Supervision by Experienced Eyes Vital for Quality Houses 12

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Tuesday, September 29th, 2015
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Everyone I know wants and expects good quality housing; not just owners, but builders too.

So if the Auditor General has discovered that workmanship is at the core of the large majority of disputes, then what builders have to do is stop defects in labour from occurring. And based on what I have seen since the mid-1990s, this means house projects need better supervision by more experienced eyes.

Some people believe that if good quality materials are specified, purchased and adequately protected (until they form part of the completed works), nothing could possibly go wrong.

In reality, there are a multitude of things that could go wrong. That’s why there is supervision in the first place. And to compound the problems that may arise for the builder, nearly every house, every site, every client and most of the tradespeople involved are different.

Apart from the necessary time constraints associated with ordering, delivery and protection of materials, availability of tradespeople, complexity of the works, safety, regulatory checks and preliminaries, there is the overseeing of the work so that everything is installed as per the drawings and carried out in a workmanlike manner… including being in accordance with the drawings, specifications, codes and manufacturer requirements. This is all to be done on budget and on time, weather permitting. The builder’s task is rarely an easy one.

So who should carry out all of these aspects of supervision of the construction of a house?

It’s a given that it should be a very good organiser.

Beyond that, though, should it be an estimator or an injured person who cannot climb ladders, or should it be someone very experienced and fit – someone who has been involved on site on many a house project from start to finish, whilst the work was carried out around him/her?

Should a supervisor have sufficient knowledge on all trades to be able to spot short-cuts when he/she inspects? Or is it far more important that the job gets completed on time and looks good?

Supervision is perhaps the most important job of all for each and every house that was, is, or will ever be built. So it is logical that this responsibility should fall on the shoulders of the most experienced person in the firm.

Unfortunately, ‘the most experienced person in the firm’ thing is not happening (at least in Victoria) on most projects, particularly projects by larger building firms. But the same also applies to any job where the experienced on-site supervision is too hasty or virtually non-existent. That is why I have seen close to a dozen (not cheap to rectify properly) commonplace defects on virtually every new house or new additions project I have inspected. In fact I have seen at least four identical defects in well over 120 new houses in a row!

Many times these defects had been ‘Band-aided’ or maintained more than once before the end of the warranty period. Maintenance is not rectification.

I had occasion during the early 1990s to see a completed new 50-plus unit site (Ringwood) and a completed 17-unit site (Mitcham) less than five kilometres apart, and built at the same time.

One had a very experienced foreman about 40 years old, full-time on the job, who told me he had been a builder for the 15 years prior to that.

The other was a young builder just 24 years old and previously a carpenter for three years, who also had a few other projects on the go more than 25 kilometres away.

The foreman job was superb, with only a few items of minor concern to attend to, but the unit I inspected in the supervised 17-unit project had dozens of fairly expensive defects to rectify. By a cursory glance at the two adjacent units, it was obvious that they too had many of the identical costly defects, including a gross lack of sub-floor ventilation, un-primed oregon fascias, un-primed timber windows, an unprotected plywood Hyspan garage lintel, too few downpipes, a front door termite barrier breach and more.

It was apparent from just these two examples that experienced lengthy supervision succeeds and inexperienced rushed supervision does not.

With a little more effort, it is obvious that builders could drastically lower their risk of defects going undetected if they simply supervised regularly with an experienced eye. It might mean a few less projects for the year for a larger building firm and a bit of overtime for a single operator builder (or the hiring of very capable expert help). But there would be so few defects (if any) as a result, and the (little bit of) extra time and money spent would greatly make up for the cost of a few disputes and the repeated band-aiding by the maintenance team.

Defects covered by ensuing works can be very expensive to rectify, so it would pay to discover such defects as they occur so that they are not covered over by further works. I’ve had clients who had photographed their under-construction houses daily (one videotaped the work), and this evidence caught out builders who were too hasty and who inadequately supervised their projects. The builders then denied their failings causing a dispute that cost both sides dearly. One video proved that there were inadequate tie-downs for the corrugated Colorbond steel roof frame, and the rectification was going to cost over $5,000 to install them later. The opposing building consultant did not even know the basic tie-down rules of the Light Timber Framing Code.

