Wouldn’t it be nice if the VBA, the top building authority in Victoria (or their equivalent top authority in any state of Australia for that matter), got off their backsides and got down to basics to actually cure some of the enormous problems faced by the residential building industry today?

In an article in the The Age on February 17, 2016, the director of the VBA Prue Digby was reported as saying that she “did not believe the high rate of cladding non-compliance proved that the regulator had failed.”

Well somebody has failed, and the serious problems faced in Victoria seem to be experienced in the other states too.

So it must be the federal government that is to blame. After all, they are responsible for our standard building codes including the National Construction Code.

But each state could have cured many of its serious problems individually, so they need to cop the blame too.

The buck passing has to stop and there has to be a basic re-doing of legislation to stop the rapidly increasing blight on our economy.

According to an article in The Age, “In December (2015) the Metropolitan Fire Brigade questioned the competency of the Victorian building regulator,” questioning “whether the VBA understands the extent or consequences of the recent (flammable cladding) problem with fire safety breaches…or how to resolve it.”

The article also stated that the VBA was to instigate a further audit of construction projects which were worked on by   builders, building surveyors, designers, and others who have seen the quality of their work come into question. But why not just come out and call it like it is? The practitioners have almost certainly been negligent.

This is quite likely to be a 50 points penalty for a first offence, which we understand means…a $7,500 fine! Wham! Cop that!

But what each apartment owner will be up for is something like $120,000. The difference is staggering. The legislation is strongly in favour of businesses.

Each head authority has been unable – or unwilling – to take the necessary basic steps that will stop incorrect (unsafe, flammable) cladding being specified.

And if further measures can make this cladding compliant, and the price including servicing of the extra measures is similar to that of alternative non-flammable products, and the product is made in Australia, creating jobs for Australians, then why not just ban the incorrect product outright because of the risk?

Unfortunately, that flies in the face of the main mantra of nearly every building authority in the country, where each authority aims to keep building construction and regulation “cost-effective” to keep building prices reasonable.

It was exactly that thought process behind the writing of the code for slabs and footings AS 2870, where the chairman of the committee admitted in Softleys V Metricon Builders that the constraints in that code were written in the full knowledge that the footings of a few houses would fail. The reason given was that it was very important that the average cost of footings be kept to a reasonable level.

What a rotten hidden agenda! And then the builder fights the home owners when the slab deforms grossly, and if he goes bankrupt, the insurer fights the poor old beleaguered home owners too.

We understand that  over 4,000 homes in the outer western suburbs of Melbourne have suffered disastrous out-of-levels as a result of a similar sort of (perhaps cronyism-based) thinking, where builders perhaps instruct soil report writers to use cheaper methods to ascertain the classification of soil for each site.

And the chairman of the committee that wrote the code did not mention the ‘D’ word (defect) at all.

He did not say that Appendix D of the same code had to be used, or that the estimation method employed by the soil report writers for those house sites simply did not apply (and was therefore not permitted to be used) because the site conditions were not normal during or soon after the record drought that lasted almost 14 years and only ended in 2010.

Even today, sites in those areas are almost certainly not yet back to normal. But this has never been said by any authority to my knowledge. Have you ever wondered why?

Is it because each authority has been instructed not to mention anything that may end up increasing the price of housing (even though it could have prevented so many disasters)?

Perhaps this points to one major reason (perhaps the main reason) why we have so many problems in the building industry at present. There is nothing like a multi-storey building in flames to focus the public eye on the inadequacies of the building authorities.

But there are many more major problems out there. And they started considerably earlier that this cladding tragedy, and also before the leaky building syndrome with its associated rapid deterioration of framing and eventually claddings via rot and serious mould build-up, which threatened the health of occupants.

The massive problems in the lack of quality of housing started in earnest in 1994, worsened rapidly up until about 2006 and has remained at that really poor quality level ever since. And this coincides with the introduction of a new performance-based Building Code of Australia in 1994 which followed close on the heels of the privatizing of (relevant) building surveyors and (certifying) building inspectors in 1990.

Performance criteria in what was the Building Code of Australia (now the National Construction Code) were thought up to encourage innovative cheaper solutions that would keep the price of buildings to a reasonable level.

The inadequate cheaper flammable cladding has been a direct result of this performance-based way of thinking. It has proved too difficult to discredit new cheaper products and systems before thousands of them have been incorporated into our buildings.

