Given the identified benefits of performance-based building solutions, why has industry been reluctant to accept their use?

Performance-based solutions are one form of achieving compliance with the Building Code of Australia (BCA), which is part of the National Construction Code (NCC) series. These designs are generally documented as ‘Alternative Solutions’ and are accepted by the building surveyor or building certifier as part of the supporting documentation during the building approval.

The other approach to compliance is the ‘Deemed-to-Satisfy’ approach, which follows the prescriptive requirements of each relevant part of the NCC. There are benefits with each approach, but regardless of how compliance is achieved, whether through Alternative Solutions, following the Deemed-to-Satisfy provisions or using a combination of the two, ultimately compliance will only be achieved when the overarching Performance Requirements have been met.

The Australian Building Codes Board has recently proposed changes to the NCC 2016 edition, which aims to encourage the use of performance-based solutions by putting them on an even playing field with the prescriptive requirements. There is, however, some apprehension from industry when considering the inherent risks with a performance-based approach.

We now live in a global economy, with free trade agreements and economic partnerships with many cheap manufacturing nations, including China. We can therefore expect to see the increased use of imported building products in the coming years. In terms of being part of this international market, a performance-based approach to building legislation offers the opportunity to reduce ambiguity with product requirements and their use across these borders, if done correctly.

Herein lies part of the problem with the use of performance-based solutions; even with the potential for a better building design with reduced costs, a performance-based solution is intrinsically more complex and difficult to assess and confirm compliance. Other negative aspects reported on by the Centre for International Economics (CIE) in their 2012 report Benefits of building regulation reform include higher life cycle costs with a tendency to shift expenses from the construction phase to the owner in the maintenance phase (i.e. from passive systems to active systems), lower safety standards and higher energy and water consumption. As result, the professional services to develop these performance-based solutions by fire engineers, access consultants and other building professionals are more expensive and can take longer to check by the building surveyor or building certifier.

Recent fires in Australia and around the world have highlighted the importance of a rigorous building certification system, with grave concerns raised over the use of non-compliant cladding materials. The CIE reported that between 2006 and 2012 there were increasing reports of non-compliant building products being used in the Australian construction industry. At that time, structural steel bolts, structural plywood products, copper pipe tubing, fire collars, steel reinforcing for concrete and glass sheets were identified. Since this time, we’ve had the Infinity Electrical Cable recall in 2014, where an estimated 40,000 buildings in Australia were affected, and the recent Alucobest cladding debacle. Across the Tasman Sea, New Zealand experienced the leaky building syndrome with the use of cheaper building products accepted under Alternative Solutions which were blamed for residential defects throughout the 1990s and early 2000s.

Similarly, reviews at State and Territory level around the country have raised concerns with the building certification systems and criticised the manner in which Alternative Solutions have been used. This could be due to the building surveyors’ or building certifiers’ lack of understanding in the application of the BCA/NCC and how performance-based solutions are developed, commercial pressures, conflicts of interest, client demands or a number of other issues.

The 2011 Queensland Government Discussion Paper Improving building certification in Queensland raised opportunities for improvements to legislation, including implementing controls to help ensure there are no conflicts of interest arising from a building certifier’s involvement in the design phase of a building, such as developing an alternative design. Furthermore, the paper proposed introduction of a mandatory peer review process for any clearly defined situations where building certifiers give advice during the design phase of the project. Similar concerns with the use of Alternative Solutions during the certification process have been raised in Victoria and NSW.

The CIE commented in 2012 that a performance-based building code is considered to be only as strong as its supporting institutions and that there are a number of concerns that may warrant consideration to strengthen the protection offered to the building industry, owners and regulators. There are always strong commercial demands to reduce costs and increase efficiencies, which is a driver within the building industry, but this should not be at the detriment of building certification and/or when assessing the compliance of products. With performance-based solutions comes complexity, and the CIE has identified that many industry stakeholders believe the availability of educated building surveyors who are knowledgeable in the area of developing building technology is critical to the effectiveness of performance-based solutions (PBS).

More importantly, the CIE reported that “stakeholders from across the spectrum expressed concern over the authenticity of certification of some imported components and believed that without more testing and scrutiny, low quality imported inputs could threaten the efficient functioning of PBS.”

This clearly hasn’t been addressed by industry given the recent safety concerns with non-compliant electrical products and aluminium cladding, particularly when stakeholders expressed concerns over the testing and approval of alternative products. The same stakeholders questioned whether adequate measures were in place to ensure quality standards are not being compromised and therefore imposing hidden costs.

Obviously, three years later the situation has not been resolved and remains critical to the success of performance-based building solutions. These concerns must be addressed by the Australian Building Codes Board (ABCB) when attempting to create a performance mindset and establishing an enabling environment for the use of performance-based solutions in the coming years.

The draft changes for the 2016 edition of the NCC are available on the ABCB website and the closing date for comments on the draft proposals is August 3, 2015.