Fixing a failing construction industry means quality and safety before speed and greed

The diminished role of architects combined with poor procurement processes and a failing regulatory system has caused a perfect storm for multiresidential developments with consumers and consumer confidence just the first casualties, says Australian Institute of Architects (the Institute) NSW Chapter President Ms Kathlyn Loseby.

‘While it is not clear from much of the media discussion about recent high-profile multistorey residential complexes, NSW State Environment Planning Policy no 65 (SEPP 65) stipulates that an architect must be responsible for the design of these buildings,’ said Ms Loseby. ‘Through their training and professional codes, architects are uniquely positioned to deliver positive outcomes for end users.’

An architect has five years’ professional education, a minimum of two years’ practical experience, has passed the Architectural Practice Examination, and has been admitted to a Register of Architects managed by a state or territory Architects Registration Board. In NSW architects must undertake formal continuing professional development to maintain registration.

Registered architects who are members of the Australian Institute of Architects must abide by a code of conduct which stipulates strict obligations to clients, the profession, colleagues and, critically for consumer protection and community safety, to the public. Members must strive to improve the environment and quality of life within the communities in which they work, to be fully mindful of the effect of their work on the interests of all stakeholders, and to improve standards of health and safety for the protection and welfare of all members of the community.

So what has gone so wrong to result in failures such as Opal Tower, the more recent Mascot complex, and the many other cases that don’t make news headlines?

‘Changes in procurement practices in recent years have seen the role of the architect commonly reduced from lead consultant involved from go to whoa to design consultant with often minimal involvement,’ Ms Loseby explained. ‘Typically these practices correlate with an emphasis on time and cost of building – ie speed and greed – at the expense of quality, to which safety is integral.’

Value engineering, particularly in the popular design and construct procurement model, prioritises time and cost over quality, choosing the false economy of immediate cost reductions that lead to vastly more expensive maintenance and remediation. The results of this have too frequently been highly unfavourable for the built environment and disastrous for owners and renters who suffer the consequences. Their misfortune is compounded by holes in the insurance system the Institute is calling on government to address to provide better consumer protection with regard to multistorey residential buildings.

‘While consumers are hit first, a lack of consumer confidence will also come back to bite developers and governments in turn will struggle to meet housing targets,’ said Ms Loseby. ‘There are no real winners in this scenario.

‘It is too early to say what has gone wrong in the specific case of the Mascot apartment block recently evacuated due to safety concerns,’ continued Ms Loseby. ‘It is clearly established however that there exist deeply concerning problems in the building and construction industry that require strong and swift governmental response to restore consumer confidence and ensure safety. Implementing key recommendations from the Shergold Weir report and final Opal Tower report will be an important step toward this.’

The Institute has been at the forefront of industry calls for better regulation and enforcement of Australia’s building and construction industry. In particular, the Institute stands in support of measures that bring the regulation of other building practitioners closer into line with the standards applicable to professionals like architects.

‘Regulations must also support independent and qualified certification and insurance,’ said Ms Loseby. ‘Certification should only be done by registered professionals qualified in the domain in which they have professional indemnity insurance, and who are trained and regularly assessed of their capabilities.

‘Furthermore, the current market sees developers and builders undermining the design, documentation and site observation stages of the professional team of architects and engineers, and ‘shopping around’ to change the team and reduce fees. This erodes quality as project knowledge is lost, and the consumer loses.’

The Institute is also calling for the procurement of building projects to prioritise quality. This means design protocols have to be measured not only at the beginning of the project but all the way through to completion. It means qualified professionals concerned about the safety and quality of all the community must be involved to their full capacity from start to end, including post-occupancy evaluation which should become mandatory.

Ms Loseby advised: ‘Increasing quality may increase the construction costs and time, but evacuating people from an unsafe building costs substantially more and takes longer to fix – as does stakeholder confidence.

‘Quality must become the top priority,’ she continued. ‘We want 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 and secure.’