Ask most involved in the construction industry what our building code is and you are likely to receive either a slightly wary look, or “It’s 3604 isn’t it? Isn’t it all those acceptable solutions and standards? Is it the BRANZ publications?”
The enactment of the Building Act in December 1991 and the associated Building Regulations of 1992 (containing the Building Code clauses) introduced a new national building code and a new body (first called the Building Industry Authority (BIA), and now part of the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment (MBIE); until the new government disestablishes the super ministry) to administer the new legislation.
The MBIE takes a mainly inactive stance, except when making a determination on the compliance of a design, product or system.
Managing the consent process are council-based Building Consent Authorities (BCA), with only a light hand applied by central government.
The Act, Regulations and Building Code have remained largely unchanged, with only minor but important adjustments — such as the introduction of Licensed Building Practitioners (LBPs).
The apparent robustness of the legislation is more a reflection of the code’s irrelevance in practical terms rather than its effectiveness as a useful, usable guide to good practice and performance.
Changing one word in the 2004 amendment to the Act — substituting the word consent for code — meant BCAs were required to use compliance with the original consent rather than compliance with the building code, when issuing a code compliance certificate.
While a sensible change, it has led to BCAs demanding vast amounts of manufacturers’ technical information to support and supposedly help record their original consent decision.
Cooking the books
Our industry’s actions are essentially governed by a series of prescriptive approved documents. These are known as acceptable solutions and verification methods — cookbook solutions to specific aspects of the building code, with no hint of anything resembling performance.
They are also generic, and bear only a passing resemblance to manufacturers’ individual design solutions.
In addition is the government-backed CodeMark scheme for building products which, along with the approved documents, must be accepted as establishing compliance with the Code.
There are also a couple of well used documents, neither of which have any statutory status — appraisals and producer statements.
An appraisal, whether by BRANZ or any other expert body, is an opinion on whether a product might comply with the code under certain circumstances. However, appraisals are not project-specific and, therefore, of limited relevance to a particular project.
Producer statements, introduced in the original Building Act but removed in 2004, are project-specific statements of compliance by an expert recognised by an approving authority. But their legal status is unclear.
Currently, councils, acting as BCAs, are requesting producer statements going beyond the original intent in the 1991 Act — now requiring them to show fulfilment of building code performance, rather than mere compliance with, to quote, “certain technical specifications”.
The Building Code
The NZBC comprises 37 chapters, inexplicably called clauses, each containing objectives, functional requirements and performance statements.
The performance statements are, or should be, the key to compliance. There are some 147 performance statements, ranging from structure, via external moisture, to energy efficiency. Each clause has associated acceptable solutions and verification methods.
Most building practitioners ignore the performance statements and rely instead on acceptable solutions and, occasionally, the more technical verification methods — effectively throwing the performance baby out with the code bathwater.
So what’s the problem?
Let’s look at a few obvious reasons:
• The inordinate cost (and time loss) of the current compliance process.
• Defective buildings (leaky or otherwise), continuing well after the 2002 Hunn Report on weathertightness issues.
• Defective and non-compliant building products.
• Substitution of alternative and often non-complying products during construction.
But the major downside of a lack of focus on performance is loss of innovation. The construction industry remains stalled in the mid-20th Century, with antiquated design, approval and construction processes, leading to slow and expensive building processes.
So what is the answer?
None of the following are new, but hopefully their time is coming:
• A single, central Building Consent Authority, offering consistency and ensuring the best intellect is applied to each project, during the compliance process and construction phase.
• Building consent fees based on the size of the project and not the time taken to confirm compliance.
• A BCA online web site sophisticated enough to check completeness of documents provided for consent, avoiding the time-consuming and expensive process of Requests For Information (RFI) and subsequent delays in approval.
• Rewriting clause 14G of the Building Act so that product manufacturers accept their responsibility to show what and how their products comply with the Building Code. BCAs battling through piles of general (ie not project-specific) technical information on building products to confirm compliance is difficult, time-consuming and inaccurate.
• Statutory support for the MBIE Product Technical Statement (PTS) proposal as a means of summarising a product’s compliance with the code.
• Establishing a national database of compliant construction products.
• Introduction of brand-specific acceptable solutions.
• Full involvement of the design team in the construction phase.
• Rewriting the Building Act to remove that confusing and unnecessary word “reasonably.”