NSW to Overhaul Fire Certification After Damning Review 6

Tuesday, October 11th, 2016
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There’s no debating that a national government should have the role for the safety and security of its citizens as its prime responsibility.

To facilitate this, features such as rivers and artificial survey stations that carve the nation up with boundaries are ignored. Practically every person will live in, work in and use multiple different types of buildings most every day of their lives. High quality, safe and secure buildings and reliable infrastructure are features that define a country as being ‘first world’ status.

So why does Australia not have a singular set of rules to clearly define roles, responsibilities and accreditation requirements for everyone involved in the construction and maintenance of our built environment?

In the latter part of last century, the government finally managed to scrap the incomprehensible array of state-based by-laws, rules and ordinances to develop a Building Code of Australia, which is now incorporated in a National Construction Code. That was a positive step forward. We now need to adopt that very same attitude and approach in other areas. We need to scrap the jurisdictional inconsistencies and inadequacies that have developed across multiple bureaucratic layers where state-based legislation determines who should and who shouldn’t be accredited to practice the management, supervision, execution and verification of our buildings.

Here’s an example to illustrate the absurdity that continues to be ignored by  COAG:

South of the Tweed River, non-residential classes of building of any size, height or type of construction can be legally constructed by a person who appoints themselves as the ‘builder.’ However, over on the northern side of the river, Queensland legislation requires that an identical construction project must only be built by a someone who has an ‘Open Class’ building license.

The Queensland Building Construction Commission (QBCC) requires applicants for their Open Class license to have an Advanced Diploma of Building and Construction (Management) CPC60208 as a minimum form of technical qualification. The NSW/Queensland border must be some sort of mystic river that acts as both a physical and intellectual barrier to the implementation of a single, logical and cohesive strategy to ensure that every building in our country is only ever allowed to be constructed by an appropriately trained and highly qualified professional builder.

The reason behind this strange anomaly is that NSW legislation is centered on its Home Building Act. In NSW, if you want to undertake residential building works with a labour and materials contract value over $5,000, the NSW legislation still only requires that ‘builder’ to hold a single class of license. It doesn’t matter whether the work in question is a small ground level house extension that requires basic carpentry skills and traditional framing methods or a $50 million project for a multi-level, post tensioned reinforced concrete and structural steel framed apartment building.

The absurdity of this shortsighted approach sees a ‘licensed’ builder, who may be competent in knocking up a basic sunroom extension, automatically deemed to also possess all the capabilities necessary for the satisfactory construction of a medium or high-rise residential apartment block by virtue of their ‘one size fits all’ NSW license.

But there’s more disconcerting news. In comparison with most other states, NSW’s formal training qualifications for licensing purposes are limited. All you need in NSW is a ‘Certificate III’ level trade in carpentry or bricklaying plus a ‘Certificate IV’ in building to obtain this ‘one size fits all’ NSW builders license. These two specific qualifications are currently being distributed like confetti via the highly flawed recognition of prior learning process. Every Tom, Dick and Harry who claims to have already obtained ‘experience’ simply pays a private training provider to print them up a ‘qualification.’

This is like suggesting that a person who undertook a first aid course is qualified to wheel you into an operating theatre and perform orthopedic surgery on you. It is irrational. The government and the medical profession strictly regulate and link appropriate higher order qualifications and practicing certificates to their work complexity to ensure that this can’t occur.

If our NSW politicians and their legions of bureaucratic seat warmers were to examine the content of the building qualifications and associated units within the National Training Package, they would quickly realise that a ‘Certificate III’ and ‘Certificate IV’ level of training will go nowhere near the requisite content coverage and professional standards needed to satisfactorily cover the building construction diversity and contract management complexity inherent to projects larger than a simple freestanding house.

At least the QBCC has attempted to recognise the need for different classes of building license that would better reflect and align the need for a higher level of professional qualification to undertake more complex construction projects. This includes incorporating licensing provisions for non-residential building works. NSW is the worst example of what is a totally disjointed and dysfunctional system when it comes to matters associated with occupational licensing of building construction work.

There is no national directive to address inconsistencies and recognise risk differentials that are inherent in undertaking more complex building construction projects regardless of which state or territory the building construction project is to take place in.

