As the construction industry continues to evolve, who is responsible for ensuring Australia's building construction quality standards keep pace?

Over the many years I have been involved in the building industry, I have been fortunate enough to see significant development in the application of technology, the uptake of more sustainable solutions and improvements in the efficiency of design and construction of buildings.

One thing I have also observed has been a relaxing and general degradation of quality of workmanship as part of the installation process. This has been particularly relevant in the in the last five to seven years with the transition from the long economic boom period to a period of slowing economic growth and reduction of spending by government and industry, creating fierce competition for the available work.

So where are we heading, what are the main issues, and what needs to be done to address the issues?

My introduction to the building industry was through employment as a mechanical engineer with the Commonwealth Department of Housing & Construction. This was a time when engineering design and calculations were primarily undertaken by hand and drawings were drafted on paper, which was not that long ago!

This system of delivery of design services meant that re-work due to errors, omissions or changes resulted in significant time required to modify design and documentation. In order to avoid this, procedures for review and approvals or ‘hold gates’ were much more stringent than they are today. In many cases, designs had to be personally reviewed and signed off by directors or approved senior experts in the company before being released to the market.

Standards and guidelines for design were dictated to a large degree by the design and construction guidelines developed by the government agencies including the Commonwealth Government Department of Housing and Construction and respective State Departments of Works, as well as input from key private consultants and builders. These were the industry benchmark guidelines with regard to standard of quality. In addition, many of the larger private consultancies developed further guidelines with details specific to their fields of expertise and to provide efficiencies in cost and delivery.

On my first week of employment, I was given four large folders of design and construction guidelines and standards which set clear benchmarks for quality via specific construction details for various elements of building works.

Once design drawings and specifications were issued to the head contractor, it was very common for the architectural and engineering consultants and government works departments to employ works supervisors. The works supervisors were normally experienced people from either a trade background or technical/engineering/architectural background who spent significant time on site.

Their role included:

  • Inspecting the works in progress (sometimes on a daily basis)
  • Answering RFIs
  • Reviewing shop drawings and sample submissions
  • Making decisions on modification or changes required due to site conditions or omissions
  • Witnessing all testing and commissioning
  • Reviewing progress claims and variations
  • Providing sign-off of finalisation of the works
  • Following up contractors to address defects during the defects liability phase

With their significant site experience, they also provided feedback to the designers on improvements required to designs, details and building standards and guidelines.

So where are we today in 2015?

In order to reduce government spending, drive efficiency of delivery, decrease costs and promote innovation in the building industry, government disbanded their design and construction agencies and migrated to the delivery of government projects via  tender to the commercial sector.

Over the years, the push for lower fees and shorter program for delivery of projects has required companies to make changes to the way they design and deliver works. The introduction of 2D CAD drafting, 3D modelling, computational design software, word processing, digital photography and other technology related tools reduced the time required to produce design and documentation. In conjunction with the above, a number of other initiatives have been adopted by industry to achieve the two key drivers our industry seeks; lower cost and shorter delivery times.

The key initiatives adopted by industry to achieve greater cost and time savings include:

Reduction in level of detail

Engineering consultants and architects are increasingly providing a reduced level of design detail in their documents and relying on skilled contractors to provide a level of finishing design in order to achieve the key design objectives. Engineering designs have been trimmed to focus on key equipment requirements, key spatial requirements and coordination of the main services elements. Much of the detailed design which was undertaken in the past is no longer produced as it is seen as time-consuming, risky (if it is found to be inadequate) and restrictive to installation contractors who may have more efficient means of producing finishing details for the works.

Many specialist engineering sectors rely significantly on this model of delivery, including building façade design, vertical transport design, automatic controls design, structural steelwork design and others.

In the past, it could be assumed that the larger consultancies and architectural practices provided a higher level of detail in their design and documentation packages. In more recent years, with fierce competition between firms, low profit margins and the push for reduced delivery times, this is no longer a given, with all the larger firms having to reduce time and effort on delivery of their projects.

Less head contractor supervision of works

Similarly, with head construction contractors, the provision of highly experienced and skilled on site supervisors and foremen has been reduced to cut costs of managing the works. The trend is to rely on the trade contractors to look after their own quality requirements and to undertake co-ordination with the other building and engineering trades.

In the past, the inclusion of a dedicated building services works supervisor to coordinate the building services trades was common practice with the larger contractors. Today this is no longer the case for the majority of projects, and even larger, more complicated projects may not always include suitably experienced engineering services supervisors. This can result in issues with coordination of works and a reduction in quality of installation.

Substitution of Plant and Systems

Cost and time factors have introduced a push for substitution of specified plants, equipment, materials and systems, with alternatives offered by the construction contractor during the construction works.