Checks and balances have been proved to be grossly inadequate and it seems the onus of proof of safety needs to be passed back to the manufacturers, particularly for imported products.

Australia allows the importation of products and their accompanying application systems, where the codes for those products are different and have different levels of safeguards from that of our own codes for similar products.

It therefore seems that there needs to be a moratorium of (say) 10 years on each cheaper product to show that these products are actually compliant in every respect with our codes. And the expert opinion basis for approval of new products as a performance based solution (once called an alternative solution) may need to be removed altogether from our National Construction Code.

And it is undoubtedly true that there has been insufficient prudent thinking by registered building practitioners and developers who specify or preside over cheaper products being used in their buildings.

The same goes for inadequate soil reports that were instrumental in the inadequacies built into so many slabs in the outer western suburbs of Melbourne. We need a thorough – and not secretive – audit for this defect alone.

I do not remember hearing that the VBA (or the Building Commission before it) has prosecuted the many soil report writers, relevant building surveyors, and structural engineers for their obvious negligence associated with the 4,000-plus inadequate house slabs designed and built in the outer western suburbs of Melbourne.

And this obvious negligence is not even mentioned in the Guide to Standards and Tolerances.

Are businesses to be protected no matter what? Could this be the third major reason for inaction of our authorities? Why isn’t it considered vital to alter our legislation in these matters?

At long last, the VBA is looking into the matter of negligence of those responsible and involved in the inappropriate use of flammable cladding above 10 metres height on multi-storey apartment buildings. Will this audit include office buildings?

It’s been 23 years now, and there has still been no substantial audit carried out by the BCC or the VBA regarding general gross negligence of builders associated with abysmally poor quality work done on new houses.

I hope we are not just going to get more buck passing via the proportionate liability acts or whatever, which are bound to be different in each state.

  • Mark, your assessment is accurate. As you highlight negligence of builders and all in the industry is obvious just as it is among the official agencies charged with responsibility for our buildings and our lives. Basically the 'everyone is to blame' in the underlying tenet (a pathetic excuse) which translates in the final analysis to 'no-one is to blame'! This clever 'construction' is the means by which all can manage to "get-out-of trouble"! This is exactly the conclusion drawn by Senator Carr at last week's Senate Inquiry hearing in Melbourne. He was truly shocked. The Senators heard evidence from the MFB: on "regulatory failure" and the poor record of 'regulators'! In this category the VBA's abysmal performance is on the public record. The Senators heard the same on the "deemed to satisfy" to offset costs! On the weaknesses with the surveyor/certifier system – including minimal checks and no testing of products for combustibility! Senator Ketter questioned whether builders "leaned on" surveyors – and as all in the industry know that is central to how 'the system' works so badly.
    The Senate Inquiry heard that there are an "unquantifiable number of buildings with flammable cladding in Australia. Senator Carr was astonished to think that there are many thousands at the very least, and after hearing the evidence he concluded that "no-one's responsible" – and he exclaimed how "extraordinary!"
    The key issue of "making sure regulations are enforced" was raised! But as we know, since deregulation there has been nil enforcement. And the Queensland Dept of Housing and Public Works informed that "regulators focus on licensing ..and not products!" Here meaning not on products, not on processes and not on enforcement or penalties, and hence not on deterrence to risks to our safety.
    The Inquiry continued to hear what has been voiced at past hearings, namely that it is another Government agency's role to check and the old 'pass the buck' emerged as a repetitive theme! In the case of the Federal Safety Commissioner, we learned that it had not carried out any audits for 7 months and then the Commissioner refused to reveal the names of 2 companies issued with penalties – his reason "commercial in confidence" – this when the role of the FSC is to improve SAFETY of companies bidding for large Government construction contracts! The 'confusion' and 'lack of resources' were repeated as 'reasons' for failure. And the MFB confirmed that no-one has been prosecuted for fraud over the use of the cladding on the Lacrosse building! Then a clangor from the ABCB summed up that in relation to the flammable cladding, this was because "something in the system is not working"! Honestly understated!
    Throughout the day, Senator Carr particularly was incredulous as he listened to Government agency witnesses give absurd suggestions for resolving the many problems – more taskforces, committees, forums, strategic responses, plans, etc. – and incredibly in one case a website to inform! Carr responded over and again in disbelief at the failure of any ACTION. At one point when he learned that there are thousands of buildings with flammable cladding, he said: "How without the obvious conclusion of negligence?" Carr simply could not believe that it is up to builders to decide what products to use – and surely the public too. All were aghast when they heard that Lacrosse building is still occupied, with the MCC Building Surveyor deeming it "safe to occupy" – and people will be living in the apartments for 5 years after the massive fire. This without mentioning the Royal Women's hospital, etc.
    Only one point is clear: the 'system' has so many bureaucracies, too many and it seems more are on the way (these to act in the business interest). None intend to actually do anything to address the rot, to reform the blatant and multiple 'failures' and none made any reference to actions that would be taken in the interest of public safety for all Australians or to protect those who pay for all our poorly built, dangerous and deadly private and public buildings.

