Planned reforms in New South Wales to improve building quality and compliance do not go far enough, a major architecture body says.

The Association of Consulting Architects (ACA) says plans announced this week by the NSW Government to appoint a new Building Commissioner to audit building design and construction and to accept most of the recommendations of the Shergold Weir report fail to address core issues associated with poor building practices.

In a statement, the ACA describe serious problems with a lack of regulatory enforcement in regard to compliance with the National Construction Code.

As well, the association says there are problems in respect of contracting practices which can see parties who are in the best position to manage and control project risk attempt to transfer the financial exposure in respect of those risks to others.

“Recent events at the Opal Tower in Sydney and the Neo200 in Melbourne have again focused attention on building quality, while many owners and tenants battle with less spectacular, but no less disheartening, efforts to repair leaky or substandard apartment buildings,” the ACA said in a statement.

“The NSW Government announcement of a new Building Commissioner does not fully get to the bottom of the issue. The Commissioner will audit people who work in the industry, requiring designers to sign off on their designs and builders to sign off that the building was built in accordance with those designs.

“In fact, architects, engineers and builders already ‘sign off’. It is not the National Construction Code that is deficient; rather, compliance with the Code and its regulatory enforcement are both lacking. This point was made clearly by industry representatives at the recent Building Ministers Forum in Hobart.

“The problems are very similar to those uncovered by the Banking Royal Commission.”

The ACA’s statement follows an announcement earlier this week by NSW Minister for Innovation and Better Regulation Matt Kean of a new plan for building regulation in that state which he said would help to guarantee building safety and enhance consumer protection.

As part of the changes, the government has committed to support most of the recommendations from the Shergold Weir report to improve building practices and regulation.

In particular, the government will require that:

  • building designers, including engineers, declare that building plans specify a building that will comply with the National Construction Code
  • builders declare that buildings have been built according to their plans; and
  • requiring building designers and builders to be registered.

The government will also appoint a new Building Commissioner to act as an overall building regulator throughout the state.

This will include overseeing the licensing and auditing of practitioners.

Keen said the new laws would help to protect consumers against poor building design and construction and would ensure that those who control risks are held responsible for the outcome.

The fire protection industry has welcomed the plan.

Fire Protection Association of Australia chief executive officer Scott Williams said his organisation was ‘strongly encouraged’ by the announcement.

“Minister Kean’s announcement promises much-needed oversight and accountability for the New South Wales construction industry,” said FPA Australia CEO Scott Williams.

“The fire protection industry has long advocated that building practitioners at all levels must have the necessary competence and be accredited to perform their job roles. Minister Kean’s announcement is an important step towards regaining consumers’ confidence in their buildings, and in those who design, build and maintain them.”

“The Association believes this affirmative action is overdue, and will go a long way to ensuring that buildings in NSW have the compliance and quality that the community deserves.”

But the ACA says the plans do not address underlying problems in several areas.

“A key point of the Shergold Weir report, which is lost in the concern for Code compliance, is the degree to which contemporary construction relies on contracting methods that do not encourage quality and durability,” it says.

“Developers and builders try to shift risk instead of reducing it, encourage product substitution, eliminate proper independent expert inspection at every stage of the project and change the design without reference to the designer to save a few dollars.

“Any newly appointed Building Commissioner should therefore not just concentrate on audits and ‘signing off’, but also investigate contracts, behaviours and relationships between all the parties involved in construction, maintenance and ownership of buildings.

“Architects – who too often have very little if any involvement on site – have an important and independent role to play in regaining the confidence of the public in the construction industry of tomorrow.”