Disturbingly high number of defects have been found within residential apartments constructed in NSW, particularly those completed since 2000, where over 80 per cent have defects.

The City Futures Research Centre – Faculty of Built Environment UNSW’s research report Dealing with Defects by Bryony Cooper and K. Michael Brown under the supervision of Dr Hazel Easthope and professor Sue Holliday took an in-depth look at the issue. Part 2.5 of the report included the following observations in relation to defects within NSW residential apartment buildings:

“Defects principally originate during the initial phases of a development life cycle: planning, design and construction.”

“Easthope et al (2012) identified a markedly higher proportion of defects in recently constructed residential strata buildings, particularly those completed since 2000.

They also noted that the most common defects were internal water leaks, cracking to internal or external structures, and water penetration from the exterior of the building…with negative impacts that included:

  • The health and safety of residents.
  • The quality and liveability of homes, and hence quality of life.
  • The capacity of owners, executive committee members and strata managers to deal with other management duties.
  • The financial costs borne by owners (to cover emergency and other repairs, investigations, legal costs, and re-housing residents).
  • Property values and rental incomes.
  • Relationships between neighbours and other stakeholders. Conflicts over funds and responsibilities for defects can occur between owners, executive committees, managers, developers and others”

The most vital aspect to consider from these important observations in respect of the implementation of a strategy that would help NSW address future problems and reduce the occurrence of defective building works within the residential apartment construction sector may be this one:

“Defects principally originate during the initial phases of a development life cycle: planning, design and construction.”

Under NSW State Environmental Planning Policy (SEPP) 65, the Department of Planning and Environment has already legislated requirements for the Design Quality of Residential Flat Developments. Recent amendments by NSW Planning have resulted in an Apartment Design Guide. In order to design residential apartment buildings over three storeys in height, SEPP 65 requires that registered architects are deemed competent as the only professionals who are able to do so. Development approval for the project will not be granted without this compliance factor.

This strategy recognises that higher order skills are necessary to design buildings that are inherently more complex than just simple free standing houses. Whether the regulation is focused on fulfilling an aesthetic objective rather than reducing building defects that originate due to a lack of competence in the planning and design phase is not yet clear.

Ironically, many professional construction managers might suggest this could possibly create an even greater risk of defects occurring if highly complex construction detailing is used by an architect whose sole focus for the building is on achieving an aesthetic outcome. As the perennial benchmark, we can point to the history of the wonderful looking Sydney Opera House and leave it at that!

What should be clear is that in any final analysis, the most important component in respect of addressing the matter of building defects nominated by the development life cycle paradigm is in the actual construction phase of the building itself.

In this respect, NSW Planning’s attempt to ensure that only high quality, defect-free residential apartments are being built is totally neutered. Regulatory control through licensing of residential construction work is firmly held by NSW Office of Fair Trade. They continue to choose a highly antiquated ‘one size fits all’ regulatory approach to the issuance of a single class of residential building licence, unlike their more enlightened compatriots in Queensland and WA.

The design of apartments and the associated methodologies used to construct them has moved on significantly from the days of low-rise brick and tile flats that were basically just larger versions of 1960s housing. However, the qualifications and training standards required to obtain a NSW builder licence remains trapped in the past.

A person completing a Certificate 3 level trade in carpentry or bricklaying with a Certificate 4 qualification in residential building is deemed to have been sufficiently trained to take on the role of a ‘licensed builder’ for any residential construction project. This may comprise a straightforward ground level home extension or a new house for which they may be eminently equipped to undertake. However, supervising construction of a reinforced concrete framed, pre-cast panel clad 10-storey apartment complex is not a reasonable equivalent. Despite the obvious fact that there is likely little to absolutely no bricklaying or carpentry skill associated in the construction of most modern apartment buildings, the NSW OFT still has these trade-based building qualifications linked to meeting the skills set required to obtain what is effectively an ‘open class’ of building licence. It is an absurdity that will contribute to the defects problem rather than address it.

To allow the construction of a highly complex apartment building to be supervised and managed by persons without those persons having obtained a requisite higher level of professional training is a demonstration of irresponsible governance by a department that says it has consumer protection as its focus.

Whilst there is no doubt that the design of an apartment building is a vital feature of the building, most of the mistakes, omissions and defects that become apparent to the building owner will arise as a direct result of a poorly supervised and improperly managed construction project carried out by a licensed builder. The problem is that the licensed builder was never required to have been adequately trained and qualified to a significant degree that will enable them to satisfactorily undertake the task.

In WA, a prospective builder of low to medium-rise three-storey residential apartments is required to have undertaken a Diploma of Building and Construction (Building) as a minimum qualification for licensing purposes. In Queensland, an Advanced Diploma of Building and Construction (Management) is the minimum qualification required to obtain an ‘Open Class’ licence in order to construct that state’s modern apartment buildings of today and the future. But that type of logic is missing in NSW.

The latest Australian Industry Group/Australian Constructors Association Construction Outlook survey has predicted a growth of residential apartment building construction of 13.7 per cent in 2015-16, followed by a further 8.1 per cent rise in 2016-17. If Premier Mike Baird wants to be confident that the purchasers of these tens of thousands of new apartments won’t be complaining when another research project finds an increase from the current 80 per cent of all NSW apartment buildings having defects to closer to 100 per cent of them exhibiting defective building works, he should consider urgently instructing Victor Dominello, Minister for Innovation and Better Regulation to start innovating and introduce far better and higher standards of regulation within the NSW builder licensing system that represents the future.

The existence of SEPP 65 demonstrates that NSW government agencies have seen fit to regulate the professionally qualified persons who are responsible for designing a building, but somehow they don’t seem capable of understanding that the same ideological standards should be applied to those who are responsible for the construction of the building.

Only then will better, defect-free apartments be built.