As is traditionally the case, the 2016 edition of the Building Code of Australia contained a number of changes about which practitioners within the nation’s construction sector will need to be aware.
This year, however, is the last in which the Code will be updated annually. Courtesy of changes made as part of a strategy on the part of the Australian Building Codes Board to help deliver the Code in a way which best facilitates productivity, the National Construction Code has now moved to a three-year amendment cycle and the next version of the Code is not expected until 2019.
Is this good? According to many, the answer is yes. Ed Knight, a director of building code consultancy Knisco Development Solutions says a less frequent updating cycle will deliver benefits in a number of important areas.
First, there is cost. As things stand, Knight says the introduction of a new Code is typically followed by a period of around six months before the changes become well known throughout the industry. Under the current annual update cycle, this leaves only a further six months before the Code changes again – a phenomenon which sees the industry under constant strain to update and adapt. This is particularly burdensome for manufacturers, for whom the requirements to accommodate not only changes to the Code but also new or amended standards can precipitate a need to overhaul entire systems. A three-year updating cycle will allow the industry more time to bed down changes to existing versions of the Code before having to worry about new versions.
In addition, Knight says, less frequent updates will deliver greater levels of certainty about which version of the Code applies to individual projects. This will help alleviate a situation whereby designers and builders have multiple projects on their books at any one time and can become uncertain about the particular edition of the Code and the particular standards that apply to particular projects, he says.
Finally, Knight says the three-year cycle will allow for a more thorough examination of requested amendments – a point he says is particularly important given the potential for pressure from vested interest to push requested changes through along with the need to ensure that any amendments which are implemented do not result in unintended consequences.
“From our perspective, we see the three-year cycle to be a huge improvement in certainty for practitioners,” Knight said. “That’s certifiers, designers, builders, that’s the entire construction industry.”
Australian Construction Industry Forum chief executive officer James Cameron agrees, saying the current system of annual updates creates instability and inconsistency and does not allow for adequate levels of scrutiny for proposed changes.
“To allow the NCC to evolve, the ABCB needed to focus its efforts and resources and moving to a three year cycle achieves this,” he said.
On the flip side, however, the longer updating cycle could in theory mean that necessary changes take more time to implement and that the Code becomes less flexible in terms of its ability to respond to and accommodate new building methods and materials. Indeed, the most recent version of the Code contained a number of clarifications which were widely considered to be necessary. Not least of these was the clarification of the definition of effective building heigh. This topic had generated considerable levels of uncertainty following a NSW court ruling which found that contrary to what had previously been widely assumed, the lowest storey referenced for the calculation of effective building height was not the upper ground level where pedestrians enter but was in fact in the case concerned the lower ground levels which provided direct vehicular egress to the street. Under a longer amendment cycle, changes like this would take more time to be enacted.
Nevertheless, both Knight and Cameron believe there are ways around this. Whilst not ideal, out-of-cycle amendments could be enacted to deal with urgent matters, they say, with Knight adding that such issues could also be dealt with using state based building legislation. As for the need to respond to innovation, Knight says the performance based nature of the Code means that innovative building materials and methods will in most cases be able to be accommodated through performance solutions (formerly referred to as ‘alternative solutions’ in previous versions of the Code) even if deemed to satisfy solutions are not available for the particular technology at the time.
Examples do seem to bear this out. Lend Lease’s 10-storey Forte apartment complex in Melbourne’s Docklands precinct, for instance, was able to be delivered using cross-laminated timber under a performance solution even though the maximum height for timber buildings under a deemed to satisfy solution at the time was three storeys.
From this year onward, Australia’s building code will be updated every three years instead of annually.
For a number of reasons, it seems that this is a significant win for the industry.