It is common practice for engineering consultants to specify a number of preferred make of equipment or systems. This provides a benchmark for the level of quality required for the particular item whilst still allowing competitive pricing from the nominated suppliers. Alternatives outside of the specified preferred items make may be offered, but would need to demonstrate significant advantages over the specified units (ie. reduced cost to client, savings program critical path, higher level of performance or quality) to justify their acceptance.

Services engineers are constantly challenged regarding their specified products, and in the majority of cases it is to reduce the cost to the installation contractor, with little if any benefit to the end client. Acceptance of alternatives outside of the specified units also increases the level of risk to the consultant who is reviewing the alternative as they may be criticized for approval of an ultimately inferior product. In some cases, particularly with D&C projects, the ability to reject alternatives may be severely restricted as the head design and construction (D&C) contractor ultimately decides how the project is delivered and what level of risk they are willing to take.

In recent times, there have been a number of significant project failures attributed to substitution of specified materials, plant and systems including façade failures, failure of mechanical pipe joints/couplings, failure of plastic domestic water piping, and more recently, the highly publicised non-complying fire indices of building cladding material.

Reduced consultant on-site attendance

This one is a particularly challenging item when bidding for work. I truly believe most engineers and architects would love to spend a much greater proportion of time on site to see how works are progressing and to ensure that the level of quality and design intent is as they had envisioned for the project.

The reality is that every hour spent on site is costing the consultant and architect significant money. Compounding this is the reality that the construction phase is the last phase of the project where most of the project budget has already been spent (and in some cases overspent), and that construction phase can sometimes drag out beyond initial timelines due to unforeseen factors. Whilst the contractor can normally claim extension of time costs, the architect and engineer find it difficult to have the same accepted by the client unless the delay becomes significant. As a result, there is significant financial pressure on engineers and architects to limit time spent on site and to undertake traditional construction phase services.

When bidding for projects, consultants will frequently specify the number of meetings and inspections allowed in their fee in order to provide a market competitive price. In some cases, the contract will include cover all clauses such as “attend all meetings as required” and “inspect the works on a regular basis as required.” This significantly increases the risk of overspend for consultants and leads to a very conservative approach to construction phase activities.

The obvious result of this is that the construction works are much more reliant on the competency and ethics of the installation contractors. Architect and engineer review of site installation, fixing and finishing, testing and commissioning, has been much reduced and I am of the opinion that this has created a significant issue with the quality of the works at time of practical completion. It is now almost an accepted industry norm that a building will be handed over with a number of defects which need to be addressed and rectified during the defects liability period.

The role of D&C

One of the initiatives developed by industry to provide significant reductions in the design and delivery of the construction works (and in some cases to try and reduce perceived client risk) has been the introduction of D&C delivery. This form of delivery greatly reduces the traditional front end design phase and instead provides an architectural or engineering brief or concept design. This brief is meant to capture the key client objectives and performance requirements, with the design and details to be developed by the D&C contractor.

In some cases, the original design team who put the brief together are novated to the head contractor to finalise the design and details for the works. In other cases, the original design team may be retained by the client to provide a review role and ensure that the design brief requirements are being met.

Whilst I believe this method of delivery can provide advantages for some projects, in particular more traditional/less complex projects, it is my opinion that it does not work well with more complex projects and can result in poor outcomes in performance and quality.

I have recently been involved in a number of peer review and client side review of D&C projects. Two of these were relatively complex  engineering projects with specialist services and systems whilst the other was a more traditional office building. In all cases there were significant problems with quality of the final installation. It was evident that a number of key factors were at play, namely:

  • Lack of defined brief details resulting in lowest cost/time interpretation of the design outcome
  • Time pressure and lack of supervision of trades from the D&C contractor, resulting in very poor on-site installation quality of the works
  • Little input from the D&C contractors consultants in dictating final equipment selection and details of installation by the contractors
  • Rushed/inadequate commissioning of systems prior to handover
  • Low priority to long term operational aspects of the building services and elements, with cost of construction being the main determinant rather than overall building life. This was reflected by poor maintenance provision and the selection of lower capital cost but higher operation cost elements

What are savings in time and cost of design services and on-site supervision achieving? 

In my opinion, the increasing popularity towards D&C project delivery is not providing improved long-term results in building design and construction and actually delivers:

  • Further reduction in quality
  • Less onus on design professionals
  • Less client control of detail and specific requirements
  • Increased long term cost of building operation

The big grey area

So who is responsible for setting our quality standards? What are the acceptable quality standards?

This is where we get in to the big grey area. Whilst the building code and Australian/International standards set some level of minimum quality and performance, they normally only provide high level requirements and in a lot of cases only set the performance outcome to be achieved. The actual quality of finish is not covered and this relies on the competency of the installation contractor, the site foreman and the consulting engineer/architect.

