A Question of Standards

John Held , 12 September 2019

With the high cost of accessing Australian Standards, how can we expect high levels of compliance in the building industry? Easy access to clear, understandable Standards must be a priority, argues John Held.

A recent discussion at the Australian Construction Industry Forum about the cost of Australian Standards has struck a chord across the construction industry (see also the coverage in the Fifth Estate). There are 140 Australian Standards referenced in legislation relevant to construction, but accessing these costs many hundreds of dollars each.

Given these costs, how can we expect high levels of compliance? Consider, for example, a café owner who wants to ensure their leased premises are fully accessible for people with a disability – would they spend over $600 on the AS1428 set of standards to check?

One rationale given for this system is that Standards Australia wants to maintain independence from government. It draws its expertise from industry, and hopefully provides independent and balanced guidelines on good practice. Yet industry already bears much of the cost of Standards formation – the recent failure of AS11000 General Conditions of Contract to receive approval from the Standards Development and Accreditation Committee probably wasted a seven-figure sum for those who participated.

I would argue that legislated standards should be free. The lesson learnt from the National Construction Code (NCC) is that moving from a paid model to a free model has a huge impact on getting the message through – NCC subscribers increased from 4,000 to 200,000 with free access. This raises several questions. How do you replace the income lost through sales? How does it affect existing third distribution rights for standards? How does Standards Australia maintain its independence? We might look to New Zealand for answers. There the government has removed barriers to compliance by providing funding through the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment to make 120 building standards available for free download.

In the light of recent problems with compliance in the construction industry, better access to standards is both readily solvable and relatively inexpensive (in terms of total cost). This is something the Building Ministers’ Forum could consider as a useful contribution to better regulation.

The question of Standards does, however, raise a broader issue in the industry – the effective communication of relatively complex procedures, materials, regulations and design concepts. We tend to forget how hard it is to communicate these to others – the client, other consultants, the builder and the trades on site. Our default mode is regulations, standards, specification clauses and technical drawings. If you think putting together Ikea furniture is hard, try interpreting the more obscure sections of our technical regulations and contract documents, which are put together to be binding contractual documents rather than how-to manuals. How much harder must it be for those on site with English as a second language or those with limited literacy skills? We all know that if you reach for the clauses of the contract, things are going wrong. 

Architects draw things because it’s easier than trying to describe it in words. We model things in 3D because it’s sometimes easier to coordinate them that way, or explain how things fit together on site on an iPad. We see solutions that will find all the obvious regulatory flaws in our BIM model. We constantly sketch bits of details for clarity. But we don’t think enough about how to communicate good practice across the whole construction industry so that everyone can grasp the central concepts involved. Make sure it’s free, clear, accessible and understandable.  The little Ikea person with the allen key will thank you. So will the rest of the industry.