Specifiers to Installers – How do We Close the Gap?

Friday, January 22nd, 2016
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Housing affordability is at the forefront of discussions across Australia, and rightly so.

As home ownership rates continue to drop, cost-effective and innovative methods of construction will need to be achieved to allow people to realise the ‘Australian Dream.’

Personally, I embrace the emphasis placed by the ABCB on the NCC being a performance-based code. My concern, however, lies with the current implementation of prescriptive solutions. If we can’t achieve compliance when it is clearly stated within the Australian Standards, then how will we cope when the systems being implemented are being trialled for the first time?

I believe that to have a successful performance-based code, we must first close the gap between the installer or contractor on site and the designer or specifier of the product or material.

The gap between trades and certifiers

Whilst conducting inspections I am often met with ‘that’s the way I’ve always done it’ when identifying areas of non-compliance.

But who’s to say these methods would not meet the performance requirements of the NCC? After all, there weren’t any real ‘verification methods’ applied to the original NCC. People just knew it worked because ‘that was the way it was always done.’

I am not suggesting trial and error is the basis of a successful building code, although I do believe that tradespeople could have much more influence on developing innovative and potentially cost-saving methods of construction. To achieve this, more open dialogue must exist between specifiers and contractors.

So how do trades have their say?

Since the release of the NCC as a document free to public viewing, figures of uptake have been astounding.

Although I would not criticise this step in allowing greater discussion of building code clauses, I would be interested to see the uptake on associated standards since its release. For example, bricklayers and roof carpenters would have actually seen a reduction in accessible codes over the past few years, and I wonder how many of those trades own copies of the referenced standards or, indeed, understand them.

I recently attended an inspection and took the timber framing code with me to discuss my findings with the tradesman on site, and was actually queried as to what the document was!

Separation of standards

It would be easy to blame tradespeople for the problems mentioned above, although I know first-hand that sub-contracting is no easy gig. Payment of employees, ensuring employees are conducting the work properly, arranging future contracts, organising materials, bookkeeping, and invoicing are just some of the daily tasks that a sub-contractor has to deal with. Then there is the fluctuation in both volume and profitability in the work on offer. I doubt it makes many motivated to settle down in the evening to a 300-page standard!

I believe a better way would be to separate standards into three categories: design compliance, on-site compliance, and manufacturing compliance. I believe this would increase engagement into the content of the standards, and create a stronger chain from the ground up.

The ABCB could then place greater emphasis on engaging tradespeople by expanding upon the on-site standards into non-mandatory handbooks. With the examples set by their release of Condensation in Buildings and Structural Reliability, I would have every confidence that these handbooks would prove to be the on-site bibles for every tradesperson.

The ABCB’s suggestion that in future, particular clauses within the NCC will contain YouTube links demonstrating compliance would also be a huge step in promoting further engagement.

How can tradespeople help with innovation in construction?

As stated, the NCC began based upon a formula of what was deemed to be acceptable construction practice, due to the longevity of products used in service.

With a greater understanding of how specifiers interpret the performance requirements, coupled with an on-site knowledge of using products day in and day out, I am certain that tradespeople could become the next wave of inventors. You don’t have to look far to see examples of this across the country.

Tradespeople could also facilitate faster amendments of standards and allow our industry to be more proactive when seeking solutions. As they are on-site playing with the components of the building, they often have a greater understanding of what will work without necessarily knowing how to apply this knowledge into the documentation required to form an acceptable alternative solution.

What would be left?

Firstly, the ABCB would have to establish a forum of communication where trades can engage with other professions throughout the country. Perhaps if this were already established, then the removal of certain clauses within the NCC that were incorrectly believed to be ‘duplicate codes’ would not have happened.

The issues surrounding intellectual protection of establishing alternative building methods also needs addressing. Other trade industry bodies around the country can take heed from the excellent work undertaken by Forestry and Wood Products Australia. Through better engagement of their members, perhaps industry bodies could develop the ideas of tradespeople and make the alternative solutions available to members who are designers/builders.

The builder should then have less burden of on-site supervision, as in my experience the current situation of supervisors being overworked and underqualified, coupled with a lack of clear direction to trades, is leaving consumers with non-compliant and potentially dangerous homes.

With greater connectivity to trades as well as clearer design details, the builder’s sole responsibility to achieve compliance should then be to assemble a sub-contract agreement that clearly states workmanship clauses, as well as any particular manufacturers specifications on the installation of materials.

There can be no settlement of a great cause without discussion, and people will not discuss a cause until their attention is drawn to it. As a nation, our attention has been drawn toward finding innovative solutions in addressing housing affordability. It’s time we all started sharing our discussions.

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