides the declaration.
  • Investigating further, more comprehensive and more far-reaching changes to the evidence of suitability requirements. This could include introducing a hierarchy to provide instruction about which pathway is most suitable for given circumstances, separate provisions in respect of designs as opposed to products or adding a new pathway to allow for accredited industry conformance schemes.

Next, there are challenges with information being provided by building product manufacturers and suppliers.

Here, the paper notes that obtaining transparent and verifiable product information which outlines how products can be used in a manner which is compliant with the NCC, its referenced documents and state and territory requirements is difficult.

Even where manufacturers and suppliers provide this information, it comes in different forms and to varying levels of rigour.

Access to detailed test reports, meanwhile, is often restricted based on ‘commercial in confidence’.

At any rate, compliance requirements may be buried in detailed Australian Standards or other documents referenced by the NCC or in state and territory legislation. These can be difficult to access and challenging for practitioners to comprehend.

All this is made more challenging given that we are now dealing with whole building systems rather than mere products.

Here, the ABCC recommends three proposals.

First, manufacturers and suppliers could be forced to provide information in the form of Product Technical Statements. Information provided would include a description of the product, a declaration about which NCC performance requirements it satisfies, the basis on which that declaration has been provided, a description of the product’s intended use, installation, occupancy and maintenance instructions, limitations and contact and version details.

Next, manufacturers who provide certain identified products for select uses could also be required to have them assessed according to a pre-determined standard before supplying them to market.

Potentially, these could include products which are used in high-risk applications such as structure or fire safety, are commonly misapplied or likely to be misapplied and are intended to be used in buildings of high importance or high consequence.

Finally, further development of industry performance schemes could be encouraged. These could be encouraged to operate at a minimum standard and to provide a multi-faceted service to aid compliance.

Around 22,000 faulty and dangerous cables were sold into Australian homes and businesses from 2010 until 2013.

The third area of challenge involves product labelling.

In many cases, referenced Australian Standards either do not contain labelling requirements or are vague about the type of information to be displayed on labels and how this should be presented.

Some standards require only removable labelling which is used to identify products during construction but is often removed prior to handover. The standards for glass in buildings (AS1288 Glass in Buildings and AS2208 Safety glazing materials in buildings) are examples of these.

Whilst products supplied via large retail outlets are typically tracked in case of recalls, meanwhile, these are often non-permanent and fail to include further information about appropriate product use and installation.

Here the ABCB has suggested that labelling requirements be extended to all referenced building products and standards. This could be based around the SA TS 5344:2019 Permanent labelling for Aluminium Composite Panel (ACP) products and would require information such as

  • Name or trademark of the manufacturer
  • Model number, name or designation
  • Date of manufacture (month and year at a minimum) and
  • Batch identifier or other traceability information.

It also proposes further exploration of digital tracing and information solutions.

Finally, there are proposals to improve research, surveillance and information sharing and to beef up compliance and enforcement procedures.

On the former issue, the ABCB has proposed that a central building product information portal be added to the non-conforming product portal currently hosted by the ABCB to provide a centralised source of information for product assurance.

The portal would include a reporting system to identify and report failures of all structural and safety critical construction products in Australia, and would communicate learnings with the wider industry.

Whilst it would not in itself provide details on the conformance or certification of each individual product, it would provide links to sources of conformance information.

The portal could also include a register of product testing obligations under relevant standards.

To help suppliers, manufactures and practitioners navigate and understand requirements regarding the supply and use of compliant products, meanwhile, a conformance and specification guide could be developed along with training.

Finally, it suggests detailed areas in which oversight and coordination of the product conformance system could be strengthened.

On compliance and enforcement, meanwhile, the ABCB has proposed that suitable audit and enforcement powers be in place across all states and territories. This would include the power to issue safety warning notices, ban products, impose mandatory safety standards and issue compulsory recall notices for construction products.

It would also include extending audit powers where necessary to enable building regulators and/or building surveyors to visit construction sites and suppliers of products to randomly sample examples of materials being used.

In particular, it recommends that similar enforcement powers currently in place throughout Queensland and New South Wales could be replicated in other states.

Finally, enforcement powers must be extended to the manufacturer and supplier obligations with regard to information as outlined above.

It should include the ability to act where products are supplied without the appropriate information, are not certified under the appropriate conformance pathway or are found to not be fit for the purpose that is claimed.

Consultation on the proposed reforms is open until Sunday, 6 June.