Here is a list of the bureaucracies that decree what qualifications and standards are necessary to become accredited as a licensed builder within Australia:

  • NSW Department  of Fair Trading
  • Queensland Building Construction Commission
  • South  Australia Office of Consumer and Business Affairs
  • Victorian Building Commission
  • ACT Planning and Land Authority
  • WA Building Commission
  • Northern  Territory  Building Practitioners Board
  • Tasmanian Department  of Justice

And that’s just for builders. There are also various accreditations and exemption clauses for other allied building-related occupational accreditation such as building certifiers, engineers, architects, building designers, swimming pool certifiers and tradespersons. Each state and territory presents various levels of inconsistency from each other. It has been said that ‘disunity is death.’ If you want a template for disunity, visit the respective websites of these agencies and see if you can discern any logical links and consistent approaches to  the determination of licensing requirements. Here’s a hint: there are none.

The problem inherent to this issue is evident when it comes to fire safety factors impacting upon buildings and their construction. This disparity has now reached prominence in NSW, where the government announced it would “rewrite laws” governing the way buildings are certified. This followed a review that found practices for ensuring fire safety within apartment buildings were “totally ineffectual” and caused unsafe buildings to be approved.

The report that came out of this review acknowledges the massive increase in home unit construction projects being undertaken in NSW. It has links to the tragic incident where a student, Connie Zhang, died as a result of a fire in a medium-rise apartment building in Bankstown in 2012. The coroner subsequently recommended changes be made to building regulations.

The report found that under the NSW Building Professionals Act, certifiers have too much responsibility to assess safety and need to draw on other professionals with specialist qualifications.

“This need is particularly acute in the area of fire safety systems where it is vital that designing, installing and commissioning the system and certifying it have the proper expertise and are accountable,” the report stated. “There is clear evidence of non-compliant and hence unsafe fire safety systems. The current system of compliance certificates… is totally ineffectual and needs to be replaced.”

A Fire Protection Association report claims up to 40 per cent of buildings in NSW breach fire-related requirements and blames ‘unqualified’ contractors. The state government is promising a package of fire safety reforms to be released for comment including more frequent inspections of large apartment blocks during construction. It will consider having the design of fire protection systems certified only by contractors licensed by a professional body.

Fire and Rescue NSW are also able to take action for faulty fire compliance certificates. Victor Dominello, the NSW Minister for Better Regulation, whose portfolio includes the licensing of builders in NSW, claims that “NSW is experiencing a construction boom and it is imperative that we have first class certification laws that cater for current needs and future demands.”

A 2012 survey by the UNSW found that 85 per cent of strata owners and committee members of residential apartment buildings constructed after the year 2000 identified two or more defects in their buildings. Most complaints related to building leaks or cracking of the structure.

So how will a rewrite of the NSW Building Professionals Act in response to a review by a former NSW treasury secretary that was highly critical of the way in which commercial buildings and apartments are certified ensure safety or help someone who is about to occupy a new apartment building in Perth where issues such as the cracking of their apartment floor slab and leaking wall façade are prominent?  It won’t, because it can’t.

I strongly suggest that any Minister with a title of ‘Better Regulation’ use the next opportunity to raise the matter as a priority issue at COAG. The objective should be to create and implement comprehensive and consistent regulations that would restrict issuance of any occupational licenses and accreditation to highly trained and qualified persons with responsibilities for constructing medium and high-rise apartment buildings. They should not simply focus on certifiers who are in effect retrospectively checking completed work.

Beyond the specific review of the NSW Building Professionals Act and every other piecemeal review of the various incarnations relating to aspects of building legislation that each state seems to be perpetually engaged upon, it’s time to stop tinkering around the edges. Isolated reviews of our ineffectual and inconsistent state-based legislation can only perpetuate the confusion and ridiculous anomalies that currently exist. The Australian building and construction industry needs substantive changes to ensure future quality and safety standards are consistently delivered across all states and territories.

Australia must develop a singular, unified approach to all aspects relating to building legislation. This must firstly address the critical aspects of licensing and accreditation of persons who carry out professional building construction and certification roles within our industry.

It requires strong leadership to acknowledge that it doesn’t matter if you happen to live or work in a building in Bankstown, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth or any of the nation’s thousands of suburbs, each and every Australian should be entitled to – and should demand that – regulations and standards for persons charged with the responsibility of constructing, checking and maintaining buildings will all be of an equivalent and highly professional standard.

