What really went wrong?


There has also been a lack of qualitative research, and even today there is no clear analysis of:
• how many buildings of each type — simple residential (built by volume builders), more complex residential, 2-3 storey and multi-storied residential, institutional and commercial — were affected?
• what forms of construction and what types of structure and cladding system were involved?
• how many involved professional designers — ie, with a tertiary qualification and membership of an industry organisation?
•how many were administered and observed by the designer, or by a professionally qualified client representative?

As a member of Department of Building and Housing (DBH) work groups and chair of four building-related Standards committees (including NZS3602 — Timber Treatment and NZS3604 — Timber construction), I was always concerned at the lack of technical and scientific support these various groups had.

Architect Don Bunting rattles off some more random observations about the construction and associated industries. This month: Asking some hard questions about the leaky buildings debacle . . .

The E2/AS1 committee carried out the first-ever wind and water test on newer forms of residential cladding on timber framing, but most committees were left to operate without technical help.
BRANZ carried out further testing on claddings and timber treatments, but they could have done much more. With Standards New Zealand receiving no government funding it is little wonder there is a lack of research and analysis into what took place?

The industry is now preparing for another round of changes, plus a raft of new licensing regimes, with the DBH and the Government believing that more prescriptive legislation is the answer. I have my doubts.
So what did happen? Buildings are always prone to leakage in New Zealand’s damp climate and unstable soils, along with coping with the occasional plumbing or roof leak.

But from the mid-1980s something changed. New ways of managing a building project appeared. Developers realised that by controlling the process and then building as quickly and cheaply as possible, they could make more money.
With no client to worry about and no independent check on quality, you could pass any future problems on to unsuspecting investors.

There was a parallel move by institutions and government departments away from owning their own premises. This ultimately led to the demise of the Ministry of Works — a key protector of design and building standards.
These changes destroyed the connection between the professions (architects, engineers, quantity surveyors, etc) and building owners and/or users. A new profession called “project management” appeared to occupy and increase the gap, and by the 1990s most building projects were proceeding without independent, professional oversight.

On the building site, the loss of a robust apprenticeship scheme and the continual loss of skills overseas as the industry suffered a series of downturns, led to a serious reduction in skills and experience.

Industry in skills freefall
Coupled with the disappearance of site engineers and clerks of works, the construction industry was, and is, in a skills freefall.
It all resulted in lowering of skill levels on site, less professional and independent involvement in the construction phase, an increasing focus on cost over quality, and insufficient overview occurring at private, government or local body level.

In 1992, local authorities had moved on from writing their own bylaws and were then operating under a national Building Code. But, as noted in a recent report by Hunn Report joint author David Kernohan, the building inspectorate remains “overworked, underpaid and undereducated”.
And what about the product supply sector? Forget the myth that weathertightness problems were caused entirely by the use of untreated radiata pine. Timber framing rots because cladding systems leak, not the other way around.

Boron treatment, introduced to protect against borer, would have slowed the process by a few months, but if water gets trapped behind face-sealed claddings and the cavity is packed with insulation, timber will rot.
Boron salts are water soluble, and even today’s more sophisticated treatments are not intended to cope with long-term wetting of timber framing.

Why did building product companies allow their products to be used without effective testing under real conditions? Some companies went to the considerable expense of getting independent appraisals, but this still relied on the building system being properly installed.
Either installation was at fault, or the building designs stretched materials beyond their ability to perform their basic function of keeping moisture out.

Just not good enough
And now we have essentially untrained local authority officers determining for themselves whether current products and systems comply with the building code. With the greatest respect to their sterling efforts, this is just not good enough.

The construction industry is currently suffering from a lack of a duty of care by those involved. What is also lost is construction being seen as a co-operative venture — with all involved doing their best to make it work.
This is, in part, due to a lowering of skills and a lack of designer involvement in the building process. But that’s not the whole answer.

A change to a national performance-based building code was a great idea, but this has now been lost under a tide of prescriptive regulation.
Once our industry was essentially self-regulating, with a belief in our combined abilities to design and build without the need for bureaucratic intervention. Sadly, this is no longer true.