Quality Outcomes and a Culture Shift

Mario Dreosti , 15 April 2019

Architects and building certifiers found much common ground at a recent roundtable discussion in South Australia. Mario Dreosti reviews the main talking points, including the current appetite for increased speed and reduced cost over quality, and the importance of professional culture in effecting change.

2 - Building Certifiers Roundtable1

On 21 March the South Australian branch of the ACA hosted a roundtable forum with member architects and invited local building certifiers. It seems rare for architects to engage with a profession with even greater challenges than themselves, but certifiers (or surveyors as they are known in some other states) belong to a profession that may legitimately claim to be in crisis.

Much discussion has occurred lately around the topics of building product compliance, substitutions and the nature of contracts that exacerbate these matters. Conversation around the table was not different at this forum, but the lens was focused on how these challenges affect certifiers already and how future regulatory change may cause positive or negative outcomes.

The big picture comes back to the three goals of time, cost and quality, and the fact that processes and approaches that value reduced cost and increased speed as primary drivers are coming at the expense of quality. Certifiers outlined that architects also working under these conditions are not spending the time necessary to deliver the quantity and quality of design and documentation required, and then are perpetually under pressure for changes; again, without the time or focus to adequately consider all quality matters. As the recipients of architects’ documentation and further variations, certifiers noted that the detail is missing and more alarmingly, that in the absence of this work new architects simply are not learning how to do it at all.

The forum considered that in a perfect storm, even if architects and certifiers were able to focus on the detail and the quality outcomes, product information is inconsistent, often inadequate and sometimes actually misleading with regard to testing and compliance. All of these triggers for potential failure sit within a context that legal precedent has now identified consultants as the responsible party in such incidents and drawn clear distinction between the roles of designer and builder. Furthermore, the safety net of insurance behind such claims is seeing certifiers’ premiums increase 300–400% along with new exclusionary clauses, to the point of becoming unviable as a commercial proposition.

There was, however, a positive that came from the discussion. It was a sense of alignment between the two professions and an innate understanding of the level of rigour and the time required for that rigour to achieve quality outcomes.

While actions from the Building Ministers Forum are slow to manifest, the roundtable discussion identified that through united voices such as ACIF we must focus on changes such as standardisation of national regulations around certification and development of a national product register supported by government through agency such as the historical CSIRO Experimental Building Station.

The Australian construction sector cannot stop and so it seems inevitable that legislation around regulation and compliance will be effected and that reform around access to insurance or limitations to exposure will be effected. Unfortunately, there may be pain along the way.

While we go on that journey, perhaps the most poignant discussion item at the table was actually not about details or technical items at all but rather one of culture.

Both professions support in principle the approach of a performance-based construction code and there was sharing around the position that the ABCB has a preference for a fully performance-based NCC.

However, the cultural observation noted by the certifiers was that alternate solutions and performance-supported design outcomes were almost always sought as a means to provide ‘less’ than the deemed to satisfy solution. The culture of the industry – consultants and architects included – was to apply alternate solutions to gain approval for faster or cheaper or easier construction outcomes, not for safer or cleverer or higher amenity solutions.

Much of what we do is driven by commercial imperatives, and increasingly in this space by legislative and contractual obligations; however, architects belong to a profession, not an industry. Part of being a profession is a commitment to greater values than profit and an obligation to our communities and our future. Culture is not changed by rules but by people and leadership.

For this author, that is the role of the architect now.

Mario Dreosti is the Managing Director of Brown Falconer and Vice President of the ACA – SA Committee.