This question, though complex, in this article will be attempted to be distilled down to four main (along with various miscellaneous contributing factors) arguable contributing factors.
One potential cause (and this article is in no way meant to cast aspersions on particular sections of the building and construction industry in Australia or more generally) is a cost benefit analysis dodgy builders and contractors make in that they quote on the lower side for jobs yet skimp on quality. This will be elaborated on further below.
Much has been written recently on the cladding crisis and defective building issues generally, including this author who has written here recently on 18 April 2019 in relation to ‘Australia’s Current Building Compliance Issues.’ Not a lot of these writings, which have been often focused on high rise buildings because of the well publicised issues around the world such as Grenfell and the Lacrosse building in Melbourne, and more recently the Opal Tower issues in Sydney, have focused on the root causes of the systemic issues.
These are as follows:
1) Importation of unsafe products.
Again, this author has written on this subject back in 2014 but in essence what was said there was that there is a real and live possibility of the importation of unsafe and or defective building products into Australia. The problem is that the country from which the products are imported have differing, often lesser (even grossly lesser in some cases) quality standards, building compliance codes and regulations. So, thereby, Australia is thereby indirectly subjected to those same standards.
2) Certification systems.
This is in no way to cast aspersions on building surveyors who at present are often finding it very difficult to obtain professional indemnity insurance due to the current systemic issues, and it is often just too easy to pin the blame on them. In the ‘Lacrosse decision’ recently in VCAT (though of course, only one decision) the Tribunal in the form of Vice President Woodward attributed liability to the extent of 33% to the building surveyor and his employer.
The question is, on which reasonable minds may well differ, are building surveyors for a multitude of reasons such as time pressures, budgetary constraints and by virtue of the professional relationships they have with the relevant builders and developers on site, certifying buildings and therefore issuing building permits, when they otherwise, without those pressures, would not have done so? Their role is meant to be truly independent of the builder but often they may well not be so. Sometimes the building surveyor is the one who appoints the engineer for the project yet they are responsible for signing off on, or not signing off on, the works. Of course, the vast majority of building certifiers are now private certifiers rather than formerly was the case, government certifiers.
It needs to be clearly stated now that this is in no way to deny the fact that the vast majority of building surveyors are indeed honourable professional and competent actors in the system with a vast amount of integrity. All we are saying that perhaps, at times, to act otherwise may be a temptation they give in to. The last point to note is that building surveyors’ roles are not to certify that that building is defect free but that it is safe to reside in or occupy.
That arguably should be where the focus should lie, earlier in the process, and ensuring through systemic reform, a more robust quality control system in the build process, rather than focusing on the ‘after the event’ situation when the defects are already there, because a vexed issue is who should, or who has the time, money and expertise to now rectify the defects and who may be legally responsible.
3) Corner Cutting
The third arguable cause of the systemic failures in the form of ‘sick buildings’ is where builders cut corners on sites to secure the work, pricing the job at a lower rate to increase their chance of getting the work (a temptation all business people at some stage fall victim to – in fact, sometimes it is a perfectly legitimate way to do business) or providing ‘mates rates’ quotes to owners or developers that they know or have a professional relationship with.
When it is said that corners are cut, what is meant is that by under-pricing the job, the builder is then tempted to spend less time on the job as they wish to get to the next more lucrative project to in a sense make up the shortfall on profit on the current job. Less time often leads to less care as far as quality of workmanship is concerned (though not always it is admitted).
Along with less care taken as a result of less time, is less money spent on materials for the job by the builder this resulting in a lesser quality building job overall. These are market pressures that many, again in business, are under.
Again, none of this meant to say or imply that the majority of builders and developers are less than honourable professionals. It is just meant to say again that sometimes, human nature being what it is, the temptation to cur corners is too much in the hot cauldron and cut and thrust of competitive business.
4) Unscrupulous Operators, Lacking Regulatory Enforcement
It must be remembered that defective buildings have been built for many years, it is just the law of averages which says that the more buildings that are built, the more likely it is that some are going to be defective (the extent to which each building is built defective obviously varies widely).
Again without wanting to ‘point the gun’ at any player in particular, sometimes we have ‘fly by night’ inexperienced developers who make a quick buck, sometimes also acting as the builder on the job, and then disappearing, never to be seen or heard of again.
In the main, most home owners are unaware of their rights due to their inexperience in the area, many having had their first homes built, and so without the lack of previous experience and without knowing many of the traps they may fall into in dealing with their builder, get taken advantage of and ‘after the event’ they are trying to rectify the situation (and their home!).
Further miscellaneous but in many cases, no lesser cause of systemic building failures, is the fact that often there is a lack of structural (or adequate) design for the building potentially leading to building structural issues down the track. Related to that, there is also often inadequate thought or no thought given at all to water resistant and waterproofing issues by all relevant players (leading to the so called ‘leaky building syndrome).
Further, we have the vexed issue of regulatory oversight of the industry. In Victoria we have the much-maligned Victorian Building Authority who arguably do their very best with the resources and the workload that they have. Of course, it would be unfair on the VBA to lay the blame totally for the state of buildings throughout Victoria. Anecdotally, however, this author is aware of two relatively senior staff who left the organisation due to frustrations with the ‘system’ and how it was making their jobs just untenable. It is submitted by the author that whilst the VBA (and other regulatory authorities Australia wide) do a lot of great work, they are a symptom of the arguable to some extent, broken down system of building industry regulation in Australia. There has to be some responsibility for the situation on governments and it can scarcely be argued that governments have been unaware of the systemic issues. The question is what are they going to do about it? That’s what many in the industry are asking.
This article cannot do justice unless it became a mini treatise on the subject, as this topic is being so multifaceted and multilayered. However if it provides fertile ground for discussion, thought, analysis and perhaps even positive action of some kind, it has achieved a large part of its purpose.