Nearly every week there is yet another report on substandard building materials, or shonky workmanship on construction projects.
This raises the question as to who is making the key decisions on quality, and whether there is a better way for ensuring the right people are making the right choices.
It is now more than 40 years — the middle of the 1970s — since major construction projects were procured using a team of consultants acting on behalf of an end user client, producing a building of known value and known quality.
Yes, there were good and bad buildings produced using this method of procurement, but very few, if any, failures arose from substandard materials or workmanship.
The catalyst for this change in approach was when corporates and others decided they didn’t need to own their own buildings, and were happy to lease them back from a development or construction company. Nothing wrong with that.
However, it did dramatically change the decision-making process on how construction quality was determined by the design and construction team.
Protective filter lost
The same applies today, with cost as a major determining factor. Essentially, the protective filter offered by having independent, professional oversight was largely lost.
Nothing wrong with the professionalism of project management organisations and development companies, but they could not say they were always acting on behalf of a building’s end user.
Or, in fact, acting on behalf of the general public who, ultimately, have to live with substandard buildings and pick up the tab through taxes, rates (councils acting as BCAs met a lot of the cost of the leaky buildings debacle), and insurance premiums.
Other drivers on what is an acceptable level of building quality for a project are more likely to be in play.
There might also be less emphasis on ensuring specific environmental targets were met, or seeing future maintenance as a key factor in material selection.
A changing scene
Critical changes have been made in how the construction industry operates, starting with the introduction of a new approach to building controls — the performance-based Building Act and Code in 1992.
There have also been significant changes over time to the way we build, and the materials and systems we use. Even the humble weatherboard has become something of a high-tech building system.
There has also been a marked increase in the availability and importation of construction materials and products from what are, in some cases, lightly legislated sources.
All this has happened without any discernible improvement in the way projects are being vetted, first by the gatekeepers, the Building Consent Authorities, and then by others operating in the design and construction process who are making decisions on whether a particular product is fit for purpose.
Yes, some checks and balances exist — such as BRANZ Appraisals, updating of New Zealand Standards, Codemarking and the use of Product Technical Statements.
Plastic envelopes proliferation
But from the evidence provided in news reports, and with the continuing proliferation of plastic envelopes over defective buildings, this is clearly not enough.
I quote a building controls manager from Auckland Council, reported in a recent New Zealand Herald article on substandard building products: “Auckland Council has a duty of care to Aucklanders to make sure those products meet our high standards and are fit for the intended use for the lifetime of the building.”
These are fine and, I am sure, heartfelt sentiments from a senior building official, but the fact is that Auckland Council and, I am sure many other BCAs, are still seeing non-compliant and defective products being used.
If such defective or non-complying products are being picked up during the on-site inspection process then well and good, but clearly that is not always happening.
In the same New Zealand Herald article, the Certified Builders Association chief executive said: “...we definitely encourage (the industry) to use materials that are certified or have been appraised here in New Zealand”.
Surely “encourage” is not good enough. It should be impossible to use products that do not comply with the Building Code.
I know I’ve said it before, but a national database of compliant building products and systems is the key first step to avoiding non-compliant products being employed on building projects.
Only in Australia
Our industry, like any other, is cursed by the amount of data collection that occurs, with the so-called results being spat back at us as dubious proof of whether the industry is tracking poorly or well.
Statistics on the cost of housing is one area where published results are anecdotal at best.
Perhaps the nuttiest idea on data collection was proposed by the NAB Bank of Australia’s insurance arm.
They proposed that those insured wear a data-tracking smart watch to collect data on resting heart rate, sleep patterns and exercise.
In exchange for signing over information collected by the watch and then meeting “good health goals”, the company would offer premium discounts of up to 10%.
What the bank failed to tell its customers was that the data would be on-sold to a USA company called Big Cloud Analytics. They would use the data to “transform data streams into profitable decisions in healthcare, retail and other emerging industries”.
The company apparently stated that “it (the data) would not be used to discriminate against people”. Yeah right.