Building blocks – an engineer on what went wrong and how to fix it

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There’s an old joke about engineers – an optimist sees a glass half full, a pessimist sees a glass half empty, an engineer sees a glass that’s not designed for its purpose.

Engineers are professionally practical and pragmatic, so we were pleased last month, when we were all reeling from a third and fourth scandal of a relatively new Sydney apartment block that wasn’t fit for human habitation, when we received a lengthy document from Charles Rickard, former chairman of Engineers Australia’s Multi-Disciplinary Committee, from 2012 to 2013.

In it he sets out to identity how we got into this mess, and then suggests ways to fix it in the future. These views formed a substantial part of his contribution to the NSW Government’s calls for submissions as it devises plans to revise state building regulations.

In the paper, he wonders why it took so long to recognise that there was a problem.

“We now have two residential large tower projects [now four – JT] which have caught the imagination of the Australian media and the Government,” he writes. “It is ironic that all of the endeavours in the last seven years and more to get Government to properly focus on building defects have been ignored.

“All of those buildings of four storeys and less (from where the bulk of claims upon the Home Building Compensation Fund emanate) have largely been ignored over the years.

“The Owners Corporation Network, a body which represents the interests and occupiers of strata title properties, has despaired of the lack of interest from government to the plight of residents, financially and emotionally affected by the results of bad building practices.”

Mr Rickard says that if any doubt remains that things are seriously out of kilter, we need look no further than the disparity between home building warranties (HWI) in 2018 when the premiums collected were $83.98m while the claims totalled $204m – a disparity of 150 per cent.

The net cost, is $120m over the year, or $10m per month paid by the taxpayer.

“If we had proper certification in place there would be fewer HWI claims, this annual loss would be greatly reduced, and the revenue saved could go towards filling the gap in current property stamp duty receipts,” he says. “Imagine the collective deficit if you include buildings larger than four storeys. $1 billion?”

Buildings higher than three storeys are not required to have home warranty insurance, largely because the insurance companies historically refused to insure them, such was the risk involved.

Charles Rickard says that apartment owners are confronted by two problems: The cost of rectifying the defects and the loss of value of their properties due to the negative media reports, poor response by Government ministers and lack of an industry emergency control plan.

The answer, he claims, is to have both certification of design and construction of each critical building element undertaken by the same person or organisation.

“Perhaps the biggest single problem with the current legislation is the separation of certification for design from certification of construction,” he says. “There are two key points which I believe are definitely not realised by the whole industry and where the fabric of the industry has been very damaged by this previously ill-conceived decision:

“The design of a building is not like a tin of baked beans. Every building is different. To an architect, each building is like a baby to be nurtured to fruition. For two hundred years the Architect has been aided by a support team of chartered engineers (these days, confusingly, called Accredited Certifiers). They give so much of themselves to the buildings.

“The current disconnection of the building designer from site activity is not only destroying self-respect among professionals but preventing them from also checking the correctness of their work efforts: they don’t get to see the completed project.

“In times past the architect had his Clerk of Works. On large projects, the engineer had his Resident Engineer; those people were a key part of the QA team. Today, those roles no longer exist and the industry suffers as a result.”

Mr Rickard says that if professionals who design elements of buildings are not required to supervise the installation or construction of those parts, the likelihood of another party being able to understand the significance or relevance of key design decisions is seriously diminished.

“A system where design certification is separated from construction certification is legal madness. Everyone is responsible and no one is responsible,” he says. “The person who designs must inspect, must supervise, must certify and be completely accountable. This is how it was for 200 years. We need to go back to the future.”

Mr Rickard says that for the past six years the government has ignored advice from a number of professional bodies that there should be fifteen or more separate areas of expertise for certifying professionals.  This, he says, was a “critical error”.

“The current system of “Design and Construct” (D&C) has allowed a … culture to prevail where “price and programme” are the principal drivers towards an outcome rather than quality of product. Those fifteen bodies … are needed to set mandatory rules which must be followed (with documented evidence that they have been followed) so that individual professionals acting under the aegis of any one of those fifteen bodies are accountable.

“The Principal Certifying Authority (PCA) can then issue a Certificate of Occupancy with the confidence that his receipt of certificates from the professionals can provide: [we need] unconditional certification – nothing else will work.”

Mr Rickard says the “Design and Construct” system must now develop mechanisms to address the problems it has created and to re- establish rules to ensure quality of construction alongside the advantages of time and cost inherent in the D&C system.”

Mr Rickard adds that the current expectations placed on the PCA are totally unrealistic and unfair.

Clearly, the government does not understand the role of the PCA. Their role should be identical to that of the Chief Building Surveyor currently operating in Shires and councils in rural Australia, and in the same way that they have always operated,” He says.

“I do not know the exact number of Australian Standards which relate to the building industry but let us guess a number of say, 300. How can one person have knowledge of so many standards in fifteen different disciplines? Clearly, they cannot do so.

“It is just as crazy to think that a PCA can visit a site when a building is completed and issue a meaningful certificate of compliance in the absence of any certificates from professionals that indicate that critical building elements have been correctly designed and installed,  and then issue a Certificate of Occupation. Yet this typically is what happens in the entire new domestic housing and renovation markets.”

Years ago, Mr Rickard says the surveyor would ask the builder not to put plasterboard on the walls and ceilings until the roof tie down straps, the wall frames, the wall frame connection to the foundations, the brick veneer and the cavity  flashings had been inspected.

“This still happens in country areas because they still have Council Building Surveyors to undertake inspections and to give compliance orders,” he says. “The private certifiers in Sydney do not (as a rule) undertake such a role.

“There are no private certifiers acting in the same manner as council building surveyors to do inspections of building works prior to completion. It is for this reason that the supervision, inspection and certification of critical building elements must be conducted by accredited and accountable industry professionals.

“The PCA today is like a football referee with no pea in his whistle. It does not matter how hard he blows no one will listen because there are no rules.

“As with all projects, but particularly for large projects, it should surely be obvious to anybody that the fifteen governance bodies are essential to the realisation of a successful outcome with building projects based upon the involvement and authority of building professionals.”

This is just part of a much longer outline of what Charles Rickard thinks the problems in the building industry are, and what needs to be done to resolve them now and in the future.  You can read his entire blog on the topic and a heap of other interesting opinions on the rickardengineering.com website

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