Short-term thinking

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By Architect Don Bunting

 

Common phrases once used in our industry when discussing a proposed new project were: 

What standard do you want — good, better, or best?

The three key factors in building are cost, time and quality, and the client can only define two of the three.

The rationale behind the first was to establish a clear understanding among all parties — client, financier, Building Consent Authority (BCA), the building owner and building occupier — about what the designer and contractor were proposing, and what that might mean in terms of amenity, maintenance costs and building life.

It also allowed a discussion to take place regarding social responsibility, both aesthetic and environmental.

The second phrase ensured that the intended time/cost of the project could be met. If the client chose time + cost then the design team had to control the quality level, be it good, better, or best.

If the client chose quality + time, then the design team had to set the cost estimates.

 

The code

Under “purpose”, the Building Act states: To ensure that people who use buildings can do so safely and without endangering their health. All well and good.

However, the Building Act also states: A person who carries out any building work is not required by this Act to achieve performance criteria that are additional to, or more restrictive than, the performance critieria prescribed in the building code.

While this sounds perfectly logical, the problem can be summed up in two words: acceptable solution.

The Building Act requires the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment (MBIE) to create and maintain acceptable solutions for use in establishing compliance with the building code and further.

A person who complies with an acceptable solution must be treated as having complied with the provisions of the building code.

Common effects of these parts of the Building Act are:

1 BCAs favour consent applications based on acceptable solutions.

2 So most designers and builders, particularly for residential buildings, take this easy pathway to compliance.

The result is that most residential buildings are designed to minimum standards of compliance.

 

Basic phsyics

A more concerning effect is that less scrutiny is applied to such consent applications, leading to an increased potential for non-compliance.

This is especially likely where the building project is for a difficult or demanding site location that could encompass issues such as poor soil conditions, high wind, high rainfall, thermal or salt issues.

It could then mean that a design that unknowingly exceeded the scope of an acceptable solution avoids detection during the consent approval process.

Scope is an issue that cannot be overlooked when deciding on a construction product or system.

One of the simplest errors is when a window system, designed for use up to three storeys, is specified for a taller structure. Year One in construction physics should tell even the most inexperienced designer that weather patterns become more extreme the taller a building is.

I also recall a well-known contractor saying that any building constructed in Wellington required all flashing depths to be increased by 100%. Basic physics.

 

What is scope?

The Oxford Dictionary definition is: The extent to which it is possible to range or: A purpose, end, or intention.

Neither the Building Act, nor acceptable solutions to the Building Code, nor Standards bother to define the term “scope”.

NZS 3604 under “Scope” states: Timber-framed buildings within the limits specified, while
E2/AS1 simply defines scope as buildings complying with NZS 3604.

These roundabout ways of avoiding the key issue (ie what do you mean precisely by the term scope?) may be essentially correct, but are unhelpful for someone choosing a product, or for a product manufacturer trying to inform prospective users of their products.

An even less helpful way for product manufacturers is using either a Standard or, perish the thought, an acceptable solution, as their definition of scope.

Is it asking too much to expect product manufacturers — and designers, and builders — to know what products can and can’t do?

Is it part of the lazy thinking implied in a concerted push by BCAs and others for everyone to design to minimum standard acceptable solutions?

Wait a minute. There’s the problem. Most buildings don’t fall within the scope of E2/AS1 or NZS 3604, or any other standard or minimum guide.

Whether you agree or not, have a look around your city or town and count the number of buildings, many under 10 years old, that are having to be virtually rebuilt.

Houses, schools, hospitals, apartment blocks and office buildings are all potentially designed to a minimum standard, and far too many failing within 10 to 15 years of their intended life of 50 years under the Building Act and Code.

A radical change in attitude and greater professionalism is needed.

 

Mid-western architecture

Humorist Bill Bryson once said: “I come from Des Moines, because someone has to.”

Minnesota-based novelist John Sandford was even more cutting about this mid-western city when he said its architectural style is known as 20th Century Hotel — “large, beige buildings apparently designed to not piss anybody off.”

The capital of the State of Iowa is actually an attractive river centre around which the picturesque Clint Eastwood movie The Bridges of Madison County was filmed.

Its most recent claim to fame was as a bellwether city in the presidential election cycle.

However, I’m not sure that calling it the city that elected Donald Trump provides a sought-after image.