While efforts to develop nationally consistent rules across most jurisdictional boundaries throughout many areas of regulation impacting the construction sector in Australia have met with mixed results at best, the National Construction Code is one area where success was largely achieved in this area.

Given the importance of delivering a safe, comfortable and productive built environment in an efficient manner, the importance of having consistent rules across the nation with regard to basic construction cannot be understated.

More than 20 years after the NCC was introduced, has it delivered or is that consistency being eroded by a tendency to ‘tinker’ with the code at a state and especially local level?

Kristen Brookfield, senior executive director for building, development and environment at the Housing Industry Association says the answer has two parts to it. When it comes to those requirements which relate to the basic structural integrity of buildings and infrastructure, Brookfield says the national consistency achieved in 1994 remains largely intact. When it comes to amenity or sustainability, however, local councils are infamous for mandating features such as higher ceiling heights, better performing windows or higher rated insulation compared with requirements specified under the BCA.

“The code is definitely delivering on a nationally consistent technical set of requirements that give us that safety and amenity element that the Building Code is supposed to deliver,” Brookfield said. “So we know that we technically construct buildings the right way. We do that according to the National Code and it is very close to national for those purposes.

“Where the line in the sand is though is that those Building Code issues that are more arbitrary are the ones that have become more and more open to tinkering mostly by local government. It’s much less by state government – it’s a local government issue.”

In some cases, Brookfield says, this ‘tinkering’ adds directly to the cost of construction. This might happen in cases where more stringent requirements for ceiling heights add to the dimensions of rooms and thus the volume of material needed to construct each room, for example, or where more expensive windows need to be used than would otherwise be the case.

More broadly, forcing builders to modify house plans or designs specifically to suit one specific project or council area impacts the degree of repeatability and efficiency builders are able to achieve across their portfolio of projects – especially when it comes to volume builders.

Others agree that there is a problem. Master Builders Australia CEO Wilhelm Harnisch talks of a ‘sizeable and growing’ number of variations to the NCC, while Australian Institute of Building Surveyors CEO Brett Mace says variations implemented outside of the NCC through state legislation or local government bylaws and planning schemes cause confusion and at times contradict with the NCC and its implementation. Laws which vary dramatically between states with regard to swimming pool and spa requirements, for example, were creating considerable degrees of confusion among property owners and building contractors alike, along with the potential for drownings, Mace says.

One question around which opinions differ revolves around the issue of whether or not some variations to the code should be encouraged – for example in areas prone to snow, flooding, bushfire or cyclone. While Mace supports such variations, Harnisch and Brookfield say the NCC already accommodates the differing climate zones and their profiles in terms of construction requirements. On the issue of cyclones, for example, the BCA has a map of four areas, construction within the top two of which requires design for cyclone. With regard to fire protection, meanwhile, the BCA has a set of standards for bushfire construction which dovetail with a planning system map for bushfire-prone areas.

In terms of how to prevent or discourage further variations, Harnisch would like to see federal, state and local councils adopt a performance framework which includes variations to the NCC. He would also like the Federal Department of Industry to compile and report on an annual basis a complete and definitive list of all variations from the NCC at a state and local government level, a measure he says would promote transparency and competitive benchmarking.

Brookfield, meanwhile, would like to see the national roll-out of laws similar to Queensland where specific clauses prohibit local variations to the BCA.

She says the code suffers from a misconception that it represents the ‘bare minimum’ in acceptable standards.

“There is a criticism by some who don’t understand the Code that because the Code is in their words ‘minimum’ that they (the local community) should do better,” Brookfield said.

“What they fail to recognise is that the full sentence is minimum necessary regulation, so it’s set at a level that is good enough to ensure the safety and amenity of occupants, but because it’s regulation, it must be cost effective.”