    • Good points here Anne. Typical of public servants to keep the "we need to form a committee" and we "need another forum". Senator Carr sighs in disbelief. So what is he going to do. What is the Senate Inquiry going to do. WHAT CAN THEY DO. Until REGULATORS step up and do their jobs and actually penalise the big boys, hold them to account there will be no change.
      Australia is only good at making excuses.

      What is the SENATE COMMITTEE going to achieve, that is the real question here???????.

  • Mark you are careful not to use the CORRUPTION Term that is so relevant. The MBA, HIA and the Current Insurers are all complicit in this dogs breakfast. The VBA was a sham under Digby and is not going to get better until we purge the disease from within the walls. The Minister, Richard Wynne is an incompetent fool. The faceless PUBLIC SERVANTS with influence and control begs belief. Not one of them has a backbone strong enough for them to stand up and admit fault on any level of responsibility. No they are too concerned with stealing from the TAXPAYERS in the guise of wages. Premier Andrews has been noticeably quiet throughout reinforcing his gutless attitude to responsibility as well do nothing attitude. Matthew Guy, well he was the one who invented this disaster we know as the VBA. No controls were put on the hierarchy when it was formed. Conflict of interest with Brian Welsh, the ex chairman good ol Bill and a raft of others. Ex policemen and cooda-beens, a total farce.
    Mark we need to send a message at both State and Federal levels that self-regulation has to stop. I know that the donations for re-election will be tested but stiff…!! Get the pest exterminators into the VBA offices and go crazy. Get back to hiring quality with knowlege about what they are doing. Give them powers to flog the big developers and builders. Hold them to account. Look after the Mums & Dads truthfully and honestly. Stop the Lawyers and committees. Stop the Digby inquiries into inquiries. It can be fixed but it has to start at the base, like any structure, and built with quality materials(people) without agendas and corruption.

  • Thank you for defining the mess. Building is now Australia`s largest Industry. Most of the other industries have been killed off by the economic rationalists. Those industries were run by engineers who knew that if you did not build quality it did not work. It was also a time where the regulators regulated and were not corrupt. I failed to mention the other industry that still survives which is the legal industry. The building industry and the legal industry work together as a Siamese twin, bound together by a brain without a moral code and a mechanical heart. The third player of this monster, the one that bought it into being is the incompetent and corrupt regulatory system spored from a clog-mire of Australian governments. Ultimately they are all very much a part of our nation and we the people who are its citizens must take the responsibility and demand that the buildings we produce are built to a standard so as they do not degrade over time and are safe to inhabit.

  • If a building burns down, or falls down, or is broken due to poor work-man-ship or using faulty products or because of corrupt practices and lack of enforcing rules, well I don't call that cost effective.
    Unfortunately the cost is borne by the little people – mums and dads, their kids .
    Good article Mark. I read the articles in Sourceable at times and it appears that it is well known that the building industry is a mess . I wish that more people in positions of authority would do the right thing so that the general public can have faith in the industry

  • Great article Mark and well done continuing to expose the inner workings of our failed building system. Unfortunately I feel we are all banging our heads against a brick wall with the VBA. If the Grenfell disaster, albeit occurirng in another country isn't enough for the regulators here in Australia to start proactively doing their job then I fear nothing is. Less talk, more action required from our government.

  • Good inputs and comments from all of you. What I see as the most important thing to do in the absence of any worthwhile reforms, is to educate would-be home builders and owners about to extend to NOT SIGN ANY CONTRACT until they have built into their required changes first resort (or builder professional indemnity) insurance as it was pre-2002, thorough definitions of defect and specification inserted into their contracts. These three things (plus the requirement that soil reports will comply with Appendix D of the Code AS 2870) will bring back quite a bot of fairness not seen since 1985.

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