Building Commissioner Auditing Not Enough

John Held , 13 February 2019

The NSW Government announcement of a new Building Commissioner to audit building design and construction does not go far enough. Government needs to investigate the construction contracting methods, relationships and behaviours that affect building quality and safety.

Recent events at the Opal Tower in Sydney and the Neo200 in Melbourne have again focused attention on building quality, while many owners and tenants battle with less spectacular, but no less disheartening, efforts to repair leaky or substandard apartment buildings.

The NSW Government announcement of a new Building Commissioner does not fully get to the bottom of the issue. The Commissioner will audit people who work in the industry, requiring designers to sign off on their designs and builders to sign off that the building was built in accordance with those designs. In fact, architects, engineers and builders already ‘sign off’. It is not the National Construction Code that is deficient; rather, compliance with the Code and its regulatory enforcement are both lacking. This point was made clearly by industry representatives at the recent Building Ministers Forum in Hobart. The problems are very similar to those uncovered by the Banking Royal Commission.

The Shergold-Weir Report “Building Confidence”, commissioned by the Building Ministers Forum, was released a year ago this month. Though the industry supports all the report’s recommendations, there is no comprehensive implementation across Federal and State jurisdictions to date. The Association of Consulting Architects calls on the Ministers to release the implementation plan as soon as possible. The report calls for consistent licensing and registration of building practitioners. The ACA notes architects are the only such group already covered by a consistent, legislated registration scheme across all states.

A key point of the Shergold Weir report, which is lost in the concern for Code compliance, is the degree to which contemporary construction relies on contracting methods that do not encourage quality and durability. Developers and builders try to shift risk instead of reducing it, encourage product substitution, eliminate proper independent expert inspection at every stage of the project and change the design without reference to the designer to save a few dollars.

Any newly appointed Building Commissioner should therefore not just concentrate on audits and ‘signing off’, but also investigate contracts, behaviours and relationships between all the parties involved in construction, maintenance and ownership of buildings. Architects – who too often have very little if any involvement on site – have an important and independent role to play in regaining the confidence of the public in the construction industry of tomorrow.

To contribute to the debate, the Association of Consulting Architects has commissioned a series on Building Quality – the first articles are now available on the ACA website.

John Held is the ACA National President, President of ACA – SA, and a director of Russell and Yelland.