During a recent visit to Sydney I watched a report on television about substandard imported building materials — specifically concerning the safety of electrical cabling and glass products.
It seems that many of these substandard products contained, or were accompanied by, false markings and documentation, purportedly showing that the products complied with Australian Standards and the Building Code.
A report in our local papers about phony top-brand cosmetics, many containing traces of urine, arsenic and heavy metals, shows that our industry is not alone in facing the problem of misleading or plainly illegal products and product descriptions.
A simple solution
Where building products are concerned, the answer to the problem of substandard products is quite straightforward — establish a national register of construction products.
For whatever reason, the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment (MBIE) is not prepared to either introduce such a register itself, or to support another industry body to do so.
The most likely reason for their reluctance is concern about liability in case of failure. Not sure why, because as far as I am aware you can’t sue a government department.
The MBIE might feel that with a performance-based building code it is up to the industry to prove compliance, not the Government. This is about as logical as changing all our laws so that the burden of proof falls on the accused, rather than the Crown.
If you make the rules you should be responsible for providing a clear compliance path. After all, the MBIE is quite happy to provide acceptable solutions and verification methods, so why not a register of compliant building products?
The building blocks for such a system are, or soon will be, in place. The MBIE is on the brink of releasing an update to its 2010 guide document Using the product assurance framework to support building code compliance.
This will be in the form of an on-line Product Assurance Toolkit, enabling a product manufacturer to produce what is called a Product Technical Statement (PTS) which will describe how a product meets the performance requirements of the Building Code.
There are also a number of companies and organisations, including Masterspec and BRANZ, who already produce Product Technical Statements for product manufacturers, and who list these PTSs on the internet.
However, it is clear that Building Consent Authorities will not accept a PTS on its own as sufficient proof of compliance. Among their concerns is that no third party is prepared to accept liability.
Of real concern is that BCAs will continue to make their own minds up on compliance, even though, with respect, most don’t have the expertise to do so.
Disconcertingly, BCAs are more than prepared to accept a BRANZ Appraisal as proof, and will also accept a producer statement from a third party, such as an engineer. Why disconcertingly? Because neither of these fine documents has any formal status.
There is no mention of either an appraisal or a producer statement in the Building Act, Code or Regulations. BCAs rely on the apparent willingness of a third party — a party other than the product manufacturer — to back such statements of compliance.
In the case of a BRANZ Appraisal, I’m not sure that BRANZ does, but BCAs seem happy to accept them, nevertheless.
The Building Act is quite specific, regarding compliance, on who is required to do what. In the case of a product manufacturer, Clause 14G (2) states: A product manufacturer or supplier is responsible for ensuring that the product will, if installed in accordance with the technical data, plans, specifications and advice prescribed by the manufacturer, comply with the relevant provisions of the Building Code. There is no mention of a third party assurance.
The Act clearly expects the industry to accept a statement of compliance from the product manufacturer as proof.
Unfortunately, the MBIE is only prepared to produce guidance on how to create such a Product Technical Statement, but fails to give the resulting document any teeth. The result is that BCAs understandably run for cover, mindful of the fallout for them of earlier weathertightness issues.
Problem and solution
Is there a potential problem with poor quality building products, or of products whose provenance is, at best, doubtful, appearing on New Zealand’s building sites? The answer is yes. Is there a simple solution to overcome this within the current legislative framework? Yes there is.
Why doesn’t this happen? All it would take is for the MBIE to back up its current proposal for a robust, manufacturer-backed Product Technical Statement, by listing them on a database of approved building products.
The technology is available for manufacturers to prepare a PTS, and for designers and contractors to access and use them.
There is more than one company or organisation willing and able to manage and maintain such a database on behalf of the MBIE, at no cost to them. Inexplicably, the MBIE refuses to do this, thus refusing to allay the fears of BCAs being hung out to dry, yet again.
The industry must act
The recent incidence of below-strength concrete being delivered to 70 building sites in the Auckland region should have provided our industry with a wake-up call. But it hasn’t.
If the MBIE won’t act then perhaps it’s over to industry members such as the RMBA, NZIA and IPENZ to encourage their members to specify and use only products where the manufacturer/supplier is prepared to certify how their products comply with the Building Code.
This is not a complete answer but, at least, it would be a step in the right direction.