So it’s over to any of the state ministers with ‘Better Regulation’ printed on their business cards and to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to create a coalition of innovative and exciting thinking that will result in universal accountability based upon a comprehensive set of requirements. This must start with the recognition that the current state-based and regulated system is hopelessly outdated, riddled with inconsistencies and systemically broken. It’s time it was fixed.

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  1. John Stensholt

    There is no question that having eight different sets of building rules is killing productivity and driving inconsistencies in regulation throughout the country.

    I understand that COAG has a large number of priorities across a number of areas, but I sure hope they point building legislation harmonisation on their list somewhere.

    • Brett Bates

      The absurdity of the situation is that rationalisation of a national occupational licensing scheme across the building and construction sector had been considered important enough to be adopted until 2011 when the states – heavily lobbied by the main cottage building industry association who have a particular interest in maintaining a state based business model – convinced the pea hearted bureaucrats that it was all too hard. The Rudd/Gillard fiasco presented a much bigger problem at the time for the federal government so a unified and cohesive approach to Australia's licensing laws and accreditation requirements was quietly suffocated. And we have gone backwards in respect of addressing the issue of ensuring high quality and safe buildings are only ever being constructed by well qualified and knowledgeable persons.

  2. Your article only referenced Queensland but there is a significant process in place in Victoria too. Unfortunately the FPAA are more interested in income than fairness in processing licencing of fire professionals. They could face restriction of trade legal argument if they do not alter their current attitudes.

    • Brett Bates

      Thanks Vic. I used the example of Queensland in relation to their legislation which seems to recognise the need for builders to have an incremental level of licensing based on their levels of formal qualifications. This incremental accreditation approach is at least a step in the right direction. The next step is a national accreditation scheme for all those involved in the design, construction and certification of our buildings. There are two other excellent Sourceable articles by Mark Whitby (on soil classification and analysis) and Dr. Weng Poh (fire design and certification) that explore the bizarre way in which Australian government seems willing to turn a blind eye to the common sense approach and benefit that the implementation of a high regulatory standards and uniform approach to the accreditation of specialist occupations within the building construction sector would deliver to everyone including Victorians!

  3. Don

    1. The national Accreditation has some serious flaws. I personally see it on a DAILY basis. I live on the east coast of Queensland. The part that is outside of the south east corner of Queensland. It some way we don't seem to matter to those in the SEQ. We have what is called Cyclones. This requires massive tie down to stop up-lift. In some cases we require 450mm diameter footings and could be up to 2 metres in depth. The Girder Truss (there is normally two in a house) could require up to 40 tonne tie down. 20mm Cyclone rods may be required, with the remainder being 16mm at 900 center’s. I personally have seen southern builders come to our area and they have not a clue to how to build to the cyclone codes as it is VERY different. Yes they MAY be able to read a plan but they will then build to what they have done over the last 20 years. You pull the builders up when you do the inspection and show them how to fix it and they just say up yours. Cyclone code requirements effect 1% of Australia however it is the east coast from Bundaberg all across the top and down to about Perth. You have about 1 to 2 million people in this area. Builders do NOT want to learn the cyclone requirements and when they leave town the locals are left with the crap buildings.
    O don't tell me it is up to the building inspector. They is just a fast. If the builder does not like how you do your job, in Queensland they can issue a Form 22 and disengage the building certifier and find another Building Certifier who does not care or out of town (SEQ are normally). So much for national training, etc

    • Brett Bates

      Don. There is no national accreditation scheme for licensing builders. What you describe is at the very heart of the problem. What the governments squibbed on when they put the National Occupational Licensing Scheme into the dustbin of 'good ideas' that could be too hard to implement was the compromise position of having MUTUAL RECOGNITION of state issued building licenses. So you actually risk getting exactly what you describe. A person with extremely limited training and qualification requirements from NSW who is basically someone who might be quite good at knocking up pergolas and carports but who is given a 'Builder' class licence by NSW Fair Trade and then gets 'recognised' by QLD Building Commission as a competent builder who also understands the complexity of structural adequacy issues and specific tie down requirements for construction elements that can experience cyclonic wind loading conditions. We need to stop awarding builder licences without aligning them to corresponding work categories linked to professional qualifications and high quality training standards.