If any reminder about the need for adequate levels of building control during construction of houses, offices, apartments, hospitals and shopping centres was necessary, recent media images of a townhouse teetering on the edge of a massive pit after the side of a nearby building site in Melbourne’s east has provided that in abundance.

While the collapse is believed to have been caused by heavy rain (and no suggestion of fault or negligence is intended), the developments are the latest in a series of incidents that can underscore what happens when things go wrong. In Melbourne’s West, around 4,300 poorly built homes suffer from ‘slab heave’ – uneven movement of a house footing and slab – and have suffered from cracked walls, jammed doors and windows and tilting floors.

At a Docklands apartment complex, meanwhile, highly combustible cladding which did not meet standards relating to fire safety as specified in the Building Code of Australia caused flames to rip 15 storeys up the side of a building in which more than 500 people had to be evacuated.

Melbourne is not the only area of concern. In Sydney, a University of Sydney survey of 1,550 strata title owners in 2012 found that 85 per cent of newly built apartments were defective, and that seven out of 10 owners had experienced defects such as water leaks and internal cracks. So poor is the building control system in New South Wales, an Engineers Australia report said in June, that a major fire in a high rise Sydney apartment building similar to that in Melbourne was inevitable.

To be sure, Australia is far from the only country to experience problems. In what is known as the ‘leaky homes debacle’ in New Zealand, for example, thousands of homes were built over several decades which did not meet the waterproofing standards of the New Zealand Building Code.

Where is Australia falling down? By and large, while Australia has largely achieved a consistent set of rules in terms of the National Construction Code, the regulation of professionals and tradespeople involved within the building process varies considerably among states. Whereas Queensland, the ACT and Tasmania have three tiers of licensing, for example, Western Australia has only one licence and one grade. Victoria has separate classes of licence for commercial and domestic building. In most states, specialist contractors such as plumbers, electricians, plasterers and the like are known (rightfully so) as ‘trade contractors’ but in Victoria, they are considered to be builders, albeit with a restricted license as opposed to the unrestricted ones held by general builders.

Within some states, too, some of the rules appear to be somewhat odd. Queensland, for example, has a separate licence for an ‘architect’ and a ‘building designer.’

One problem associated with all this, former president of the Australian Institute of Building Surveyors and Adjunct Professor Robert Whittaker AM FAIB NBPR-1 says, is that along with a lack of consistent requirements regarding registration and what it covers in some states as against others, there is across different states and even within some states a lack of consistent statutory definitions of the roles of each type of practitioner. This, he says, gives rise to situations where there is also no statutory liability nor any requirement to hold indemnity insurance.

Whittaker says that in New South Wales, for example, while those referring to themselves as architects are required to be registered, there is no statutory definition of their role, and they are not held responsible for whether or not their design indeed complies with the Building Code of Australia.

“If you can’t agree on the same language, and the same terminology to describe what the person is, then you don’t have the consistency over what their obligations are, and therefore you don’t have any statutory liability,” Whittaker said.

Another problem, Whittaker says, revolves around a lack of effective enforcement action against trade contractors – a situation he says is placing builders at risk in terms of liability and consumers at risk in terms of poor quality workmanship and safety.

“Let me know of the last time you have heard of a trade contractor, or restricted builder in Victoria’s case, lose his licence, even though he has stuffed up something for the builder,” Whittaker said. “For some reason, they are a protected species.”

Another problem area revolves around the regulation of building surveyors, construction lawyer and Conjoint Professor Kim Lovegrove says. In a paper presented to the Queensland and Northern Territory Chapter of the Australia Institute of Building Surveyors in June, Lovegrove outlined a number of problems regarding legislation within the building surveying fraternity. A reactive approach which sees surveyors typically investigated only when complaints are made, he says, fails to ensure that practices of all surveyors are up to standard.

Notwithstanding the professionalism and integrity of the majority of practitioners, meanwhile, fee cannibalisation and unrealistically low quotes are inevitably creating pressure for corners to be cut. In such an environment, allowing surveyors (who are typically hired by builders) discretion to sanction alternative solutions in which design scenarios do not comply with deemed to satisfy provision of the Building Code of Australia could well lead to structures which have been compromised – especially given the modern environment and a desire on the part of developers to minimise the cost of construction.

“So is the building control regime in Australia failing the public?” Lovegrove asked. “By and large, no, but it is probably deteriorating.”

A final area of challenge revolves around enforcement. In Victoria, for example, one source says that while regulations which are in force are generally adequate, confidence in that state’s building control regime was difficult to justify simply because rules were not being effectively administered and applied.

In terms of solutions, Lovegrove wants an overhaul of regulation regarding surveyors, whom he said should be appointed by owners rather than builders and limited to assessing approvals on the basis of compliance with prescriptive regulations; given suitable powers to issue compliance notices and enforcement orders; and subject to ethical requirements which are codified in acts of Parliament (NSW already does this). Lovegrove would like to see a mandatory auditing regime and a floor for fees to ensure these are adequate so as to enable the performance of duties in a satisfactory manner.

Since terms like ‘building surveyor’ and ‘principle certifier’ are not well understood outside the construction sector, Lovegrove would also like to see their name changed to ‘construction regulators’ or ‘building code enforcers’ instead.

Whittaker, meanwhile, would like to see consistent language with clear statutory definitions for each type of professional and consistent requirements for licensing.

“I would like to see, the word engineer defined consistently across the country,” he said. “The word builder I would like to see defined consistently across the country. I would like to see Victoria do away with ‘restricted builders licences and let’s call them trade licences like everybody else.”

  • I think you may find the Bob Whittaker is past president of the Australian Institute of Building (AIB), not the Australian Institute of Building Surveyors (AIBS)

  • What a big surprise!
    Volcanic clay moves, and, standard concrete raft slabs are not suitable for such conditions.
    Why build in a manner when the only remedy for a mistake is to demolish a house and start again.
    I am surprised only 4300 houses have problems. Under reporting? Can you sell a house with "known" problems.

    If we do not talk about problems they will go away?

    • As building expert and pre purchase property inspector I have inspected hundreds of dwellings built in western suburbs of Melbourne on highly reactive clay foundation materials that have been in service 1-12 years. Vast majority of those do not have significant foundation problems, some do and few are badly damaged. Roughly speaking ratio of damaged dwellings is 1:10.
      So why is it that if you have two houses next to each other one has damage and other doesn't. A popular misconception is that drought and breaking of drought has caused many of the dwellings to become damaged. If that were true why(90% of others) are not damaged?
      You need to take closer look at builders. As I write this article I am writing reports on inspection of dwellings under construction and condemning builders for not following specifications and standards required for drainage management during construction. In clear breach of regulations and contract they are powering on with impunity.

      Having taken thousands of dollars extra from owners to build engineered "H" and "P" slabs on reactive soils they are not even interested in maintaining surface drainage and temporary downpipes to prevent foundation flooding.

  • The key problem isn't inconsistency in definitions. The problem is that 'registration' is spurious; 'the buy the licence and sell the licence' builders, 'in-the-pocket' surveyors and other engineer, soil tester, oft illegal 'inspector' buddies happy to all breach the law!

    Regarding 'professionalism' and 'integrity', how can this apply to the majority when in the strata sector we have 85% of apartments defective as 'new' – and in domestic building, conservatively 50% of owners losing multi Billions of dollars by trying to build annually? In relation to enforcement, I see Mr Whittaker is blaming the tradies. But the onus is squarely on the 'builders' – they agree to 'build', then rob owners and run! It is the builder/surveyor buddy teams that are the protected species.

Viewpoint – 300×600 (expires Dec 31 2017)