10 point plan for restoring public confidence in the construction industry

Kathlyn Loseby – NSW Chapter President

A spate of recent incidents, generating extensive media coverage, has brought significant attention to the safety and quality of Australia’s built environment and has severely impacted public confidence. These include the Lacrosse Tower Fire, Melbourne 2014; the Grenfell Tower Fire, UK, 2017; the Opal Tower building evacuation, Sydney, December 2018; the Neo200 Apartment Building Fire, Melbourne, February 2019; the CBD walkway collapse, Perth, June 2019; and the Mascot Towers building evacuation, Sydney, June 2019.

Australian Federal, State and Territory ministers, through the Building Ministers Forum, commissioned a review by Dr Peter Shergold and Ms Bronwyn Weir. Their report, Building Confidence, was released publicly early in 2018 and an implementation plan in March 2019. The Australian Institute of Architects has supported and publicly called for the urgent adoption of all recommendations.

For NSW to overcome the huge dip in public confidence in the construction industry, 10 key issues need to be addressed.

1. #SafetyFirst is paramount, but in a first world country we should also expect #Wellbeing

The Australian Institute Architects Code of Conduct expects architects to ‘improve standards of health and safety for the protection and welfare of all members of the community.’  This is an important distinction beyond the basics of safety, and it is not just for the client, the developer or the financial institution, but for everyone.

Architects strive for a built environment where you can walk your children down the street, stop in a café for an ice cream, shop for your groceries, grab a book from the library, and return home all the while feeling safe, secure and enriched.

2. Certification by qualified, independent, registered professionals with PI insurance = consumer protection

Certification should be limited to qualified registered professionalswho have professional indemnity insurance, are trained, have their capabilities assessed prior to registration and who keep up to date through continuing professional development. This is required for architects in NSW under the Architects Act which is designed to protect the consumer. In NSW, this is not the case for engineers, building designers or project managers, so these titles can be used by anyone without proven credentials, registration or regularly assessable standards to maintain.

We recommend maintaining a ‘third party’ distance between builder and certifier, that is, those that certify should be independent and not be employed directly by the builder.

3. Stop self-certification

The current system of allowing sub-contractors to self-certify does not put safety or quality first.

For example, at the beginning of a project the mechanical engineer will design the air-conditioning system. Under a Design and Construct contract the builder typically replaces the mechanical engineer with a mechanical sub-contractor who will redesign the mechanical system to get the cheapest possible outcome. The mechanical sub-contractor is the installer and also the certifier of the system. Not only is the sub-contractor not independent, but they will not be paid by the builder until they produce the certification. The building certifier relies on these sub-contractor certificates to produce the final certificate so effectively the sub-contractor is self-certifying.

There needs to be much greater clarity on the roles, rights, responsibilities and risks of all parties in the building chain. We need an industry standard as recommended in the Shergold Weir report. 

4. Contracts need to place #Quality over #speed and #greed

Procurement practices are principally driven by three factors: time, cost and quality. They are a balancing act.

It is a misconception to presume that every reduction in time and cost produces a better outcome. When quality is affected, the long-term maintenance costs and ‘construction cracks’ are very expensive and time consuming to rectify.       

5. Contracts need to reconsider risk allocation

Pushing risk onto sub-contractors who then go into receivership does not work. Likewise, the risk-return trade-off needs to be appropriate relative to fees. It should also be relative to the level of professional training, code of conduct, regulation, ongoing and measured professional development and adequate insurance pertaining to the entity absorbing the risk.

6Documentation by appropriately registered professionals to the National Construction Code (NCC)

The adequacy of documentation in the building approval process has been an issue of concern to the profession for some time. As per Shergold Weir, we recommend building approval documentation must be prepared by appropriately registered professionals, demonstrating that the proposed building complies with the National Construction Code.

7. Value engineering should include a quality judgement

Bronwyn Weir has stated: ‘Value engineering cuts on costs that can compromise safety; it can make the building cheaper to build but more expensive to maintain.’

Design and Construct contracts in particular can place undue focus on reducing costs through value engineering. For too long these contracts and value engineering have prioritised time and cost (speed and greed) over quality.

Safety and basic amenity should never become second to time and cost; too often we see it has.

8. Substitution of materials

Substitution has become a dirty word. It doesn’t have to be, but again when minimising time and cost drives a decision to substitute a product or material, without any consideration for the quality impact, safety and future maintenance costs are often the losers.

9. Partial services and ‘shopping’ consultant services

The current market sees developers and builders breaking up the design, documentation and site observation stage services of the professional team (architects and engineers). Instead of maintaining consistency, they shop around the market mid project to change the team and reduce fees. This process makes no attempt to justify itself in regard to achieving quality outcomes. The rationale is that the risk of a loss in quality can be offset by the potential cost savings.

What happens? Vital project knowledge is lost so cost drivers trump quality and the consumer loses.

Maintaining the same professional team from design through documentation and overseeing construction means the best equipped and project knowledgeable team is watching the project the whole way through.  

10. Delight, beauty and inspiration   

In the words of the NSW Minister for Planning and Public Spaces, Mr Rob Stokes: ‘We can do better than liveability, we can do delight, we can do beauty, we can do inspiration.’  

An architect spends five years at university, a minimum of two years of practical experience, and further professional registration examinations to be accredited as an architect. To maintain the title requires annual continuing professional development. Underpinning every part of this process is a commitment to ensuring that architectural outcomes are always more than a sum of their parts. Safety, quality, time, cost, liveability, delight and inspiration never have to be mutually exclusive.


7. Brownyn Weir quote from Warning dangerous building flaws will continue without industry overhaul, Mon 17 Jun 2019, 12:38pm, By Stephanie Smail on The World Today

 8. Rob Stokes quote from Rob Stokes’ push for Sydney development: no more nasty surprises, by Jacob Saulwick May 31, 2019 — 5.43pm