In the past, various well-tried sayings and proverbs moulded and reflected the character, attitude and work ethic of those in the construction industry.
These sayings and proverbs were passed down by experienced, knowledgeable builders who measured success in terms of reputation, not in fists full of dollars.
A tradesman was well trained by serving a long, hard apprenticeship through which he learned to be both a builder and a man of character.
Apprenticeships were as much about learning respect for the trade, the boss, fellow workers and the customer as they were about building. A high standard was taught and a high standard demanded.
Sayings repeated over and over underscored the attitude of the trades and these attitudes produced quality:
• “Do it once and do it right.”
• “Measure twice and cut once.”
• “The quality will be enjoyed long after the price is forgotten.”
• “My reputation is on the line and don’t you ever forget it!”
I spent 15 years as the owner of a private property inspection company, writing thousands of reports on a wide variety of building disputes and problems, including leaky homes.
Over these years it became very clear to me that the construction industry has turned down an unsealed, pot-holed track, and has yet to make its way back to the main road.
So often these days, it seems that there’s just not enough time or money available to do the job correctly the first time. Inevitably, however, when the faecal matter hits the revolving object, time and money must be wasted in the correction of expensive mistakes.
Why has the skill level fallen to such abysmal levels? Why is service and quality so poor? Why is reputation of such little importance?
Before everyone tried to lose themselves in limited liability companies which, as we have seen, no longer provide the protection they once did, builders’ signboards read “Jake Malone & Sons” or “Tim Smith, Builder”.
Doing it right first time
The names of the men who did the work were on the line. These builders didn’t go broke because they did it right the first time, having been properly trained in the first place.
In those days, training to build involved learning an inter-related series of practical processes from foundations to finishing, rather than reading a small library of information.
Before the 1991 Building Act and the New Zealand Building Code (NZBC), and before NZS 3604 was introduced in 1990, the prime building design and building control document was the NZS 1900 The Model Building Bylaw — construction requirements for buildings not requiring specific design — timber and masonry.
This was a very slim booklet of approximately 32 pages. It could fit into a shirt pocket. This standard was introduced in 1964 and was rapidly adopted by councils nationwide. During this period, arguably New Zealand’s best quality houses were constructed.
Why was this? It was certainly not due to an over-abundance of building control. The building permit documentation was often no more than a floor plan. Sometimes there were elevations and now and again a cross section.
Despite this apparent lack of guidance, houses were built that didn’t leak, rot or blow over, and have since withstood millions of litres of rain, hundreds of thousands of sunshine hours, countless storms, hail and snow — and still they stand.
Since the introduction of the NZBC there are literally hundreds and thousands of pages of standards, NZBC clauses and manufacturers’ instructions. The external moisture clause of the NZBC is currently just under 200 pages and growing!
In my view, it is in large part because of these truckloads of information that the worst building disasters ever seen in this country have occurred in recent years. That is, builders and tradesmen learned by doing, not by reading. This mountain of paper is directed at the wrong people. Educators take note.
The current pervasive philosophy is that if all details are documented within manuals, all is well with the world. This is clearly rubbish. We are now dealing with legal butt-covering at all costs.
It’s all about risk management which means having the ability, in theory at least, to pass on the responsibility, the accountability and the liability to some other sucker when things go wrong. This practice clearly doesn’t work. In fact, it has proved to be a disaster.
The question might be asked: “But won’t licensing take care of the cowboys?” But will licensing really create an across-the-board shift from minimum standards to best practice?
I’m still talking to tradesmen and designers who don’t know why or how so many buildings are leaking. Recently we were re-cladding a leaky home which has a virtually identical home at the rear that was undergoing a “targeted repair” or, more precisely, a “patch-up job.” We pointed out that this was not the way to go and were treated to a very uncomplimentary response.
Since then, a wall has been opened up in that house to reveal extensive widespread rot throughout an entire wall. All the framing has to be replaced. The remaining walls have not been investigated.
Also recently, we were asked to fit new window flashings to a leaky building that was under repair. However, the windows, the workmanship, the varying size of the reveals and the general lack of knowledge and oversight were so dreadful that we refused to fit our flashings until the issues were resolved.
The message is painfully slow to get through. When will this bad practice stop? In my view, only when a best practice policy replaces minimum standards. This change will involve a complete character change within the industry and, unfortunately, I am not optimistic.
In the Dicks leaky homes case last year, the house was severely damaged due to a lack of window or door flashings, and the Waitakere City Council was found culpable for the repair bill to the tune of $250,000.
The insurer, RiskPool, which covers the Waitakere City Council, vowed to track down the builder — despite the fact that his company has folded — for his share of the costs. In the meantime, ratepayers are footing the entire bill for this leaky home.
As a warning to others in the Dicks case, Justice David Baragwanath said the builder could be held personally liable because he “. . . did not merely direct but actually performed the construction of the house and was personally responsible for the omission of the seals.”
“His carelessness is . . . a breach of a duty of care owed by him to Mrs Dicks.”
• Next month: Education is the only practical means of achieving best practice methodology.