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It's the system, not the certifiers, say engineers
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04/01/2019 - 2:31 pm
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By Sue Williams and Jimmy Thomson

Someone will have to die before the NSW Government properly fixes the system for making sure high-rise buildings are constructed safely, a leading Australian building consultant has claimed.

And the answer is not to blame certifiers, who have neither the skills nor requirements to be quality controllers.

“It will take that kind of tragedy before they’ll act,” says Robert Hart, in the wake of the publicity surrounding the Opal Tower crisis.

Meanwhile, the state government targeting ‘dodgy certifiers’ is missing the point, adds Mr Hart, one of the members of a specialist committee recently set up by Engineers Australia to report on the state of new apartment buildings in NSW

Mr Hart, who’s been central to a number of Engineers Australia inquiries into building industry certification, says he’s outraged by the standard of debate that’s followed the evacuation of the Sydney Olympic Park tower because of a cracking supporting wall in the 35-storey building.

He says it’s not the certifiers who are at fault in the state’s myriad defective apartment blocks – it’s the sub-contractors who constructed them in the first place.

And then, he says, the fault lies with a series of governments and their ministers who’ve taken no action to remedy the real problems, including ignoring 100 ‘critical’ reforms suggested in a 2016 report the State Government instigated itself.

“They’ve received so many warnings that the situation is critical, but they’ve done nothing,’’ says Mr Hart.

“You talk about people fiddling while Rome burns, but the man responsible for sorting this out, [Minister for Innovation and Better Regulation] Matt Kean hasn’t even picked up the fiddle. It’s bloody ridiculous.”

Minister Kean strongly denied the allegation that he and his government had done nothing to resolve the issues around certification.

“Since coming to office, I have been working on fixing the system that Labor botched when they privatised certification,” Mr Kean told the Financial Review.

“In 2015 the NSW Liberals & Nationals commissioned Michael Lambert to report on how to clean up Labor’s mess and to restore confidence in the building sector.

“In October, I passed the nation’s leading certification reforms, implementing Michael Lambert’s key recommendations, with serious penalties for certifiers who do the wrong thing.

“I also released an options paper setting out further options to improve the certification industry, which led to the plan I announced last week.”

Minister Kean this week blamed certification and corruption in the industry as a whole for the kind of problems that have afflicted the Opal building (although not the Opal per se), announcing a crackdown on ‘cowboy’ certifiers.

“The majority of certifiers are doing the right thing, but it’s time for the cowboys to go,” Mr Kean adding that it was unacceptable for certifiers to sign off on buildings that weren’t fit to live in.

He also blamed the previous Labor government for having created the problem by introducing self-certification when it was in power.

However, Mr Hart argues that high-rise apartment block defects are an inevitable result of a “catastrophically flawed” system for building in NSW.

“You can’t try to blame certifiers; in this system they’re the ones who just collect the paperwork from all the trades self-certifying their own work,” Mr Hart said. “They can’t possibly check everything as they don’t have the skills. It should be up to each individual branch of a project to be professionally certified with an independent governance body.

“NSW has the worst regulatory regime in the country, yet it’s being allowed to continue and people are really suffering from bad construction taking place with no supervision as a result. It’s really appalling. Will someone have to die before they’ll take it seriously?”

Fellow leading structural engineer Charles Rickard of Rickard Engineering also outlined the problems with the current system in a report in 2013, and said he’s been lobbying the Government, with Engineers Australia, ever since, to no avail.

He also fears it will take a tragedy – like the 22-storey Ronan Point tower block collapse in London two months after its completion in 1968 which killed four and injured 17 and led to a complete overhaul in the UK of building regulations – before changes are made here.

“Remember that collapse which became a landmark case and forced a change in all current practice?” Mr Rickard asked. “Here, why waste time auditing 40 per cent of certifiers?

“It’s the Government’s system of certification that is flawed. The person or company who designs must inspect everything and then certify each individual discipline. That’s nothing to do with the Principle Certifying Authority; he’s just the referee and, if there no rules to play by, the outcome is always dangerous chaos.”

A report in 2015/6 by former Treasury official Michael Lambert, who was appointed by the NSW Government to review the Building Professionals Act, made around 150 recommendations for change – 100 that he labelled as “critical”.

