UPDATED: 7 September 2019: Standards for Australia’s construction industry should be free to access to help combat poor building quality, many people think. Right now it’s like getting a licence and they having to pay heaps to find out the road rules. Wait… is this unconstitutional? One comment since we first posted suggests it’s worth checking out.
For years, experts have said that cost and lack of access to the hundreds of standards contained in Australia’s National Construction Code has been a problem.
Many of those standards refer to many other standards, and each one costs hundreds of dollars to access, says executive director of the Australian Construction Industry Forum (ACIF) James Cameron.
It would “definitely be helpful” for compliance if standards were more freely available, he told The Fifth Estate.
For example, the Design for Access and Mobility (AS1428) set of standards is referenced by the NCC but is also widely referenced by the wider community. But it costs $628, far beyond the reach of someone wanting to ensure their premises provide compliant access to people with a disability,” said Mr Cameron.
Small- and medium-sized companies are particularly disadvantaged. Some industry associations, such as ACIF member Master Electricians Australia, license key standards to provide them to their members. But many tradespeople and professionals working for small- and medium-sized businesses don’t access all of the referenced standards because of the cumulative cost, he said.
He said a different funding model could reduce the costs. Preferably, accessing the standards would be free.
When the National Construction Code was made free, he said, the take up increased ten-fold.
“This is a win for practitioners in the industry, and the well-being of the Australian public.”
The time is right to rethink the issue. The monopoly held by SAI Global on the publication and distribution of Australian Standards ended earlier this year, and stakeholders have been asked how they would like to access the standards.
To date, standards have only been available as paper documents or non-searchable PDFs purchased from SAI Global but in May, Standards Australia announced a new distribution agreement with digital firm Techstreet.
Techstreet will become an additional distributor of Standards Australia’s content, and users will be able to access it along with other material, including ISO and IEC manuals, through a webstore and subscription service to Techstreet Enterprise, Techstreet’s standards management platform.
Whether this will make standards more affordable remains to be seen.
Jeroen Prinsen, VP and head of Australasia and South East Asia for Clarivate Analytics, which owns Techstreet, declined to name a ballpark price for the products. But he said customers would be able to purchase single standard documents and that there would be discounts on the retail price for large-volume orders.
“There are also different models for subscription, taking into account locations and concurrent users,” he said.
“People want to have choices and now have an opportunity which was not available to them before.”
The partnership is likely to grow the company’s Australian business.
“For our Techstreet business in particular, before the agreement with Standards Australia, we were only able to support International Standards needs for customers in Australia. The agreement now allows organisations in Australia access to alternate solutions for their Australian standards and compliance needs.”
The case for providing access to standards at the lowest cost possible is clear: it will improve compliance.
For example, members of the Australian Institute of Architects (AIA) can access the 250-odd standards most relevant for project design as part of their membership subscription to the organisation.
However, for smaller studios or solo architects, the cost of AIA membership and of purchasing access to standards is prohibitive, according to Warwick Mihaly, director of ArchiTeam, a collective supporting small practices and solo practitioners.
He told The Fifth Estate that his organisation tried to negotiate with SAI Global to obtain a subscription for its members, but said SAI Global would not quote on the cost.
Mr Mihaly said the costs are a “very large hurdle” for small practices.
Some people rely on their building surveyor to confirm compliance with the relevant standards, but that comes with risks if the surveyor doesn’t know about changes or updates to standards.
Practitioners who can’t easily access standards are more likely to follow a Deemed To Satisfy pathway, rather than a Performance pathway. The latter requires extensive access to standards to develop and validate innovative design solutions.
Following a Deemed To Satisfy path inhibits innovation, Mr Mihaly explained. For example, in the case of residential projects, that pathway will likely result in buildings that comply with the lowest legal level of performance – one that fails to take into account thermal comfort, energy efficiency and the building’s carbon footprint.
Fundamentally, having to pay to access mandatory standards is like being given a driver’s licence but having to pay to access the details of each road rule
“If you can’t have access to the standards, you can’t disrupt them … the standards themselves were [the result of] a disruption, such as having a renewable energy storage battery in a house.”
Fundamentally, having to pay to access mandatory standards is like being given a driver’s licence but having to pay to access the details of each road rule.
The government should not be forcing people to pay to get access to the law, said Mr Mihaly.
An industry source in the construction space reiterated the barrier posed by the high price of standards for many small builders, trades and consultants.
Many people in the industry say the ideal situation would be to make the standards freely available but don’t feel confident it will happen any time soon.
Instead, we could see a marketplace where the various standards distributors still keep the cost of individual standards high to maintain their bottom-line.
Some sectors of the industry have been lobbying for Standards Australia to maintain a centralised hub for purchasing of standards and for dealing with user complaints and other issues, which is supplier neutral, the source said.
They would also like to see Standards Australia establish a process for dealing with matters around distributor pricing and changes to pricing, as well as fail-safes to prevent distributors from carving up or dominating the market.
Expensive standards are also a problem for consumers, according to another industry source.
“Consider the legal liability around purchasing a strata apartment for example. A consumer is legally expected to have done due diligence ahead of purchase, which includes accessing any relevant and available standards.
“With literally hundreds of standards applicable to a typical building construction, how can a purchaser possibly afford to check? Yet if they don’t check … [a later] dispute may not be resolved in their favour.”
Standards Australia has said it will submit feedback from its consultation process around standards distribution to its members and councillors in November, and is aiming to implement them in January, next year.