Last Christmas Eve, residents of the 36-storey Opal Tower in Sydney Olympic Park were forced to evacuate after hearing cracking sounds including a loud bang.

Early investigations identified cracks in a load-bearing panel on Level 10 which formed one of the exterior walls at the base of one of the inset slots.

On December 27, residents were once again forced out after later investigations revealed further cracking of the hob beam supporting the cracked load-bearing panel and subsequent examinations also identified other cracked concrete structural members on level 4.

(An interim report released on January 14 found that the overall building is structurally sound, although significant rectification is needed to repair and strengthen damaged hob beams as well as in some cases the panels which rest upon them.)

Asked about these events, Bassam Aflak, director of Opal Tower developer Ecove, described the complex as a ‘high quality building’, which was ‘well above industry standards’.

“It’s a high-quality building,” Aflak told The Guardian on December 26.

“Ecove has delivered a project that is well above the industry standard. Until now it’s a project that’s gained attention because of its quality.”

On responsibility for the problems, Aflak added that ‘full liability’ lay at the feet of builder Icon Constructions.

To many, descriptions of ‘high quality’ being attributed to complexes where residents have needed to be evacuated would be galling. Rightly so, most consumers expect that at a minimum, ‘quality’ dwellings would enable ALL home owners and tenants to experience safe and comfortable occupation at ALL times. Anything which falls short of this is considered unacceptable.

Such descriptions seem especially out of place in light of cladding and other problems which have plagued the real-estate industry over recent years (see below).

Indeed, descriptions of ‘high quality’ being afforded to buildings which are not fully right point to an underlying problem surrounding industry culture. Too often, according to many with whom I have spoken during eight years of covering this industry, practices where things are not 100 percent right are accepted as being satisfactory.

Furthermore, Aflak’s comment about the builder needing to assume responsibility underscores what some see as culture of blame attribution and finger pointing.

To be fair, in the case of Opal, Ecove clarified Aflak’s comments in a detailed response to questions from Sourceable.

First, it acknowledged that the disruption to people’s lives from what happened is unacceptable and said it was ‘nothing short of confounded’, about what had happened.

The building, Ecove said, had been earmarked as a gateway to Sydney Olympic Park. The design brief had been to create a luxury, high-end design and an outstanding finished product. A design competition attracted top-notch architecture firms. The retained builder (Icon Constructions), was the most suitable contractor for the job. The design and construct contract specified that materials must be high quality (the interim report found no evidence of poor quality material).

On the building’s construction, Ecove said very few projects in Sydney have features such as 35 floors of marble walls in their lobbies, extensive joinery upgrades, double glazed facades and custom made curved bricks. Investment in these demonstrates a commitment to quality, it argues. This quality, is says, will become more apparent once remediation of current issues is complete.

As for liability being with the builder, Ecove says Aflak’s comments are not about blame shifting but rather about clarifying responsibility. Developers (such as Ecove), it said, have a range of roles including identifying sites, managing project financials and funding, initial concepts and approvals and sales and marketing. Actual construction is managed by the builder. Ecove’s relationship with Icon Co (the builder), it says, is via a design and construct contract – a common arrangement under which responsibility for most of the design and all of the construction rests with the builder.

As for Ecove itself, the company says it is not a builder and must engage a construction contractor to carry out the building’s actual construction and now remediation.

Aflak’s comment was about clarifying distinctions rather than shifting blame, it said.

Despite all this, descriptions of ‘high quality’ to buildings with these sorts of issues underscore broader problems within Australia’s real-estate sector.

These are evident across many areas. In 2012, a major study of strata titled homes in NSW found that 85 percent of new units and apartments which had been constructed since 2000 contained defects. These included cracking, internal water leakage and water ingress from outside. Between 2010 and 2013, around 22,000 dangerous and faulty electrical cables went into Australian homes and business premises. Illegal asbestos has been found in imported cement sheeting, flooring, gasket jointing sheets and roof panels. In several cases, glass panels have exploded on balconies sending shards of glass down onto city streets. In several cases, people have been killed or injured during balcony collapses: in December 2017, for example, two people died and 30 others were injured after a balcony collapsed in the Melbourne suburb of Doncaster. Fire industry experts talk of shoddy fire protection work. Property inspectors talk of numerous cases of inadequate waterproofing.

Then, there is cladding. Throughout Queensland, NSW and Victoria, as many as 10,000 buildings have reportedly been labelled as potential fire traps because of flammable materials on exterior walls, according to recent reports in The Australian.

Whilst these issues have multiple causes, one problem which has dogged the industry for years is a mentality that this kind of thing is acceptable.

To be sure, buildings (especially multi-storey buildings) are complex and those who design and build them are human. Some mistakes are inevitable.

Granted, also, there are many good people who try to get things right.

Nevertheless, a culture in which problems like those above are accepted as satisfactory must change.

Rightly so, those who live, work and play in our buildings expect these to be safe and comfortable for occupation as well as fully compliant with the National Construction Code. Ask any home buyer whether dwellings with leaks, water ingress, major cracks or combustible cladding are acceptable and they will tell you NO. Ask them whether or not such buildings can be considered ‘high quality’, and you know the answer you would get.

Such sentiments are right on.

At the minimum, anything described as ‘high quality’ should:

  • Allow for safe and comfortable occupation at ALL times.
  • FULLY comply with the National Construction Code and applicable standards
  • Be made of good quality materials which are safe and fit for purpose
  • Be constructed with workmanship which is diligent and high quality.

This is the minimum. Only AFTER this can we talk about ‘high quality’.

Likewise, finger pointing and blame shifting need to stop. Australia’s development industry must get things right, not assign blame.

Rightly so, home buyers and others expect Australia’s real-estate industry to get things right.

The industry must catch up and deliver buildings which meet this standard consistently.

Anything less is NOT ‘high quality’. It is unacceptable.