There are also latent defects, but most of these are able to be avoided by careful thinking prior to the building works commencing, provided the soil report was carefully done.

The foresight on what might occur is also part of what I call supervision; that is the perusal and thoughtful appraisal of the documents (including soil reports) so that the house structure is adequately supported and able to deal with forces the soil is capable of in extreme conditions. The person in the firm that can understand these matters obviously needs to be very experienced, and must know people he or she can depend on for the necessary advice.

This single enhancement of many a builder’s supervision would remove the need for major building disputes such as those involving failed concrete slabs, footings and roof trusses.

Boom times, dropping standards (due to the dumbing down of the residential building industry via poor quality specifications and contracts), and the loss of loyalty from tradespeople due to cost (rather than quality) ruling who gets the job, have led to a greater and greater number of commonplace defects becoming the norm. Now they are wrongly accepted as standard even by most building consultants, registered building practitioners included. The supervisors and the registered building inspectors also passed these defects.

The ‘Band-aids’ I mentioned earlier are also replacing correct rectification (repairs that will last a reasonable time) and these works are very often not supervised at all, as tradespeople are sent back to repair what has failed even during the warranty period. This often occurs several times on a single project because the same short-cut is taken each time, sometimes with poorer (dirtier/more restricted/less safe) conditions. This approach displays a lack of pride by such builders, and is tantamount to short-cutting workmanship simply to get across the (end of warranty) line.

How can we possibly call that complying with standards?

And yet there are many in the industry (including authorities) who would have you believe it is not reasonable to insist (say in a head-banging VCAT Compulsory Conference) that there must be an agreed scope of works to rectify the agreed defects before the builder is permitted to return to the site to rectify them for free!

How fair is such ignorant dumbed-down bullying by the authorities?

Perhaps it’s time the authorities went to see, first-hand, the results of short-cutting masquerading as completed houses.

Perhaps builders could upgrade their supervision before such an inevitable audit occurs. It wouldn’t cost builders very much to make this happen.

We could then insist on far less costly Building Warranty Insurance, or better still, re-vamping to force insurers once again to take on the role of policeman. Because one thing insurers such as the Housing Guarantee Fund (HGF) used to know was who the repeat offenders were and what defects occurred time and time again. Insurers with this power to refuse insurance to repeat offenders could once again be useful to homeowners and the industry.

The quality – or lack thereof – of new houses, units and additions has gotten out of hand, as greed seems to have got the better of pride in an industry that has well and truly been dumbed down. I believe proper (experienced) supervision could resurrect quality to what it once was, and when that is the case, consumer confidence in builders will automatically return.

Let’s fix this. Builders should be respected.

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Discussions
12
  1. Peter Edwards

    Not only houses Mark, this absence of experienced supervision also affects all other classes of buildings. The experience of the recent nationally funded education building program is well documented and should serve to reinforce your views across all building types and jurisdictions. I might add, some of the problems you evidenced might have been avoided by more thorough documentation, that is if the site manager/forman cared to read them!

    • Mark Whitby

      Too true Howard,

      There's certainly a fair chunk of that in the mix

  2. Howard Ryan

    Mark, My issues are the housing being produced today is set on price and the sub contractors used are not happy with the pricing structure and complete their own works based on what they feel is adequate for the money they are being paid. I all comes down to unrealistic expectations. Howard Ryan

    • Mark Whitby

      Too right Howard. There is a fair chunk of that in the mix. The question is how to make it all happen the way it should.

      Mark Whitby

  3. Michael Faine

    I could not agree more, supervision is almost non-existent. So many faults could be avoided just by doing the work properly in the first instance. That requires the builder to inspect, supervise and demand a standard, better for all concerned.

  4. Anne Paten

    Mark, your qualifications and experience stand out. There must be supervision of all building projects – by persons with appropriate qualifications, the requisite technical expertise and as you so eloquently highlighted, with 'experience'. As we well know, experience is the best teacher. First, meaningful experience must be built on a solid knowledge base. Then it requires commitment to ongoing learning and the will to produce a good quality building, this the role of a supervisor. Sadly, in most building cases with which I am familiar, there was no supervision. In fact, the person designated 'supervisor' was a gofer. As for managing to get materials on site for 10 different building projects all across Melbourne, this utterly impossible. Regarding checking materials or supervising sub-contractors, no time available for any 'quality assurance'. Not to mention builders seeing same as a waste of money, undermining profits!

