NEWS FROM THE FRONT DESK: At The Fifth Estate it’s true we’re still floating on a load of adrenaline and good vibes from Urban Greening last Thursday

But we’re not the only ones riffing on good and vibrant optimism. It’s coming in waves, from all around, but not gently. More like rolling stones, gathering pace and strength, finally knocking out the dead weights that have been blocking our paths for so long. And yes, it’s a glorious feeling.

There’s a few colourful resignations, some sackings and dramatic reversals of dogged positions that point to something like the end times for a load of rubbish and obfuscations that have prevented sustainability and climate progress for so long.

David Chandler speaks out

Ask the still incumbent NSW Building Commissioner David Chandler.

There was a national outcry at the news just over a week ago that he had resigned.

So many people not just in NSW but around the country were watching, waiting, hoping for success in this state that might encourage them to try to gain a little uplift of their own.

His social media, he told us on Wednesday, “went mad”. 

Understandably. We took calls and inquiries as well; even though it’s many moons since he wrote for our pages, so piercingly, however, he got picked for the job to put into action what he called for in his articles.

In this industry, it’s been not unusual to build a block of apartments where the bathrooms came with no or incomplete waterproofing membranes. 

david chandler
David Chandler

We’ve mentioned before the well-known architect who observed this in the site next door. Sure enough, within two weeks of people moving in, they were moving out again while the bathrooms were rebuilt. Oh, there was also the list circulating Sydney of the private certifiers who gave a discount if they didn’t have to visit the site.

Again, where are the normal laws that deal with products needing to be fit for purpose? Nowhere near our most important and valuable assets, whether we own or rent them.

The lawyers don’t mind. Chandler told The Fifth Estate of a case where they charged an owners corporation $420,000 to win a court case, only to see the developer/builder walk away and set up a new phoenix company the next day. Another charged the owners more than $700,000 without even going to court. His argument is to spend that money on fixing the problem. But it’s tough and complex.

That’s true. 

What’s not true, Chandler makes clear, is that he won’t win this game, that the ingrained culture is too strong, too wayward to be cleaned up. That he was pushed out by forces bigger than him.

Surely the pressure behind the scenes must have been immense. But anyone who knows Chandler would find he’s a bit of an immovable boulder himself, and he says he now has a strong and talented team that thinks it’s well capable of rolling through the intransigence.

In a conversation on Wednesday, Chandler assures us he intends to be around for a long while, in one form or another. For a start, he’s officially in the job until 30 November. 

Unofficially, do we really think this man who cares so much about his reputation and legacy intends to simply walk away? Would he really take off  for a ski trip to Whistler or onto the yacht to sunbake for the next 20 years?

Nope. 

He tells us he’s helped craft a phenomenal team and a set of tools including plans, powers and evidence that is unearthing all sorts of interesting material that will help shape shift the industry itself.

Sure there will be disgruntled developers, builders and private certifiers, but the sense of support and urgings for him to continue is pretty hard to refute.

But the evidence, he says, is the office – with its support networks – is increasingly taking on the role of guide and mentor to improve development rather than mean enforcer. Which is probably the best of all possible outcomes.

Among the many tools he’s created is the ability to check if a design is up to scratch  before construction starts.

The result, says Chandler, is that the “new style of the Commissioner is to mentor and coach”. 

For instance, the audit program of declared design has resulted in just one of 33 buildings submitted under the scheme ending in a stop work order – a project at Merrylands. The problem? Water again. The issue of falls to the drainage diagram in the architect’s drawings said “refer to the structural engineer”, the structural engineer’s drawings said “refer to the hydraulic engineer”, which then pointed back to the architect’s drawings.

In the end, a solvable problem, much less disruptive and costly than a retrofit.

In NSW, he says there is likely to be more than 14,000 starts on apartments next year. By the end of this year, he expects to have covered 9000 of them under the new provisions around design standards. 

“So now we’ve turned the regulator from being reactive to being proactive.”

“My focus now is to look at a number of things: the rollout of Project Remediate.” This is about cladding removal and that alone is revealing more complexity than many lay people might have imagined. Strip back the cladding and sadly you will probably find more issues.

Chandler says he needs to “get some messaging out there” to say how much more complex the job might be than to satisfy a fire order by taking a cladding skin off and replacing it.

Such as finding no insulation or sarking. The problem is that paying for expensive scaffolding to do the initial job is not something you want to repeat to fix the other issues.

Who pays for all this work? 

The owners, sadly. 

“They have to borrow and pay for it”. Chandler’s advice is to cut the huge sums being paid to lawyers and simply get on with the inevitable.

He’s looking to prevent such problems in the future, but the past remains a legacy to be borne by those who were duped (our wording, not his).

Thankfully the call for taking these standards nationally is growing – especially from developers, who point to the difficulty of working across state and territory boundaries with different sets of rules, so he’s finally willing to drop his previous reluctance to think of the bigger national picture (which he always refused to discuss in his early days as Commissioner). 

“So, I will turn my mind to harmonisation,” he said on Wednesday.

It’s a magic word, and another long held mantra of developers.

More change on the way

There’s so much more widely entrenched rubbish being bulldozed out of the way. Such as the “truism” that the walls of Warragamba Dam in Sydney to be raised to protect people from flooding. 