It recommended a fully prescribed professional system of certification for every branch of a project – a building certifier for building work, and architectural certifier for the design, an electrical certifier for electrics, etc etc.

The governance body for each discipline would be then responsible for appointing and dismissing accredited, independent certifiers.

This would take the place of the current system, which was branded ‘a collection of pieces of paper, vague in content and without real accountability’, which ‘does not pass any test of due diligence’.

As a result of the Lambert Report, a number of representatives of the industry, including certifiers, architects, developers, construction companies and surveyors, all had a meeting with Mr Kean 18 months ago, at which the Government pledged action.

“They promised to do something, and then they did absolutely nothing,” said Mr Hart. “We have cases in other buildings where fire dampeners are being put on backwards and fire collars not in place. These kind of things are really putting people’s lives in jeopardy. We are desperate.”

An earlier report by UNSW found that 85 per cent of strata units were defective at completion while the NSW insurance industry has reported a post-completion additional cost in rectifying defects of 27 per cent (compared to the defects bond of only 2 per cent).

It has also been estimated that while proper quality controls would raise building costs by up to 6 per cent, the consequent savings in defect remediation would be substantially higher.

A version of this story first appeared in the Australian Financial Review


NSW Regional
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04/01/2019 - 3:00 pm
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Jimmy, Perhaps you could enlighten me here.  If we follow the money and see what the respective motivations are I believe privatization is a major cause of dodgy approvals.

What I don’t understand is that prior to labor privatizing certification it was done by government/council officials.  Council officials did the job and there was no incentive to cut corners.  If council certifiers could do the job (and there is no evidence or reason to say otherwise) why is it that privatized certifiers can’t? 

I feel that a major reason is that the financial interests of government/council officials were in doing their job properly.  They had little or no (barring corruption) financial interest in cutting corners. 

However private certifiers do have a financial incentive to increase numbers and get in the good books with developers as that could lead to more work and increased remuneration.  I am sure there are many good and ethical private certifiers but how do you think they feel about losing work to others not so ethical ones? 

By aligning private certifiers rewards with developers the problem was bound to happen.  

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04/01/2019 - 3:21 pm
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Cosmo said
What I don’t understand is that prior to labor privatizing certification … council officials did the job and there was no incentive to cut corners. 

You would think … but even today we see that coucillors and council officials are poorly paid and therefore eminently corruptible.  The mistake Labor made was to listen to their developer mates who assured them they’d operate with honesty and integrity.  Then when the Coalition came in, the ratchet effect occurred where it was impossible to turn things back.

Also, bear in mind the explosion in high-rise building which very quickly outstripped the availability of qualified certifiers.  And just to be clear, it’s not a certifier’s job to go around kicking conrete wall and checking window locks.

They sit in an office and check that Pete the Plumber has signed off on the work he’s done, then that Eric the Electrician has signed his docket, and Barry the Builder, and Chris the Concreter …

Many certifiers are told by their employers not to go near the building site in case they are held liable for a defect they missed.  That’s why Engineers Australia say it’s the system that’s wrong, not the people working in it. 

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04/01/2019 - 3:26 pm
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Oh, and one other thing.  It’s all very well for the Government to blame Labor for the problem, but they need to take a good hard look at themselves. The Opposition must take its share of the blame but the government has had eight years, three Premiers and  FIVE – count them – FIVE Fair Trading ministers since then.  Making token gestures six months out from an election is hardly the radical reforms needed or, indeed, suggested by the Lambert Report. Creating a public enemy in certifiers, just so you can play the blame game, helps no one. 

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07/01/2019 - 4:54 pm
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Nobody seems responsible. We have a safety issue at the moment regarding owners installing furniture, having BBQ’s, and generally using incomplete balconies with no safety railings in a multistory building. Hello to people and furniture falling off and crushing people below…

So far the following have claimed it is not their problem and/or try to ignore it and/or say it’s someone else’s issue: the council, the builder, the private certifier, the owners of said balconies, and NSW FT. The strata committee issued a warning which was flagrantly ignored by the owners acting illegally.

I have to say the private certifier seems to be stuck in the middle and seems to want to know as little as possible about the issue anyway. The most obvious questions were simply not addressed and when raised again the owners corporation was sent on another merry go-round of it being council/builder/private certifier/owners of said balconies/NSW FT responsibility.

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