    The reality is no supervision is the norm, this one aspect of a totally non-compliant industry. Without proper registration, penalties and enforcement, there is no incentive for the huge number of reprobates to build in quality checks or to act with integrity!

  5. Brett Bates

    We need to look at the root cause of the matter. The fact is that significant changes to the content and manner of providing formal building qualifications has seriously damaged the once high standard of graduates equipped to operate as professional builders. A departure from what was generally a high quality and rigorous curriculum content to a low level competency based delivery system aligned with a poorly developed national training package sees graduates getting their qualifications for licencing purposes without having any prerequisite knowledge and problem solving skills. No amount of 'experience' will make up for this. To make matters worse a network of private training providers with a focus on 'fast tracking' their clients sees a person with 20 days of 'training' being awarded a Diploma in Building. It is madness. I would warn anyone not to deal with any builder if they have obtained their licence in the last 4 years.

    • Mark Whitby

      Good points about the latent defects Brett and also the curriculum of courses.

      But supervision is definitely an experience based thing. Supervision by an experienced builder (even with no course credentials at all… courtesy of doing the job alongside Dad for years) wins out against any freshman. You must be aware of the pre-requisites for any professional job… minimum 3 – 5 years experience. Until that time has elapsed the experience is by far the most important thing… plus caring and time spent supervising of course.

      The other point I would make is that supervisors at present (in Victoria at least) do not need to pass any course at all.

  6. Lesley Crouch

    Perhaps those registered building inspectors and supervisors who have passed defects as being alright, need to have a loved one, who ends up with a house built with defects, either built or bought as an existing property, to actually realise it is no small thing to be in that situation and is a heartbreaking experience for those people caught in a building mess.
    Consumers need to have confidence in the Australian building industry as it is an important part of the economy and effects so many people.

    • Brett Bates

      I understand your thinking but to blame building inspectors – or to use the correct terminology, certifiers – for not picking up all defects is never going to work nor should it be a relied upon in a true systems based approach. Many latent defects are not observable at the time of construction and it is not economically viable to have a veritable 'clerk of works' on site for the entire project period (as it once was) for home build projects anyway.
      As stated, responsibility must reside with the builder. If governments think that the supervision and oversight of building construction works is important enough to issue a licence for then they need to rigorously tighten up and extend the quality framework of the training provisions and qualifications required to obtain that licence.
      Think of it in terms of the medical profession. Would you be happy to have someone perform surgery on you if they had done some first aid training then did a 'fast track' course in medicine via a private training provider whose interest is in making a profit or would you prefer a doctor from a regulated training system where the interest is turning out graduates that meet high quality standards?

  7. Mark Whitby

    Some valid points Brett, particularly the latent defect comment.

    But I disagree that no amount of experience will compensate for passing a poor quality course. Many a good builder got there prior to the current system with virtually no course. It is the character of the individual that is the basic ingredient in my opinion.

    So many house are well built because their experienced builder bosses supervised the works.

    And Certified Building Inspectors are very much to blame for defects in houses because they are often the last possible chance a house has of the defects being discovered.

    If I can find over 44 frame stage defects after the frame was passed or can find $100 000 worth of defects in houses (as I have at least 5 times), then those Building Inspectors / Surveyors who inspected those jobs are very much to blame. It was their duty… making them negligent… as were the other weak links the supervisors and their bosses.

    What we lack is action by the authorities to police this matter. That is equally the cause of this problem continuing virtually unabated.

    We need to find out why the Building Practitioners Board hardly ever prosecuted. That should be our main focus.

  8. Ian Urquhart

    I have over recent times been involved in supplying products on a national basis. I can make one key comment – until we have national building codes and standards, we will continue this race to the bottom. In some areas of Australia you only need to be breathing to qualify as an installer whereas other places require training and certification whilst others require a license for the same work. It can't be too hard to get everyone on the same page surely.