  • No. The real reason is so that some people can build more dangerous homes in dangerous places for people who can’t afford anything else.
sydney dam
Warragamba dam, Sydney

Such as that the resilience planning policy for NSW (the Design and Place SEPP) that was ditched by incoming NSW planning minister Anthony Roberts was derided by all developers. 

  • No. It turns out it had strong support – even among developers! But especially those who aspire to do better, and especially once the concept was explained, and they stopped listening to the blatherings of the blatheratti. 

Such as that we can afford to continue to ignore resilience and keep using natural resources to build our cities as if these will never run out.

  • No. The supply chain disruption of the Ukraine War and covid proved these things are not unlimited. For example, who knew that 60 per cent of our laminated veneer lumber came from Russia? Or that Lendlease couldn’t complete a building until it found another source of Russian aluminium for its windows? And let’s not get started on China and what disruptions might occur when that pile of kindling catches fire.

Such as that the Coalition will fight to the death to stop climate action. 

  • No. it turns out they rolled over the minute the Greens said they would support the government’s climate target, if you believe that other pile of something else, The Australian. 

An extraordinary headline late Wednesday read  “Coalition to ‘absolutely’ shift position on emissions target”  quoting foreign affairs spokesman Simon Birmingham saying that “the Coalition would “absolutely” pitch at the next election a mid-term emissions reduction target more robust than its previous 26-28 per cent.

“I want to see as much emissions reductions as possible without jeopardising jobs or the economy,” Senator Birmingham told Sky News.

It’s enough to make you giddy.

And who knows what’s next out of that conundrum… but we live in hope and open our arms to all comers.

But there is more.

For instance the furphy that there is absolutely nothing we can do about shoddy building work and that the Dodgy Brothers always win.

You know how it works: you take the builder/developer to court for not producing the thing you paid for and watch them phoenix the company the very next day and start another one. 

Unbelievable? It should be. But in this country a company is recognised as an “entity”, whatever that means, and has the right to shapeshift as it sees fit.

It’s pretty hard for a person to don a new hairdo and say they are now someone else entirely (although some of us may have tried) and that they should definitely not be held to account for the serious damage and theft they perpetrated the day before. 

In what world?

This world. 

A national occurrence. And a national disgrace.

Where are the Feds when we need them?

Turns out they are tapping their foot, waiting to be brought to living breathing life form. Well some of them anyway.

You may recall we said a short while back that there was a good case to mount for the Feds to step in to protect its citizens from harm when the states fail to do so.

In the case of the property and development industry it’s a scandal that the state governments almost everywhere defer to the obfuscation of lobbyists and industry groups on behalf of their members at the expense of everyone else. Case in point: the resilience SEPP.

Case in point: the way poor construction and development falls on the shoulders of the poor mugs who believed the glossy brochure. All protected by the state governments – in most places – which refused to change the rules to stop the practice. You can get more consumer protection for your toaster than you can for your home.

But maybe not any more.

Maybe now the cloud of anger that probably started with the #MeToo movement and just didn’t know when to stop, is finally reaching the deep dark caverns of an established industry that goes back to the Rum Rebellion in Sydney, the LandBoomers in Melbourne and probably serfdom everywhere else.

Senators want the feds to intervene on building quality

According to newly elected Senator David Shoebridge, moving up from the NSW state parliament, time could well be up.

Right now we have the strange situation that we have a national building code that informs the national standards of our buildings but it’s up to the states what they do with it. Including its enforcement and let’s be clear, that is a very patchy piece of work indeed. Especially when it comes to sustainability standards.

David Shoebridge

It’s pretty obvious really, Shoebridge told The Fifth Estate late Wednesday. 

His experience at the state level has convinced him there is a place for the Commonwealth to act, he said.

“Because in any view of it, the states and territories have comprehensively failed to impose standards and I find it makes little sense to have a national building code, which can be undermined by the refusal to police and regulate it at state and territory level. 

“Safe houses should be a Commonwealth responsibility.”

Watch for some interesting action brewing away between Shoebridge and his fellow Greens senators on this front.

The litany of issues and wrecked lives when things go wrong is obscene. We are not saying it’s through “all developments”; we are not saying it’s “all developers” but when the system fails, it’s catastrophic for individuals and for families.

We don’t have to live like that.

With David Shoebridge on board and The Greens thankfully attuned to the social as well as the environmental angle of sustainability, it could well be that some cracks will finally appear, not in the faulty towers ordinary people are saddled with – but at last in the impenetrable fort that for centuries has protected the worst of the elements entrusted to deliver our most important physical asset, our homes.

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  1. While you are at it you might like to comment on the state of the real estate industry which promotes shiny houses with almost no disclosure obligations. The poor punters who attend an auction can turn up with their building and pest reports costing each punter hundreds of dollars. The reports are often prepared by people who have little or no expertise and are devoted mostly to disclaimers and other avoidance of liability. I have seen some that are ridiculous. Even geotechnical reports which have some expertise behind them, can be less than useful. When I raised this with fair trading they said they were not involved in real estate. I could not convince them that the reports are not real estate; they are a consumer product that should be regulated. There is a clear solution but the vested interests don’t want it and the punters are only occasionally interested and basically voiceless.
    Having spent hundreds of dollars on a succession of properties only to not win at auction a lot of buyers avoid the expense of an inspection.