carpenter jesus building industry

The fear of being found out for providing substandard buildings is about zero, according to one of the leading commentators on the sectors. Maybe it’s time for builders to be held to the same standards as appliance manufacturers.

According to principal of Strategy. Policy. Research, Philip Harrington, it’s time to move from a faith-based building code to a fact-based one.

One of the big differences between a home and an appliance is that minimum energy performance standards of items such as microwaves or fridges are enforced, he told The Fifth Estate. If the ACCC suspects non-compliance,  it will investigate and throw the book at the problem firms.

LG, for example, has been tackled by the ACCC for misleading energy ratings on airconditioners and fridges and been forced to offer purchasers compensation.

Harrington says rumour has it that compliance in the appliance industry “went through the roof almost overnight” after the ACCC took action.

In the building industry, however, he says everyone knows the state building authorities are not doing audits for compliance.

“The fear of being found out is – realistically – zero. The regulators must do their job.”

He says while building regulators claim they don’t have the funding, it is their role under state legislation to enforce the National Construction Code (NCC).

He says it would not be necessary to audit every building – instead they could do one in a 1000, on the basis of intelligence.

Doing targeted compliance audits on the large volume builders would also be valuable, as it would give regulators “maximum leverage”.

Then when non-compliance is found “shout it from the rooftops” and name and shame – just as it is done when non-compliance is found on the part of an appliance manufacturer or auto manufacturer.

There needs to be an audit strategy that is “deliberately designed to make people shake in their boots a bit”.

How to change things long-term

That’s the short-term fix.

In the long-term Harrington says the findings of a research project he undertook for the CRC for Low Carbon Living, Best practice policy and regulation for low carbon outcomes in the built environment, released in May 2017, outline a set of recommendations for achieving a bigger shift in what is being done with the NCC.

Phillip Harrington, Strategy. Policy. Research; photo: Peter Mathew

Currently, the NCC specifies requirements for the performance of the design, not the building. The inherent problem with the NCC is that it’s design-based, not outcomes based, Harrington says.

“It is harder to verify the performance of a design in reality than a building.”

In the longer-term, we need to move towards a NABERS-style metric for all buildings, including homes, that captures real energy consumption data. This can then be used to demonstrate compliance.

Energy use data facilitates easy checking of compliance – just look at the bills, he says.

While there are variables in households around occupant habits and operating hours that NABERS can already deal with those complexities so it “is not beyond our wit to come up with rating tools and use them for compliance and for verifying above minimum [energy] ratings”.

It’s a big shift, he says, but there is a “strong conversation” happening in the industry around whole of house regulation and whole of house performance.

Whole of house means not only the building, but also the appliances, any solar PV – the lot.

Harrington says it is being considered for the 2022 NCC update.

In the longer term there simply needs to be transparency in terms of compliance.

There are also new technologies entering the market such as intelligent building management systems that can provide continuous commissioning of home energy systems and also provide ongoing verification of compliance.

What about existing buildings?

Harrington says there is another scope question for the NCC, and that is to do with existing buildings, and what happens after a building is completed.

There are many countries that have requirements for ongoing performance checking and maintenance of building systems.

“Continuous disclosure, reporting and ratings would be a clear market signal.”

Smart ways to show compliance

There’s greater scope in the future for smart ways to show compliance, Harrington says.

For example, builders could be using a smart phone to take photos of key stages, such as the installation of insulation. The photo is date stamped and GPS stamped.

These images could be submitted to regulators, enabling them to pick one in 100 to check for compliance.

“We can reduce the cost of sending people to sites [to inspect] by using smart technology.

“It is not a perfect audit system, but like any audit system it doesn’t have to be perfect.”

Product substitution

Harrington also has an idea of how to manage the problem of product substitution, by extending traceability.

A high-performance window frame or high-performance glazing pane, for example, could have a small barcode or symbol embedded in it that can be read by a smart phone and verify that what was specified in design is what has been delivered to site and installed.

This would be a very low cost measure.

“In supply chains we’ve increasingly got everything barcoded and recorded. If we can do that all the way to the wholesaler and retailer, why not to the building site?”

It would be a simple extension of quality assurance systems, Harrington says.

The idea of adding extra inspections to improve compliance comes back to “who’s going to do that?”

“It’s much more likely people will go for technology enabled systems.”

We need to design the code for compliance

The whole code needs in the long term to be “designed for compliance”.

Currently, “it is a faith-based system”.

As part of shifting to a fact-based system, blower door testing would be a good move.

While many have suggested this would be costly, Harrington says most other countries already do this, so there is no reason to think it will be more costly here in Australia.

Another easily implementable test to show thermal performance.

As most new buildings are now fitted with heat pumps, a thermal test could be conducted before occupancy by cooling down or heating up the inside of the building and then measuring how long it takes to return to the ambient temperature of the outside of the building.

He says there would need to be a standard developed for how to conduct the test, and research by an organisation such as CSIRO into the methodology.

As a controlled experiment, the test would give a result unique to the finished quality of a property it was conducted on.

It could be done at very low cost on every building, and could be made a standard requirement in the code.

The benefit for the occupier or buyer could be a certificate that shows the dwelling passed the test, and this would be a “positive quality mark of compliance”.

Smart meters are another way energy use can be verified, and most solar PV systems now have an IP address that gives real-time energy performance information.

The technology exists now

“All the technology exists; we just don’t use it for compliance purposes,” Harrington says.

He believes some of these new approaches are likely to find favour with the industry.

One of the issues with the code as it stands is its complexity, because there is so much flexibility in terms of approaches to achieving minimum standards based on design. That makes it hard to audit.

“But ‘as built’ is after the fact, and cuts through the complexity.”

Effectively the regulators would be saying, “We don’t care how you got there [to meet standards] because the onus would be on proving a building has.”

Harrington says taking cars as an example, buyers know they can trust a safety rating because it is not based on analysing design – the testers literally take cars and crash them.

“It is hard to crash buildings, but you can measure performance.”

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  1. There is a better way to deal with the use of non-compliant products and that is to ensure that all products are tested and certified by a recognised Autralian Testing Authority before they are allowed on to the Australain market. The products could be regulary tested by the likes of the CSIRO or SAI Global. The NCC, or more specifically the BCA, does not need to be changed.
    Adding any type of inspection of a building during or post construction will drive the price of building and living up.
    At this point in time there are more important issues in the construction industry that need to be addressed that could affect life safety. Nobody has ever died from a house that is not energy efficient.

  2. Fifth Estate Harrington is on the mark. There is a bit more involved, but his thinking is timely. If the construction industry thinks these solutions are not going to happen, they need to have a better look around. This industry will be a different ball game by 2025.