So, it was with some unease on Tuesday 27 August that AIBS NSW Director Tim Tuxford and I appeared before the NSW Parliamentary inquiry into the regulation of buildings standards, building quality and building disputes.
We braced ourselves for more ill-informed statements and questions about building surveyors supposedly being responsible for everything on a building site including the colour of the bathroom tiles.
So, it was indeed a very welcome surprise when the Upper House committee of six Members of Parliament headed by David Shoebridge, had obviously researched on their topic and their understanding of the role of a building surveyor was much more advanced than we had anticipated. Finally, it appeared there was an understanding that building surveyors were part of a larger team.
I have always likened the role of a building surveyor, or certifier as they are called in NSW and Queensland, to the job of a goalkeeper who plays a critical role as the last line of defence, but to do the job effectively, the goalkeeper needs the rest of the team to do theirs too. In recent times, we have felt that there has been too much focus on the performance of the building surveyor and not enough on the rest of the ‘team’ in undertaking their roles.
The committee members realised the limited amount of time a building surveyor actually spends onsite, as opposed to the more commonly held expectations that their role had been about monitoring building quality on a daily basis.
We confirmed that the role of a building surveyor is a statutory one defined in legislation. The role is specifically to ensure that a building complies with the technical requirements set out in the National Construction Code which is overseen by the Australian Building Codes Board.
“Building surveyors acting in our statutory role are often accused of failing in our duties when all kinds of building defects occur,” we said. “It is of great concern to us that some governments have allowed such criticisms to circulate, particularly where there has been a misconception of the responsibility of a statutory building surveyor’s role in preventing a defect that has given rise to a dispute.”
The committee members were keen to know if reinventing the role of clerk of works would fix the problem many owners had with the quality of their finished building.
The role of clerk of works faded from the Australian building industry during the 1980s. Prior to that, a clerk of works oversaw site works on a day to day basis to ensure the building owner got what the architect designed in terms of quality and finish.
There has long been a view held by a few in the industry that the role should be recreated as a means of solving many of the issues we are now seeing with building quality. Understanding that a building surveyor is not a clerk of works and is not onsite 24/7, the committee members were interested in exploring this further. They asked AIBS to present another written submission and we did so the following week.
However, those expecting a modern-day clerk of works could step in to fix everything will be disappointed. The building process has changed so much in the four decades since a clerk of works patrolled the building site every day we don’t believe bringing that role back will help fix the issues facing the committee in relation to regulation of building standards, building quality and building disputes.
Instead, we believe making those who control and execute the work accountable is far simpler and a more economic means of improving construction outcomes. This should be considered first.
A clerk of works traditionally represented the interests of a project owner. The traditional role of a clerk of works was to be vigilant in their inspections of a large range of technical aspects of the work in progress. But, the traditional role of clerk of works had no power, simply reporting to the project owner, who would then make decisions based on that information about their dealings with the builder. With the advent of non-traditional project delivery methods this model is historical and would need significant adaptation in order to address a consumer protection need.
Contemporary delivery involves developers who employ project managers and construction managers. More often, elements of the traditional functions of a clerk of works are now being performed in-house by developers and builders who, within their own delivery structures, control matters of time, cost and quality, particularly as they benefit the developer or builder. These roles are mostly absent on any licensing requirement and therefore auditing control or oversight.
But, it’s understandable that mandatory involvement of a clerk of works is being discussed in the hope of addressing the increasing risk to the community from the inevitable diminution of construction standards from contemporary delivery methods.
In this case, harking back to the good old days, won’t fix a modern-day problem. AIBS recommended to the committee that governments continue to reform the responsibility and accountability structure of all building practitioners in preference to bringing back a public clerk of works role. Essentially, we have a ‘team’ already doing the job, but we just need to make the ‘team’ more responsible and accountable for their performances rather than look to more costly solutions.
In comparison to regulation of building practitioners, the public clerk of works role is expensive for each project, requires substantial human resources to address the quantum of projects involved and will exacerbate issues arising from a public perception of such a role having responsibility in the same way as the role of the building surveyor has been publicly misreported and misunderstood simply because “they signed off on it.”
This won’t be popular with some in the industry but it is far simpler and more equitable to make developers and builders individually accountable for the decisions they take and the work they do or directly control. In many cases, it is too easy for some to just walk away from their responsibilities.
Developers, project managers and builders should be subject to strict oversight and licensing controls inclusive of an audit scheme and consequences for ongoing practice for poor performance. They must be required to be people of good character and hold insurance that protects the consumer. By ensuring that individuals have this responsibility, the ability to hide behind a corporate structure or a failed entity should be removed.
Achieving safe, compliant and quality buildings is very much about teamwork and the long-term solution is to get all the team members, not just building surveyors, playing their roles for the team result. This will only happen if each individual member is fully accountable for their own performances.