Throughout Australia, the seriousness of building products which fail to comply with the National Construction Code is well-known following the tragedy at Grenfell in London, the near-tragedy at the Lacrosse building at Melbourne’s Docklands, the supply of faulty and dangerous cable into tens of thousands of homes and businesses and numerous cases of glass which have exploded from balconies and rained down onto streets below.

For architects, engineers, builders, trade contractors, installers and surveyors, however, all this raises questions about what they need to do at a practical level to ensure that all products used in projects on which they work are fit for purpose and comply with the NCC.

In ensuring safety, it is critical to discuss basic concepts about product compliance; specific practices which designers, contractors and installers should follow; and some of the critical mistakes to avoid and tips to follow.

For the most part, the descriptions outlined below are based on the 2nd Edition of the Procurement of Construction Products – A guide to achieving compliance publication released by the Australian Procurement and Construction Council.

Basic Concepts

Planning and building legislation throughout each state and territory gives effect to the National Construction Code (NCC) in respect of building work which is performed. Separately, plumbing legislation gives effect to the Plumbing Code of Australia.

The NCC, in turn, sets out objectives for the performance of the building along with relevant performance requirements for the building and the materials which are used within the building in question. It also references minimum technical standards for product performance and identifies a range of methods for verification of both the building’s and the materials’ performance against these standards.

As set out in Part A2.11 of Volume One and part 1.2.1 of Volume 2, buildings and the products which go into them need to meet two core objectives. First, each part of the building needs to be constructed in a manner which is appropriate in order to achieve the requirements of the NCC in the case of class 2-9 buildings (apartments, commercial and public buildings) and those of the Housing Provisions in the case of Class 1 and 10 buildings (houses, sheds and so forth) Second, the materials used must be fit for the purpose for which they are being used.

That second requirement raises an important point. To be compliant with the NCC, not only must a product work properly, but it also must be suitable for the purposes for which it is being used. In the case of the infamous aluminium composite cladding with a PE core used on the Grenfell and Lacrosse towers which contributed to the rapid spread of fire up the towers, the problem is not that the product was faulty but in the way it was used. Indeed, that product was never intended to be used on high-rise buildings.

It is important to note that the NCC is a performance-based document and provides flexibility about how to achieve its performance requirements. Under this regime, there are two methods through which the performance requirements may be achieved.

Most common are deemed to satisfy (DTS) solutions. These spell out ways through which the performance requirements will be met. Provided these provisions are followed, the building solution enacted will be deemed automatically to comply with the rules.

In respect of products, if a manufacturer or supplier can demonstrate that their product fulfils the standards as required in the DTS provision, building surveyors are unlikely to require any further evidence of the product being fit for purpose.

Alternatively, performance requirements can be met through performance solutions (formerly alternative solutions). Under a performance solution, designs or design elements still comply with the NCC notwithstanding that they differ from requirements in DTS solutions provided that it can be demonstrated that the solution proposed still meets the performance requirements of the NCC.

Where a performance solution is used, evidence must be provided to demonstrate how the product or form of construction satisfies NCC requirements. Assessment methods through which this can be shown include written evidences such as reports from testing authorities; verification methods such as tests, inspections or calculations; or providing expert judgement.

There are several means by which the conformance of a product for particular uses can be determined. These are known as conformity assessment paths and include testing, inspection, product certification and supplier declarations.

Testing can include testing of a prototype to demonstrate that the design of a product conforms to the requirements of the relevant standard or specification, batch or sample testing during production and ‘proof’ testing of products as they appear on the market.

Inspection can be done at multiple points. During the design stage, comprehensive examination and review of a product’s design can be done to evaluate its compliance with specified conformance requirements. For those materials which require larger and more complex assemblies, inspection at the manufacturing process may be necessary to ensure that products are manufactured in a manner which is true to their design. Since even compliant products can be compromised during installation (for instance, glass could be weakened if not handled correctly), some products may warrant inspection during installation.

Third, products can be certified as meeting requirements for specific applications by a third-party organisation which is accredited to provide certification under the Joint Accreditation System of Australia and New Zealand (JAS-ANZ) certification accreditation scheme. Depending on the level of risk attached to the product, certification may rely on straightforward tests based on initial test reports and design review through to more complex testing and evaluation supported by initial and ongoing audits of manufacturing quality control systems and periodic testing of actual production.

As well as the certification of products, there can also be quality management certification, which involves the ongoing auditing and certification of a given supplier to ensure the quality assurance processes they follow are robust.

Finally, in some instances, supplier declaration may be considered whereby suppliers themselves attest to the conformity of the product with a given standard or specification. This should spell out the results of testing or evaluation of the design upon which the attestation has been based.

Obviously, a supplier declaration does not afford the same level of certainty as inspections, testing or third-party accreditation. Also, the method by which conformance is demonstrated should be chosen according to the relative level of risk which a product poses. Riskier products generally require testing, third-party certification, or both. For products which pose minimal risk in the event of failure, supplier declarations may be adequate.

Evidence required

How, then, can you prove that a product is suitable for use on your project?

The Code requires that suitable levels of evidence be provided. This is called evidence of suitability.

Toward this end, Part A2.2 of the Code outlines a hierarchy of six forms of evidence which can be used. The hierarchy flows from the CodeMark certificate, which provides the highest level of assurance, down to ‘another form of documentary evidence’, which provides the lowest level of assurance of any allowable evidence form.

