The Grenfell Enquiry has brought to light some damning revelations that building product suppliers:
- knowingly sold combustible external wall claddings as being safe when they knew that the products were unsafe and not fit for purpose
- altered and misrepresented technical reports that contributed to cladding promoted as safe when it wasn’t
The question we have been asked is what lesson can Australian building regulators learn from these revelations?
The community’s dismay is understandable, but the revelations will come as no surprise to many of us who work in the field of building control and regulation.
Deceptive and misleading reports are far from surprising, but they’ve become more important as the building industry moves from inherent robustness of concrete and masonry construction to more less costly forms that have proliferated in recent years. For instance, steel work used in conjunction with lightweight construction materials such as plasterboards and vermiculites have shown to be highly problematic but are now commonplace.
Unfortunately, designers often specify these products in the same way they have historically specified concrete and masonry although the proper installation of these products are far from traditional construction practices.
The Grenfell inquiry has brought poor choices of products to light in terms that can be easily understood by the media and the community.
There are many areas of commonality between building regulation control between Australia and UK and therefore, there is every reason to believe that what is being experienced in the UK could mirror our situation.
Governments are well aware of the issues although they are struggling to identify solutions that can be applied uniformly across state and territory borders.
Being able to trust the supply chain is crucial for regulators; experienced practitioners know which suppliers can be trusted to provide compliant products although these struggle to sell quality products when in many cases price is the only criteria for selection.
New suppliers and products are constantly entering the market.
With these new players, practitioners often ask for the actual test reports that underpin the product brochures but are often told these are “commercial in confidence” and in some cases edited so only those parts that support the promotional brochures are released.
Photocopies of photocopies of the original documents often result in some level of distortion and present the unscrupulous with opportunities to doctor words.
This makes it difficult for practitioners to establish if tests are forged or genuine and there is no requirement for test reports to be lodged in a central register, for instance, where they can be verified.
It’s not uncommon for importers of overseas products to be asked, “what is it that we want the test reports to say?”
Government should form a central register of all products proposed for use in buildings, where there is no right to commercial in confidence, and full transcripts can be downloaded to registered practitioners.
Regulators have partly gone down this pathway by introducing a product accreditation system known as Code Mark, which is based on a commercial model and accepted by the Building Code of Australia as evidence of compliance.
This system was well intentioned but suffered severe credibility issues when Code Mark certificates were withdrawn in relation to some external cladding systems, creating a liability dilemma for practitioners who relied on them.
Unfortunately, in NSW, only the private certifier issuing the construction certificate receives statutory protection when relying on Code Mark Certificates. All other parties including fire safety engineers, builders and developers rely on them at their own peril.
It is unknown if principle certifier statutory protection remains in place when the Code Mark certificates are withdrawn.
The mere fact that this needs to be considered should be of concern to all.
One of the consequences has been that many practitioners now think twice before relying on the certificates, particularly in regard to the tenuous nature of the professional indemnity market.
However, under the design and construct delivery model usually the cheapest price prevails and lightweight systems that provide faster and cheaper construction costs seem here to stay.
With the proliferation of prefabrication in conjunction with the financial benefits of these systems, the reliance on third party certificates will proliferate as many systems are manufactured offshore and only the completed system can inspected.
Once a completed building is in situ, however, it is generally impossible for the building certifier to determine if a product is the same as in the test reports and third-party certifications without requiring full demolition.
This means regulators have no choice other than to rely on third party certificates from contractors who trade under the protection of a $2 company and are not required to be accredited or registered.
There are numerous other flaws with this system, but those problems are too widespread to detail in this article.
However, one thing seems certain and that is that the legally meaningless third-party certificates will continue to underpin the certification system into the foreseeable future.
Russell Grove, director, Building & Fire Surveying Consultants Pty Ltd
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