A black hole

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Architect Don Bunting

Architect Don Bunting seeks out our lost construction industry.


It might have sounded like April Fool’s Day but, in fact, it was April 11 this year when scientists claimed to have constructed an image of a black hole.

And to no one’s surprise it looked just like a black hole.

Apparently a string of complex algorithms were used by scientists around the globe to make this scientific discovery possible. Forget poor old Einstein, who was well aware of the phenomenon of black holes more than 100 years earlier.

Modern scientists are often sceptical about Einstein and, until recently, they were even doubting his famous formula for energy.

When I visited the old Einstein laboratory in Potsdam in 2009 it was festooned with banners reading “E=MC2?” Note the question mark.

So what did these modern-day scientists achieve? Quoting local Canterbury scientist Katie Bouman: “No one algorithm or person made this image. It took years of hard work to develop the instrument, data processing, imaging methods, and analysis techniques to pull off this seemingly impossible feat.”

I’m sure the 200 scientists in 20 countries are excited about this feat and deserve the highest praise. But it was a bit like the first time I saw the old radio show The Goons on television; I’d rather have just relied on my imagination.

A real black hole

The New Zealand construction industry is currently in a bit of a black hole. Everyone knows what’s wrong with it. Everyone knows why we had the leaky building problem — and still do.

Everyone knows why we have huge cost overruns on major projects. Everyone knows why large and small construction companies are going broke.

We have plenty of great builders, first-class designers, excellent sub-trades, quality building materials (with a few glaring exceptions), and good, if not great, building regulations.

What we lack is an industry benchmark and effective leadership at industry level. Not at government level, but at industry level.

I don’t care if it’s a builder, an architect, an estimator or a project manager; just any group of industry leaders that everyone respects and trusts.

Some moves have been made to “reboot” the industry but I fear that they may not be enough.

When I started in the industry nearly 50 years ago, everyone looked up to our Ministry of Works.

For those of more recent vintage, the Ministry of Works (MOW) was populated by specialist designers and constructors who built things for the Government, and also set the technical benchmarks that led the industry.

Their specialists populated both Standards NZ and other government committees, and determined what was needed to meet the challenges of building in our shaky and somewhat damp country. Maybe not great architecture, but it didn’t leak and it didn’t fall down.

The MOW was headed and supported by a true construction Ministry, connecting the industry to government in a practical and effective manner.

Best materials, best methods, best research. No cutting corners, not “best price is the cheapest price”. Get it right first time and move on to the next project.

Times have changed

Yes, I know, things have changed and, in some cases, things may have changed for the better.

Yes, I know that most larger projects no longer have a client who is going to occupy the building themselves.

Yes, I know that most projects are no longer led by dedicated professionals working for the client and protecting their client’s and the country’s interests in terms of built quality.

We also didn’t have that weird thing called “the build.” But that’s another story.

However, what we do have is a thing called the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment (MBIE), and an industry that is effectively at war with local councils and Building Consent Authorities (BCAs).

Designers and contractors don’t understand what the MBIE is, and they don’t trust the BCAs. And who can blame them?

The cost of approvals is far too high, and it takes far too long to battle through the approvals processes.

Standards NZ has been swallowed up by a white whale; and while there is a Ministry of Building and Construction, like the Yeti, no one’s actually seen it. And where oh where is BRANZ?

Construction reboot

In April the Government proudly announced a “construction sector reboot”.

The chosen approach was to partner with New Zealand’s biggest construction companies, some of whom were part of the problem, to tackle the sector’s biggest issues.

The focus was on finding the cause of high profile building company collapses, poor quality buildings and skills shortages.

The Prime Minister said the plan was to improve the sector’s culture and reputation, increase its workforce and deliver more houses.

With Kiwibuild sitting there like an old car refusing to go more than 10km/h, I guess she had to include “build more houses”, even though this is hardly central to the industry’s current problems.

We should all support what is being called the Construction Sector Accord, but it needs to be more than just another papering over of the cracks.

It is great to see some of our major industry leaders making a real effort to find and solve current issues. I am sure they seriously believe they can produce and uphold new standards of behaviour, and hold people accountable if they don’t.

But what is needed are real solutions to what are well-known and long-standing problems.

Stop press!

The City Rail Link project in Auckland has announced a new “cost envelope” of $4.419 billion. I think there are two words missing from that announcement — “and rising”.