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.