A recent report issued by the building commission has sparked a series of healthy and much-needed discussions in addressing the issues of non-compliance faced by a large number of homes in WA.
The report, titled A general inspection into metal roof construction in Western Australia, specifically relates to timber-framed houses with a sheet metal clad roof.
The need for a report such as this one comes on the back of a record number of complaints, multiple instances of lost roofs at lower than design wind speeds, and two tragic instances of lost life. The building commission aims to act now, or it could risk a similar situation to the ‘leaky building syndrome’ experienced in New Zealand, where the costs of repairing the damage continues to plague the industry, consumers, and the government alike.
The building commission assessed 12 inspection points on each building inspected, focussing on 11 critical areas of sheet metal clad timber framed roof construction, and a 12th category aimed to capture any other related issues deemed relevant. These points are outlined below via an extract from the report:
A scoring system was established to analyse results, with only two of the 123 inspection sites found to achieve a satisfactory score for all 12 inspection points. As a percentage, the overall satisfactory rate for construction sites in WA was 33 per cent. Change is needed.
So what's next for WA roof compliance?
As expected, a raft of recommendations has been made, with key stakeholders already expressing opposition to both the content of the report and its recommendations. I believe it is important that the building commission’s layout and presentation of the report has not adopted any finger-pointing in its approach, allowing key stakeholders to collaborate to achieve positive outcomes moving forward. Key recommendations include:
Clearer drawings and specification
In many situations, I believe a tradesman is only as good as the plans that he/she follows. With a lack of clarity provided within the drawings and specifications, it is no wonder so many instances of non-compliance were identified. Furthermore, the building commission undertook the inspections in accordance with AS1684.2, and then provided the builder with the opportunity to provide evidence that a performance solution existed. In many of these instances, where the builder claimed to have a performance solution, there was in fact no such documentation stating solutions were lodged as part of the building permit application.
The drawings and specifications must also clearly define performance solutions to tradesmen as many of these alternatives are becoming industry practice, which may not necessarily be applicable to all construction sites in WA.
The building commission has made two recommendations in relation to certification. The first option is the issuance of a Certificate of Construction Compliance by an independent registered building surveyor upon completion of a single residential house. I believe this method of certification may appear sound in principle, although many issues would need further attention. For example, a conflict of interest may occur between the builder and the building surveyor. A full description of ‘independent’ would need to be established, and policing of this independence may prove difficult. Furthermore, checks to be undertaken at the completion of works will not allow for testing of critical building components such as tie-down straps or any concealed fasteners.
The second option is to introduce mandatory inspections at roof framework stage. This would be more effective in allowing a better inspection of the points established by the building commission, and recent investigations into Cyclone George in August 2015 highlighted the links between ‘mandatory inspections’ and ‘greater construction compliance.’
However, further analysis of key points would need to be undertaken. For example, the building commission suggests that a registered building surveying practitioner or a registered building practitioner would be deemed to be ‘suitably qualified’ to carry out the inspection. I believe the only way to create independence, accountability, and better respectability in relation to this point would be to introduce licensing of building inspectors. This could then in turn allow for continued professional development of inspectors, and allow for the creation of a code of conduct in relation to the newly formed industry body, ensuring independence from the builder. A building inspection industry body could also better liaise with the building commission, providing valuable insight into the issues currently facing WA homes.
Better education of industry
Education must remain at the forefront of the building industry, although I fear that any licensing of supervisors or relevant tradesmen may become difficult to implement due to the volume of building work available against the availability of supervisors or tradesmen that would be considered ‘suitably qualified.’
As such, I believe mandatory inspections would be preferable, as this would ensure quality assurance in the short term and hopefully equate to less non-compliance in the long term due to the reports that would be issued and readily available via the builder. I am aware of industry response in relation to the building commission’s report where the builder has engaged an engineering organisation to provide an education seminar to their current sub-contractors, although unfortunately I believe this measure is flawed due to the mobility of tradesmen between builders and the lack of quality checks undertaken thereafter.
Furthermore, when queried on non-compliance by the building commission, many tradesmen made statements such as ‘that’s the apprentice's job’ in critical connection areas, which highlights the need for systemic change as opposed to any short courses or seminars that may temporarily paper over the cracks. I believe education would be better placed in understanding the roles of each professional involved in assembling the drawings and specifications, which would enhance collaboration between professionals and reduce the likelihood of omissions or ambiguities within the plans and specifications.
Of the recommendations noted above, I have already seen some of these processes implemented by a few project builders around Perth, and the results in terms of compliance have been positive. However, my main concern with issues being dealt with ‘in-house’ is that it creates an uneven playing field between builders that are trying to do the right thing against builders who are willing to cut corners to undercut others.
The general inspection found the most likely underlying causes for concern were a systemic unawareness of - and lack of attention to - the performance requirements, together with the pressures of competitive market forces undermining quality construction practice. The building commission also made the admission that it is reasonable to conclude there is clear evidence from the general inspection in 2014 that quality control in the WA building construction industry does not appear to be working effectively.
Personally, I remain confident that we can establish the processes to ensure better compliance here in WA, and I hope the building commissions report can be the catalyst in facilitating positive change.