Victorian Chapter Advocacy Update

Despite the challenging times that we find ourselves in, the Victorian Chapter has been making great strides with our recent advocacy efforts. These include:

Non-mandatory Remote Video Inspections (RVIs)

The Victoria Building Authority (VBA) has recently been engaging with several construction sector bodies about a draft Guideline for the Conduct of Non-mandatory Remote Video Inspections (RVIs). This is an initiative the VBA has developed recognising that the COVID pandemic has increased reliance on new technologies for maintaining connections in the absence of physical presence. The aim of RVIs is to minimise the impact of the pandemic to project and service delivery. Once RVIs are introduced it is likely to become an ongoing industry tool and hence additional consideration is required on its implementation beyond the current pandemic.

The VBA plans to launch a formal consultation on the Guideline in the coming weeks via the Engage Victoria platform. Chapter Council members have worked with the Victorian Chapter’s new Manager and the Advocacy and Policy team to prepare a document raising a number of issues and making recommendations to the VBA ahead of the consultation.

The Institute has advised the VBA that the limits and advantages of Remote Video Inspection be thoroughly understood. Remote Video Inspection is only a limited form of visual observation and on-site conditions of elements may only be fully appreciated in person (such as plumbness, surface finish, reflectance, and stability). We have further advised that its introduction should occur in a policy framework that considers the matters of certified competency training for operators who would be agreed independent parties, the undertaking of an evaluated pilot and the development of an ongoing quality assurance program. Most importantly, the Institute stated that architects and other consultants providing non-mandatory inspections have the independent authority to elect to undertake an onsite inspection in lieu of a RVI and reserve the right to refuse its use.

We are cognisant that RVIs may have numerous benefits and its suitability will vary according to the type of inspection being undertaken across the broader industry. We have also suggested that consideration be given to taking a national approach via the Building Minister’s Forum and/or the Australian Building Code Board.

CLARIFICATION ON COVID-19 RESTRICTIONS

In response to member inquiries and voiced concerns about on-site visits to scope and prepare designs for new works in occupied dwellings or premises, the Chapter has sought to clarify the restrictions pertaining to different levels of permitted activities and restrictions that are currently planned for Victoria’s re-opening roadmap steps. For detailed information about the Roadmap, Victorian Chapter members may wish to review email sent to members on 8 September which can be viewed here. 

The position of the construction activity and the professional work of Architects changes in a small way as Victoria enters Step 2 of its Roadmap to Reopening at the time of writing this newsletter article (28 September) and construction sector restrictions move from Heavily Restricted (orange) to Restricted (yellow).

The key changes are as follows:

  • Early Stage Land Development sites: Density restrictions move from no more than 10 workers per hectare to no more than 20 workers per hectare
  • Large Scale Construction sites: These sites now move to a larger limit for the daily maximum number of onsite workers from the greater of 25% of their baseline workforce or 5 workers to whichever is greater of 85% of their baseline workforce or 15 workers. With these increased site numbers there are also some additional site management measures.

These two changes to worksite numbers may provide some negotiated flexibility to enabling architects to enter a site to conduct inspections. Architects are still included in the daily worker count.

However, small construction sites remain unchanged insofar as daily worker counts are concerned and still remains at no more than five workers per site. What also remains is that residential renovations/improvements comprising Small-scale construction work can only commence in occupied premises at Step 3, as specified in the traffic light restrictions for small scale  construction:

Construction activities external to a residential premise, such as a garage or rooftop, can now proceed. Permit construction activities at owner occupied sites where is it possible to create a physical barrier between workers and occupants and/or the occupier can temporarily vacate the premises for duration of the works

The Chapter has recently contacted Business Victoria. They have definitively advised that, at this point in time, architects cannot visit new clients in occupied residential premises to commence designing for renovations and alterations prior to Step 3 in Metropolitan Melbourne.

What has changed is that Step 3 might now commenced earlier than after 26 October. Proceeding to Step 3 will now be now subject to the fourteen day averages of daily new cases and the fourteen day numbers of cases without a known cause.

Architects have been occupationally categorised for the purposes of the Covid-permitted work and directions according to the Australian and New Zealand Standard Industrial Classification (ANZSIC) codes, that are also used by the Australian Taxation Office, as “Professional, Scientific and Technical Services”. What can be confusing is that Architects can, however, perform permitted work during restrictions but only insofar as “permitted construction works” are concerned.

The Chapter and other industry bodies have advocated in other forums for COVID-safe solutions to enable architects to visit new clients and undertake pre-construction services at their premises. The inability of architects and other consultants to visit new clients will create a serious lag in recommencing construction work. We have heard that construction works which have been carried out during previous Stage 4 restrictions and the current Reopening Roadmap Traffic-light restrictions are starting to finish with no new pipeline of works for small scale builders in relation to renovations and improvements. It is also noted that Victorians, due to Stage 4 and current Traffic light restrictions, will be poorly placed in relation to other States who have lower restrictions to take advantage of the Federal government’s $25,000 HomeBuilder economic stimulus incentive towards building a new home or substantially renovate an existing home, as contracts must be signed between 4 June 2020 and 31 December 2020.

The State has extended, in Victoria only, the period from when the contract is signed to when works begins on site from 3 months nationally to 6 months in Victoria.  However, this does not take into account the process to allow for architects and other consultants to prepare and receive planning approval, undertake documentation for tender, and then to allow clients to sign a building contract prior to 31 December 2020 in order to receive this stimulus – as Victorian architects still cannot access an existing inhabited premise to initiate this process. We are continuing discussions regarding this with relevant bodies.

We will continue to update members on changes to restrictions and permitted activities in Victoria.

NATIONAL REGISTRATION FRAMEWORK

The Building Ministers’ Forum (BMF) undertook an assessment of the compliance and enforcement systems in the construction industry which resulted in the Shergold Weir ‘Building Confidence Report’ (BCR). The report highlighted shortcomings in the implementation of the National Construction Code (NCC) and made 24 recommendations, 2 of which related to the national registration of building practitioners, including building designers and architects.

The Institute both Nationally and on a State and Territory level has been meeting with relevant stakeholders to discuss this national registration. Whist in principal we are supportive of National Registration of building practitioners we were not supportive of building designers being placed at a similar level as architects. Our recommendation is that architects are a separate category, Level 1, and that all other building designers fall into Level 2 and lower categories based on their respective knowledge and competency. In addition to this, we recommended that Project Managers, due to their significant role in the management of construction projects, should be required to have a similar level of knowledge, competency and regulation as architects.