Construction Quality and Building Confidence – SA

Increased attention on construction quality and building confidence was the focus of a discussion between the Institute’s SA Chapter, National Policy Advisor Leanne Hardwicke, leaders from several local practices and Fielders on Friday 22nd November.

Changes to the regulatory framework resulting from the Senate Inquiry into Non-Conforming Building Products and the recommendations from the Shergold Weir Report have seen clients attempt to manage their exposure to risk by implementing contracts that require cautious overview.

Members have reported contracts, with unreasonable clauses, uninsurable conditions or blatant scope, program and budget misalignment. Some small to medium sized firms can’t afford the legal advice required to adequately protect themselves (although some insurers may be able to offer insurance specific advice to their members) and low fees do not cover the additional resources that are required.

These contracts also shift the emphasis of the role of the architect. In some cases, the design practitioner (architect), rather than the contractor becomes the party responsible for project delivery – certifying the construction meets all codes and regulations. The architect is expected to be all-knowing, signing off on things that they may not have inspected or that other parties should be responsible for. It’s not practically or legally feasible and in most cases, insurance won’t cover architects for this increased level of responsibility.

It makes logical legal sense that each contributor is accountable for their own work. But in order for this to work, roles and responsibilities, along with the limitations of each role, need to be clearly defined.

Alternatively, there is an opportunity for architects to take back the lead consultant role. Including contract administration engagement in positions such as Clerk of Works or Superintendent should also be considered to address current construction quality issues.  These roles are not just about administering the terms of the contract, there’s also a responsibility to administer construction compliance with drawings and specifications. They’re meant to provide an independent set of eyes to review documentation, conduct regular inspections and certify what’s happening on a building site. However, there is no formal qualification or registration process that defines the Superintendent or Clerk of Works role and significant experience is required to perform this role well.

Currently, there is a lack of consistent requirement for the registration or professional development of building practitioners, a key recommendation from the Shergold Weir Report.  The SA Government’s response to the Report’s recommendations focuses on the accredited practitioner scheme implemented on 1 April 2019 as part of the new Planning, Development and Infrastructure Act 2016 and covers practitioners involved in the planning and building approval process. While this is positive the Institute is hoping to see the scope of the SA Government response expanded to address more of the Report’s recommendations.

 It should be noted that extra certification needs extra fees and funding for insurances. Money needs to be put into the process somewhere and it is unrealistic to expect these costs to be absorbed by architects or building certifiers.

The Report also places an increased focus on complete and certifiable documentation. In particular, architects need to be fully across their specifications, ensuring all products are tested and compliant with the BCA. This leads to questions of quality control and the expertise of personnel looking after documentation, specification writing and contract administration within a practice. Graduates performing these responsibilities need to be adequately supervised and provided with structured mentorship or formal post-graduate training with set tasks, processes and explanations. The ratio of senior staff to graduates in the workplace is also important for the transfer of skills and knowledge, as is a culture of ongoing professional development. It is the responsibility of the profession to provide their graduates with ongoing training, rounded experience and strong support to ensure their work can be certified and insured.

There is a clear imbalance with current workplace practice and the demands imposed by the increased attention on construction quality and building confidence in both public and private sectors. Increased accountability cannot be achieved with low fees that inevitably result in low standards. With fingers poised to point blame when things go wrong, architects must make sure their work meets certification and insurance standards.

What’s needed is a strong plan for further action and advocacy to support architects through impending changes, including those to the Building Code, the new Planning and Design Code in SA and emerging approaches to procurement.

The Institute is actively driving the agenda in this realm and working on a formal implementation plan for 2020. Discussions about regulations and insurance are taking place with relevant Ministers. There is strong collaboration with other industry bodies, for a universal approach underpinned by a strong code of ethics. Some changes are already taking effect, with continued professional development (CPD) becoming mandated for architects in South Australia likely from next year.

Additionally, the Institute will be working to define the roles and responsibilities of all building professionals, educate about who wears what liability, provide information on where to get relevant advice, and develop consistent guidelines for good practice in procurement.

Tessa Sare