Non-conforming products (NCPs) are a significant problem in the building and construction sector which must be addressed, industry leaders say.

Housing Industry Association senior executive director of building, development and the environment Kristin Brookfield says a number of factors are leading to a growing prevalence of faulty products in the sector, including an increasingly global marketplace, a growing volume of purchases being made online, gaps in the regulatory environment and growing pressure to cut costs.

Kristen Brookfield

Kristin Brookfield

“Building products are now a global market,” Brookfield said, adding that this is especially the case for smaller, lightweight products which are easily transported.

“Online purchasing is now possible and has brought uneducated buyers into the market who are unwittingly buying goods that are not fit for purpose. There are many Australian building product manufacturers, however they are competing in this global market, and as with much manufacturing in Australia, they are competing on price for labour.”

“Australia’s framework for managing building materials is limited. Whilst we have a national building code and many of the necessary technical standards, oversight and checking is left to the last people in the supply chain – the builder and the building inspector. By leaving the regulation to the last possible moment, manufacturers and suppliers can still retail building products that may not be fit for purpose.”

Brookfield’s sentiments are echoed by Australian Industry Group chief executive officer Innes Willox, who talks of a lack of independent verification and visible regulatory authority in the building and construction sector, which he says is making the conformance framework “ineffective and unfair.”

These comments come after debate about the growing prevalence of NCPs within the sector intensified last year following a national recall of about 40,000 electric cables in August. The cables were found to have poor quality insulation that could lead to premature degradation and risk of electric shock or fire.

That recall followed an earlier report from Ai Group which highlighted widespread prevalence of NCPs across a range of construction product segments, with steel, electrical products, and glass and aluminium products as well as structural plywood being particularly affected.

Such concerns have been heightened by recent media reports about asbestos being found in cheap plasterboard products from China as well as gaskets, trains, mining equipment and other vehicles.

In response, the sector has ramped up efforts to tackle the problem. Together with HIA and others, Ai Group last year formed a coalition group known as the Construction Products Alliance to raise awareness about NCPs within the industry and engage with policy makers and regulators about how to improve surveillance and certification.

Meanwhile, a number of industry groups contributed to work behind a comprehensive guide published by the Australian Procurement and Construction Council to help builders achieve compliance with the requirements of the National Construction Code from a procurement perspective.

Action is also happening at a more detailed level. The Australian Windows Association, for example, operates a ‘dob-in-a-site’ scheme which enables individuals to report any instances where they believe a builder has installed non-compliant windows or doors on a confidential basis. The AWA forwards any complaints to authorities where the builder concerned is unable to prove compliance.

Brookfield says there is no singular solution and that the best thing is for industry bodies to help raise awareness of the issue and provide practical advice within the sector and engage with policy makers and regulators about how to strengthen certification regimes.

She notes the consequences of NCPs are serious.

“The most concerning area of failure in building products will always be those that relate to safety,” Brookfield said. “The national recall of poorly insulated electrical cable was the most recent example of this last year, but products like windows, structural steel, structural bolts and even timber products used as the formwork for concrete have had significant failures in recent years.”

“HIA is extremely concerned that the builder is often the only person with any responsibility to make sure the products are fit for purpose and purchases made in good faith can still lead to them having a role in ‘fixing’ a problem.”