It’s a national scandal – worse, for now, in NSW – but the problems of the construction industry will likely just keep growing until we manage to find a pathway to systemic change. Many eyes right now are on new NSW building commissioner David Chandler who did much to expose the problems and possible solutions on this site. But it will take a concerted effort by all to restore the shattered confidence.
Poor oversight in the construction industry is one of many reasons the co-author of a landmark report on how to fix Australia’s building industry, Bronwyn Weir, said she wouldn’t buy a new apartment.
Ms Weir told ABC’s Four Corners on Monday that we’re seeing the problems caused by poor oversight has caused and “where there’s a lack of competency, and sometimes, a lack of integrity.”
“Commercial imperatives have really overtaken public interest in terms of decisions that have been made.”
Ms Weir’s warning was echoed by several casualties of Australia’s building defect crisis, one of whom described buying a new apartment as “really rolling the dice”.
The consensus was that the problems plaguing the building industry are systemic and pervasive.
So how has this happened?
The investigation pointed to several pain points in the construction process, starting with the developers bringing in big name architect just at the concept stage to give the project sales appeal.
Building defects consultant Ross Taylor says once they have buyers lined up and the money from the bank, developers cut the big name architects and get an unregistered architect or draftsman to map out the basics to go to tender.
Known as the design and construct model, Taylor says “it’s the heart of these problems today.”
There’s also builders who operate under multiple company names, so in the event they are taken to court for a defective job, just one company is responsible for repaying the owners.
Fingers are also pointed at private certification. This started around 25 years ago, when state governments decided to allow building work to be signed off by private contractors to speed up the approval process.
The result is a system where private certifiers are contracted by the developer and inclined to cater to their interests rather than the future owners and occupiers.
But private certifiers blame the system. Although many perceive certifiers as onsite building cops, private certifier David Brackett said that “to suggest we are policing the project couldn’t be any further inaccurate.”
This is because legislative requirements are that the certifiers visit the site for only the major milestones. They’re only required to check the bare minimum in many instances, such as the waterproofing in one apartment on each floor.
- See new NSW building commissioner David Chandler’s Building crisis: we need a joined up functional system
It doesn’t help that the occupation certificate is the only document in the building process that carries legal weight, and if something fails, it’s the occupation certificate that’s brought to the fore with responsibility levelled at the private certifier.
And aside from in Queensland, which has worked hard to reform its building legislation over the years, almost anybody can claim to be an engineer.
The other states and territories have meant to follow Queensland’s lead to reform legislation so that there’s a chain of responsibility when it comes to defective building products.
The building products reform proposals didn’t quite make it through the NSW parliament in 2017 because the cabinet was worried the regulation could slow down the construction business. The bill that made it though was gutted to the point of futility.
Other states and territories shied away from such reforms after the NSW experience.
Building ministers have now committed to the Building Confidence report, co-authored by Weir and Peter Shergold. This brings hope for the next crop of apartment buildings but there’s still the legacy stock to worry about.