As 2020 begins, the general lack of confidence in the building and construction sector lingers from previous years.

That there is a persistent crisis of confidence in the sector is not in dispute but what has been hotly debated is the reason why and what to do about it.

Certainly, high profile building failures – think Lacrosse, Opal Tower, Mascot Towers and Melbourne’s Spencer Street apartments – have been sensationally highlighted in the national news media. And, for good reason when hundreds of building owners and occupiers find themselves virtually homeless overnight and facing considerable previously unforeseen costs. Add to that, the details about combustible cladding and foundation cracks and the public blame game about whose fault it is we have a recipe for uncertainty if not downright suspicion.

There are many factors that have collectively got us to this point. They include the pressure to produce a quick result for building owners at as little cost as possible combined with governments bending over backwards to cut so-called red tape and make things easier and faster to build.

In addition, there are Australia’s multi layered, complex building rules which are so incomprehensible to the average person that consumers feel disempowered, unable to detect bad practice even if it’s right in front of them. The very people who the rules are meant to protect no longer trust the system, let alone the people working in it.

This scenario creates a void into which industry must now step. It is up to organisations representing industry professionals, such as AIBS, to take responsibility for developing and enforcing higher standards and encouraging a culture of quality and professionalism over quantity and dollars.  But we need the support of governments and ultimately consumers to achieve this.

With building rules and regulations, governments can play a significant role in three parts. Firstly, by using the tools it currently has at its disposal to identify and discipline those in the industry who are doing the wrong thing. That alone will help professional bodies that are upgrading their standards and working hard to sell the new higher bar to their members.

Secondly, governments can support those who strive to reach higher standards of professional practice by only registering people to practice in their jurisdiction based on the accreditation of recognised professional bodies.

And thirdly, governments can achieve greater public confidence by examining the web of ‘over governance’ of our system. This can’t be done with a few cuts here and there promoted to the public as reducing red tape to make it easier for them. Instead of cutting here and there, it would make more sense to totally overhaul the building regulations.

A single national code with local provisions for extreme conditions such as cyclones, snow or floods would be a big step towards simplification.  Do we need all these different rules other than a single set of rules with conditions?   Planning might differ from state to state, but building laws and regulations apply to buildings and if we are one country, why the variations, other than those for extreme local conditions?  Nobody has yet been able to explain to me why this couldn’t happen other than ‘we are federated structure and it is too hard to change’.

The building rules and regulations are predominantly the domain of governments but the task of improving standards of professional practice sits squarely with industry. Government, both at political and executive levels, does have a role in encouraging and supporting industry to improve standards, but industry has to drive its own bus and take responsibility for where it’s heading.

At AIBS, we’re playing our part with the Board resolved to improve the professionalism and standards of building surveying, knowing if that doesn’t happen, the future for building surveying is grim. As a result, the AIBS National Building Surveying Accreditation Scheme has been enhanced, new stricter measures have been introduced for Continuing Professional Development, there’s a new Code of Professional Conduct with the bar set higher. Scheduled for implementation very soon is an auditing program and a Professional Standards Scheme for Building Surveyors.

There are considerable challenges, both within and outside our organisation, to achieving the professionalism and culture of building surveying envisaged by the Board. But, like the need for governments to unite and commit to streamline building rules and regulations against historic norms, so must the industry assume responsibility to drive the cultural change to produce quality buildings and have the public interest at the forefront of our priorities.

It is now up to every representative body of the many professionals and practitioners working in the sector to do everything possible to put in place accreditation and standards schemes in which their members must participate to ensure their knowledge and expertise measures up to the very highest level.

For example, under the AIBS National Building Surveying Accreditation Scheme, accredited members have recognised qualifications and demonstrated experience, have a commitment to undertake a stringent continuing professional development program, adhere to a strict code of conduct, and come 1 July this year, will be subject to an audit program to ensure their professional practices measure up. Remedial action will be taken against those who fall short of expectations.

These are the attributes that quality accreditation schemes should contain. Consumers can then find some assurance that by engaging members of professional schemes, they have accountability and a level of protection.   A Professional Standards Scheme for Building Surveyors currently being developed by AIBS will take consumer protection to a much higher level.

Of course, there’s little point in doing all this work to raise the bar if no-one outside industry knows about it. Members who work to meet the most rigorous levels of professionalism must be recognised and supported through public promotion of the requirements of the standards and schemes. Those who reach the level must then be enabled to proudly promote their achievements publicly.

Public trust will be re-built by industry bodies being transparent about professional standards and providing ways in which those who have met them can be easily identified.

Only then will the building owners and occupiers, the consumers of what our industry offers, be empowered to make informed choices. Informed choices will lead to better quality building outcomes and more than likely will reduce costs in some areas.

It is through this process that we can restore confidence in our sector. The long journey has begun.