Whilst the Code does not say which type of evidence must be used, A2..2(b) does require that the form of evidence chosen must be appropriate for the use of the building component to which it relates. For this reason, products such as structural steel, cladding used on high-rise apartments or electrical wiring would almost certainly warrant higher levels of evidence. For low-risk products such as kitchen door handles, meanwhile, forms of evidence which are lower down in the hierarchy would suffice.

The forms of evidence are as follows:

  • A current CodeMark Australia or CodeMark Certificate of Conformity
  • A certificate of accreditation by a state or territory under relevant state or territory building legislation. In Victoria for instance, the Victorian Building Authority operates an accreditation system and issues certificates of accreditation. Once a product is accredited, Victorian building control authorities require that it be accepted if the product’s use complies with the legislation.
  • A certificate issued by a certification body that has been accredited by the Joint Accreditation System of Australia and New Zealand (JAS-ANZ) which states that the material, product or form of design or construction meets specific requirements of the NCC.
  • A report issued by a laboratory which was has been accredited by the National Association of Testing Authorities (NATA) that demonstrates that a material, product or form of construction fulfils specific requirements of the NCC and that sets out the tests to which the material has been subjected, along with the results of those tests and other relevant information.
  • A certificate or report from a professional engineer or other appropriately qualified person which certifies that a material, product, form of construction or design fulfils specific NCC requirements and sets out the basis on which that certification is given and the degree to which that certification has been based.
  • Any other form of documentary evidence. This includes – but is not limited to – a product technical statement which demonstrates that a material, product, form or construction or design fulfils specific NCC requirements and sets out the basis on which this opinion is given and the extent to which relevant standards, specifications, rules, codes of practice or other publications have been relied upon to demonstrate its suitability for use in the building.

What do I need to do?

The guide lists several steps for designers, contractors and subcontractors.

For designers such as architects and engineers, the first question to ask is whether or not the product in question needs to comply with the National Construction Code, any relevant Australian standards specified in building regulations, or any relevant standards specified in contract documentation.

Where the answer is yes, the clauses/standards which apply should be identified. Where the answer is no, the designer should determine the intended uses for the product and should identify any Australian, international or industry accepted standards, guides or codes which might apply to the product in question.

Once this has been done, they should determine the most suitable conformity assessment path for the product in question. First, it is important to confirm whether there are any mandatory or voluntary guides for conformity assessment criteria exist. Where this is the case, they should then obtain the required evidence based on the chosen conformity assessment path.

Where there are no guides for conformity, architects or engineers should develop criteria for conformity assessment based on the relevant use for the product and any potential risk it poses before then obtaining suitable evidence of conformance based on the chosen assessment path

Architects and engineers should retain evidence of conformance.

Of course, where satisfactory evidence cannot be obtained, the product in question should not be used.

For builders, contractors and installers, the first point of action is to check and confirm that the product to be supplied and installed is the same as that specified in contract documentation (if the product has been specified by an architect or engineer) and whether or not appropriate evidence of suitability was provided.

Where suitable documentation has been provided, the builder is generally good to use the product and evidence of conformance should be retained.

Where suitable evidence has not been included, builders and contactors should attempt to contact the supplier to obtain the relevant evidence of conformity. If the supplier can provide evidence, the product can be used and the builder/contractor should retain copies of the relevant evidence. If the supplier does not provide this, builders should consider undertaking their own conformity assessments (such as inspection or testing) and should reconsider using the product where compliance cannot be demonstrated.

Of course, there will be times where no specific product is specified and decisions about the specific product required rests with the builder. Where this happens, builders should obtain appropriate evidence of suitability before using a product.

Where builders/contractors wish to substitute a specified product with an alternative product, they should get this checked and approved by the building surveyor in the case of a product which contains a significant degree of inherent risk.

Mistakes and tips

Kristen Brookfield, chief executive, industry policy at the Housing Industry Association, says common mistakes boil down to two key areas.

First, there is not asking enough questions. This can include failing to ask suppliers whether or not the product in fact complies with relevant standards at all. Alternatively, it can include asking but being too quick to merely accept simple verbal assurances or statements in brochures and promotional materials about the standards which the product is purported to meet for the particular use.

Instead, designers (or contractors, where they select products) should seek appropriate technical information about the product, along with information about the tests upon which the certification has been based.

In addition, practitioners can fall into the trap of believing that it is somebody else’s job to ensure compliance. Designers, for instance, can take undue comfort from the idea that plans will be checked by the building surveyor. Surveyors, by contrast, can take mistaken assurance from presumptions about architects and engineers having all in order.

Instead, all parties need to be diligent, and ensure that appropriate checks have been made and that suitable documentation has been obtained.

Brookfield says designers should adopt a consistent process, look carefully at structural materials and other high risk products which they are choosing, think about the standards with which products need to comply with and the products which are available which meet these standard.

When doing this, they should avoid the ‘easy option’ of statements such as ‘to be specified’ or ‘to comply with Australian standard’ and should think carefully about the specific products which should be used.

Contractors, subcontractors and installers, meanwhile, need to have a copy of the plans, be clear about which product is specified and ensure they purchase and use this. Where they wish to use an alternative product, they should run this past either the builder (for a low risk product) or the building surveyor in the case of a higher risk product, and have this checked and approved.

Where the specification is of a generic nature, they can choose the product to be used. In such a case, they should obtain suitable evidence that the product is fit for purpose prior to using it.

Brookfield says it most of what needs to be done is common sense, but the industry is still coming to terms with the importance getting things right following the recent high profile cases.

“We are still at the beginning of this learning curve,” she said. “It is important to keep repeating the basics.”

Australia has a challenge with non-conforming products.

To avoid this on their projects, architects, engineers, builders, contractors and installers should observe a few simple steps.