Given the pressure on fees noted previously, the review and inspection of the works by the foreman and the consulting engineer/architect has been reduced significantly. This leaves the majority of onus on quality to the installation contractor, who also has to work within a tight fee competitive market.

As an example, the installation of ceiling mounted cabling, piping and ductwork requires significant time and co-ordination between the trades. In my opinion, this is one of the poorest areas for quality of work as contractors are under increasing time and financial pressure to get their works installed as quickly as possible. This often results in substandard siting of the services pathways, clashes requiring ad-hoc diversions, poor support methods for cabling, piping and flexible ductwork, inadequate space around cable trays and ceiling mounted equipment, inadequate labelling and identification, and grouping of services which should be kept as separate runs.

Given the reduction in attendance on site by the designers, it is often too late to have the above issues addressed before significant installation works have already been carried out.

What is a good standard of workmanship?

Unfortunately this can be very subjective and will differ between professionals and installers alike. It will also differ between different industries and sectors. For instance, laboratories and hospitals will normally seek a higher level of quality than a commercial building or residential apartment, even though in theory, the same type of work should be to the same level of quality.

The current state of play is that informed clients (data centre managers, hospital facilities managers and so forth), in conjunction with experienced professionals such as engineers and architects set the benchmark for what is acceptable and what is not acceptable. This can be significantly challenged, especially where the contract of works is novated to a D&C contractor who has greater control over the level of detail to be provided for the works.

I have even seen examples where installation is not in accordance with details in the Australian Standard, the contractor has argued that this is the way they always install, and that no other consultant has disputed this item of work previously. With the loss of the government agencies providing an industry benchmark for acceptable quality of works, I believe the level of quality has been allowed to slip to levels where it is now creating significant problems in the building industry.

Why not substitute materials and equipment?

With the increasing availability of cheaper (equivalent) products from lower cost overseas counties, the building professional is increasingly challenged regarding their recommended product selection. Whilst use of cheaper products is meant to benefit the end client, it is not always the correct long-term decision for the life of the building. There have been many examples where substitute products have been installed in lieu of the originally specified product, which has ultimately led to ongoing issues, reduced life and increased failures. Examples include glazing, piping systems, lifts, pumps, air conditioning units, lights, façade panels and many other products.

In some cases, certificates provided by the supplier to demonstrate compliance with local standards have been subsequently found to apply to a different form of the product, with the certificate then being applied to the complete range on offer by the supplier. The design professional may be pressured to make a decision on an alternative with little available information and a lack of local history on the performance of the product. I believe this continues to present a significant challenge to all professionals and contractors and will continue to do so unless government guidelines are applied to further regulate the quality requirements of imported products.

What is Missing?

The factors which I feel are contributing to a general lowering of standard of quality in the building industry are:

  • Lack of benchmarks in the standard of workmanship considered acceptable or fit for purpose
  • Insufficient levels of independent review and on site attendance to direct minimum standard requirements on site
  • Inadequate project cost allowance for professional design and consulting services
  • Inadequate timelines, which require all teams to minimise input and find a shortcut means of achieving the end result
  • Reduction in government guidelines and independent inspection to maintain minimum industry benchmarks

So where are we heading and what are the factors influencing our industry?

Alignment of Standards: There is an increasing desire to collaborate on and align standards with best practice international trends. This creates a level of innovation and continuous improvement with regards to standards applicable to building and construction works.

More international knowledge sharing: With the advent of the internet and more advanced communication tools, the ability to share knowledge throughout the industry and to collaborate in developing improvements has been greatly increased. This will help our industry move on from outdated codes and practices and encourage us to seek better and more effective means of delivering services and systems.

Greater media exposure on issues with the current state of self-certification of works: This has been particularly relevant of late as investors in the residential apartments are finding they have been left with buildings which include significant defects and shortfalls. This has led to questions on whether self-certification is sufficient to ensure we can provide the appropriate level of quality or whether government needs to take a greater role in this process.

Pre-Fabrication: Manufacturing off site is becoming more and more popular and I believe will continue to do so. It can provide higher levels of quality control and advantages in speed of construction.

BIM/3D modelling: The introduction of this technology is in theory meant to deliver a higher quality product. This is still a developing technology and in my opinion, apart from some specific areas where it is suited (such as manufacturing), it has not yet to proven its full cost benefit in the real world.

Soft landings/post-occupancy review and follow-up: The soft landing framework has been developed in Europe and is designed to provide a level of post occupancy attendance by the building designers, to tune the building functions, educate the building users and identify improvement works which would provide further benefits to the building users. Its adoption requires a monetary commitment from the client to ensure appropriate levels of service from the designers and also time from the responsible building occupants, project manager, and others of note. Its adoption in Australia has been very weak and will require further education and case study examples to demonstrate its cost benefit value.