Cracking up

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Don Bunting

Architect Don Bunting discovers that building defects are an international issue.

I recently visited Sydney, specifically to see how the central city was coping with the new light rail system up George Street and beyond.

My visit was a little too early as the system was still under trial.

Nevertheless, the bleak, blank faces of some shop fronts on once busy George Street were testament to the disruption being caused to inner-city life and retail sales. Auckland and other New Zealand centres beware.

The Australian papers were full of stories of significant structural problems being uncovered in relatively new apartment blocks.

On coming home, I heard that a facade panel had fallen off a central city block of apartments in Auckland, causing major traffic disruption.

I also understand that the relatively new Wellington Central Library building is under threat of demolition due to lack of compliance with earthquake standards for public buildings.

You couldn’t help but think — what is up with Australasian standards of construction? 

Australian standards

I was peripherally involved with an Australian building project and surprised at the time by the lack of direct oversight by the local authority.

I have no idea whether this was a factor behind recent apartment building issues, but the chief executive of The Australian Institute of Building Surveyors said in the Sydney Morning Herald: It is symptomatic of a much greater problem — a building regulatory system that is failing across Australia.

The newspaper report on the Mascot Tower Block, which sits above the Mascot railway station just short of Sydney airport, noted that all occupants of the apartments had been evacuated.

Cracks in the primary support structure and facade masonry of the 122-apartment complex led to temporary supports being installed.

When the initial cracks started to widen, it was decided that the building was no longer safe to occupy.

In December a similar incident occurred in a tower complex at Sydney Olympic Park, when the building was evacuated due to cracking and reports of movement.

Engineers Australia noted that this earlier incident was “a major wake-up call for New South Wales to get serious about reform”.

The NSW Premier was quick to announce that legislation to overhaul the construction industry would be introduced to parliament immediately.

He then made the extraordinary statement that “we expect the highest level of compliance in addition to people sticking to the rules”.

Don’t you just love politicians stating the bleeding obvious?

The blame game

I have no knowledge of the root cause of the problems with the two Sydney apartment building failures.

What concerns me is that when building failures occur, industry organisations and consenting authorities inevitably blame the system; often falling back on that convenient phrase — a systemic failure.

In this case, the building surveyors, Engineers Australia and the NSW State Premier, were all quick to deflect any direct wrongdoing. It had to be the system that was at fault right?

No doubt, further investigations will attempt to uncover exactly what happened. But why building faults occur is becoming increasingly difficult to pin down when the construction sector’s first reaction is to look away from those involved and deflect blame towards “the system”.

It may be that both Australia and New Zealand need to review current legislation and building standards. It may also be that consenting and overview requirements need to be tightened.

I can only hope that key industry players take a hard look at how they currently operate, and whether there is a tendency to look more at the bottom line — minimum cost, maximum profit — than ensuring our built environment is as good as it can possibly be.

Back to the future

Thinking about the numerous recent cases of contractors getting into financial strife — and in many instances going broke — I recalled how once all major projects had a detailed interim cost plan prepared, followed by a full, independent schedule of quantities as the basis for tenders from all interested contractors.

My uncle Bob Stewart was the son of New Zealand’s first professional quantity surveyor. He instilled in me the critical importance of “getting your sums right”.

If contractors got under financial pressure on a project, the result was that corners might be cut. Not necessarily leading to non-compliance, but when operating under financial pressure you may not always produce the best result.

So imagine for a moment if all projects were based on an independent schedule of quantities prepared by an independent quantity surveyor.

You know it makes sense — as it once did.  

Quite Wright

The book Frank Lloyd Wright in New York chronicles Wright’s time leading up to the near completion of New York’s Guggenheim museum.

I say near completion because Wright died some months prior to the building’s opening in October 1959.

The book reveals Wright’s approach to both life and architecture; always operate at maximum pace and with maximum expenditure for your clients.

He established his office and home in New York’s Plaza Hotel while persuading the Guggenheim Foundation to accept his design and then overspending the budget in the “Wrightian manner.”

A quote from one of Wright’s many public appearances during that time helps define his personality: “Early in life I had to choose between honest arrogance and hypocritical humility. I chose arrogance and have seen no occasion to change.”

Humility was not one of his strongest suits, and thank goodness for that.