The Australian building industry is one of the most regulated and controlled building sectors in the world, and with good reason.
The health and safety of our buildings and people within are paramount. Nevertheless, last year’s Melbourne Docklands Building fire and the Infinity cable recall have led to a lot of discussion around product certification, highlighting the critical importance of performance standards and compliance regulations for the building and construction industry.
The National Construction Code of Australia is a very comprehensive document and it might be argued that it is one of the world’s leading building regulations. The Code supports innovation and consequently, it offers alternative building solutions in good faith.
This may provide more choice of construction and product solutions, but it is also leading to complexity in verifying product performance in terms of critical aspects such as the fire resistance and smoke limitation requirements of the NCC’s Volume 1 Section C. Furthermore, recent experience has shown that regulators are not adequately resourced to ensure product compliance is being met.
The report released by the Metropolitan Fire Brigade on the Docklands fire reinforces to the Australian building and construction industry the seriousness of the issue. Among the MFB’s recommendations is a call for designers and certifiers to adopt building products with current certificates, and ensure compliance with all conditions imposed on the certificate.
The prevalence of imported products in the local building and construction market is one of the most important reasons that Australia needs robust product standards, certification and testing as well as a building code whose implementation is adequately policed.
It is questionable as to whether some imported products credibly demonstrate and are tested to satisfy the same high standard performance criteria as locally produced and tested products. The Infinity cable recall is a reminder to the industry that sourcing products from overseas suppliers might be a procurement cost saving but when these products do not meet Australian quality and performance standards, it can ultimately cost contractors much more.
It is not enough to rely on copies of product testing statements that purport to show a product meets relevant performance standards, particularly when it comes to fire properties. Such test statements can readily be downloaded from product websites, but they don’t tell the whole story.
Testing facilities such as Australian NATA-registered laboratories issue statements detailing, for example, fire performance of specific product samples tested to assist manufacturers to demonstrate that products conform to the Building Code. However, these labs are not always appraisal or certification organisations. The fact is that a test performance statement may not be a reliable confirmation that the product sold and used in the market meets the fire resistance and smoke requirements - labs don't pass judgement, they merely report test results of a particular sample given to them.
According to the director of one local manufacturer we spoke to, this is exactly where the problem lies because engineers and builders should not be accepting the relevant test report as ‘certification’ from the testing laboratory, and they need to understand that testing laboratories do not take responsibility on the tested product sample.
The testing laboratory only tests what has been given to it and this may be a different product to the product supplied to the market on an ongoing basis. Where there is not a rigorous product certification program, it is left to product specifiers to verify that the test samples reported by the laboratory are equivalent to the actual product being used, for example, in terms of material thickness and composition. One improvement of this situation would be to include photo identity and more specific details of the samples tested in the testing laboratory’s testing report.
Importantly, it is one thing to have a product sample tested to a particular performance standard, and another to know that every single product from that supplier complies with that standard on an ongoing basis. This is where reputable product certification schemes are important. There needs to be ongoing product testing to ensure product compliance is maintained throughout the life cycle of a product’s availability in the market. The plastic pipe industry in Australia, for example, through the WaterMark certification scheme, continually verifies local manufacturers' product for compliance in what might be considered a best practice approach.
However, even this sector is not immune to conformance issues. Recently, imported pipe fitting products stamped as complying with the relevant Australian standards and quoting WaterMark licence numbers were found to be non-compliant when independently tested. Not only does this non-conformance affect the reputation of all plumbing products, it can present financial risks to retailers, certifying organisations, home owners, builders, plumbers and importers.
The problem is that it is virtually impossible to tell if a fitting is compliant without doing some sort of analytical or physical testing, and it is invariably left to the local manufacturers to investigate and prosecute non-conformance cases.
How the industry learns from cases like the Docklands apartment building fire and the non-conforming cable recall will define the landscape for many years to come. There is no doubt that the Australian building and construction industry has a set of sound standards and a strong building code in place, but with no system of 'policing' product compliance, an over-reliance on one-off product test results and insufficient adherence to quality product certification schemes, risks will remain for engineers, specifiers, builders and contractors, not to mention, consumers.
A growing chorus of industry bodies such as the Australian Industry Group and the Australian Procurement and Construction Council (APCC), is calling for better monitoring systems and greater awareness of conformance schemes.
APCC last year released Procurement of Construction Projects – A Guide to Achieving Compliance to assist in decision making processes for procurement and construction projects in Australia by educating specifiers on existing certification schemes with the view to elevating compliance and providing a level of confidence to all parties in the supply chain.
Industry education and awareness raising of both the issue and existing schemes is essential, but it is just the start.