Much has been said and written of late about the failure of manufacturers to produce complying products in the wake of the recent UK Grenfell Towers and the 2014 Lacrosse in Melbourne apartment fires.
Unfortunately, it seems the products have become the focus of the issue instead of placing the emphasis on the failure of the private certifier system and building construction professionals. Somehow, the glossing over of the product substitution (‘look-alike’ products instead of ‘perform-alike’) by builders and the lack of comprehensive oversight inspections are being pushed into the background as we sit more than two years down the track waiting for the Senate Standing Committee on Economics’ inquiry into non-conforming building products report that is now apparently not going to be published till 2018.
The failure of private certification to deliver appropriate consistency and National Construction Code Compliant outcomes is across the board from high-rise apartments to the mass market home and renovation market. As an ABSA qualified NatHERS assessor, I hear from other professionals how poorly insulation installation is conducted and how weakly overall energy efficiency outcomes are policed throughout the industry.
Recently we were dished up a personal example of this. A few years ago we purchased for our office what had previously been a single storey early 1990s Queenslander that had been moved to the front of a large black, two-storey structure. It was built underneath with rear verandahs converted to living space, making for effectively a 50 per cent addition to floor area compared to the old plan. But it was erected on a new block, and a 10-apartment development was erected in its original location. When we purchased it, we determined all the visible spaces had insulation.
Recently we had cause to remove some wall and ceiling panelling to those non-visible spaces in the newly enclosed verandah wall and ceiling areas only to find that they had no insulation whatsoever. Looking up, all one saw was the raw underside of the galvanised steel roof sheet - no sarking, no insulation.
Furthermore, the quality of the construction behind the walls was worse that any DIY could have done, and yet this was built by professional builders and tradesmen. What started as a minor make-good turned into a major steel-adding, structural-reinforcement, steel-joint-connectors adding, new beams and new studs re-do. This work was completely unrelated to the reasons we peeled back the linings in the first place.
As a professional in the field, I would not have believed that a building that would have been inspected at the same time as a 10-apartment development could be so abysmally constructed and that the inspection system could fail so completely as to make the building (as I believe it was) unsafe in an unusually strong storm event. I fear for the interests of the apartment owners behind if the build quality of that section of our office is anything to go by.
While ours is an insignificant example compared to the literally thousands of owners faced with non-compliant cladding on their multi-storey buildings, the spectacular failure of construction professionals, particularly on the part of the compliance certifiers, must be overwhelming to some.
Just recently the Institute of Architects issued a Member Alert that among other things says:
1. The threat of non-conforming and non-compliant building products can be reduced at every stage of the supply and building process.
2. Rigorous enforcement of existing laws, including more stringent examination of overseas certification and third-party evaluation of locally produced materials, can ensure that a product is what it is represented to be, with consistent performance.
3. Traditionally, architects were the final arbiters of material selection. Decisions are now made by builders, project managers, and others to substitute products to save costs, with the decision being based on materials that ‘look the same’ rather than ‘perform the same’ as that originally selected by the architect designer.
4. With reduced levels of oversight by skilled and experienced practitioners, inappropriate use and substitution of building products can result in low quality and often dangerous buildings.
Amen to that, but I am also calling out the Senate Committee Inquiry that will have taken over two and a half years to reach a conclusion. It is unacceptable that public health and safety has been compromised to such an extent by the privatisation of what is effectively a regulatory role.
I’m sure the Committee Report is unlikely to ever really get to the root cause. Self-regulation combined with oversight by privatised regulatory compliance was never going to work. It was predicted from the outset by many and those predictions have come to pass. Luck and overlapping fire safeguards in the NCC are the only reasons Australia has not experienced the human tragedy of Grenfell Towers.
Our recent (albeit minor) office experience facilitates putting oneself in the shoes of those thousand of owners who are currently facing bills of tens of thousands of dollars to re-clad their apartment buildings. The failure of this compliance system is testament to - and typical of - the failure of privatisation in general to look after the public interest. Governments at all levels that have been driven by the economic rationalist greed-lust that delivers benefits to the political elite and top one per cent to the detriment of the rest have got to be called out.
Whether it is energy, health, transport, roadways, prisons, hospitals, schools or numerous other examples, privatisation has managed to deliver fewer services at higher costs, with less transparency, accountability and long-term planning. Arrangements such as Public Private Partnerships get Government debt of the balance sheets and out of accounting of ‘Budget Black Holes’ but ultimately don’t change National Debt levels.
Worse, they work out worse for the public in long run, as the monopolies that are often created provide extraordinary returns for a small group of shareholders at the expense of the general public. The public end up paying more in the end than if it was a government service, except now the politicians can stand back, wash their hands and avoid having to take the flack for expensive or poorly delivered services.
Public opinion has identified the problem, and if politicians don’t recognise the turn in public opinion, they do so at their own peril, as Queensland Labor Premier Anna Bligh found out a few years ago. Unfortunately it seems, the LNP don’t learn from others’ mistakes and even the current QLD Government seem certain to repeat the mistakes of yesteryear by embarking on another round of PPPs with the Cross River Tunnel.
For now, we wait for the Senate Standing Committee on Economics’ inquiry into non-conforming building products and wait to see if they continue to scapegoat manufacturers instead of the systemic system failure created by self serving governments unwilling to take the heat for poor decisions and who now endemically fail to act in the best long term interests of the community.