The percentage of waste on all construction projects is around 30 per cent, according to experts, and a major contributor is the poor quality and non-compliant construction products and materials plaguing the industry.
The Australasian Procurement and Construction Council, together with industry groups, has put this issue in the spotlight, believing that this level of waste is environmentally and financially unsustainable.
The waste factor, an issue in all sectors from commercial to residential, is also an issue post-construction, with failure of parts in buildings requiring at best extensive re-work, and at worst posing a risk to the safety of building users, such as recent examples of major freeway signs collapsing and the collapse of an inner-urban multi-level car park.
In a first step towards assisting developers, builders and designers to avoid the pitfalls in procurement, a working group – including the Australian Construction Industry Forum, Master Builders Association, the Australian Institute of Architects, Housing Industry Association, Australian Building Codes Board, and other key industry associations from across the materials and products sector – has developed a best practice guide, Procurement of Construction Products – a guide to achieving compliance. It was released last month by the APCC.
In its introduction to the guide the APCC states that evidence gathered from industry suggests that the market penetration on non-conforming products in several key product sectors is close to 50 per cent.
The guide is a working document that will continue to add more product sectors as the information is developed. Currently, it sets out methodologies for assessing and verifying products are fit for purpose in terms of reinforcing and structural steel, cementitious materials for concrete, wood products, glazing products, electrical products, fire safety services, plumbing products and insulation.
Many of these are products that directly impact on whether a building will be certified by the development approval authority as fit for use, and some, such as electrical and fire safety products, have major implications for user safety as the recent Integrity Cables product recall demonstrated.
Huge implications for sustainability
Jane Montgomery-Hribar, director strategic projects for the APCC, said the issue of non-compliant products had enormous sustainability implications.
“Waste is a huge factor, not just in terms of procurement, but through the whole life of the building,” Ms Montgomery-Hribar told The Fifth Estate.
“We expect buildings to last for a minimum of 50 years, so we are talking about sustainable outcomes and the durability of that asset. If it starts to fail, the environmental outcomes are enormous.”
She said the whole cycle of non-compliant products becoming waste, and going to landfill, and then needing to be replaced again, was unsustainable both environmentally and financially, describing it as in many cases leading to a ‘domino effect’ of rework and increasing waste and costs.
“[The guide] is a wake-up call; people need to stop and pay attention to this.”
The guide has four basic premises – that non-compliant products are an issue, pose a significant risk, affect everything including safety and the environment, and that there is, ultimately, something developers, builders, asset managers, designers and subtrades can do about it.
“It’s not fool proof, there is a lot of fraud going on [in terms of compliance documentation]. I have seen some of it, and it’s very convincing,” Ms Montgomery-Hribar said.
“It’s not only imported product [either]. It doesn’t matter where it’s produced, we’re getting dodgy product manufactured here in Australia also. It’s [happening] all over the world.”
She said there were a variety of reasons products may be non-compliant or not fit-for-purpose, ranging from the manufacturer lacking skills or experience, or having flaws in their own procurement in terms of raw materials sourcing, and sometimes they simply weren’t attempting to meet the appropriate standards in order to achieve a low-cost product.
The major issue with construction products is that so much is not visible to the eye of the user or building certifier.
“You can normally tell with a pair of shoes, for example, if they are cheap and poorly made and going to fall apart, but you can’t always tell with a construction product. And it might tick all the right boxes [in terms of valid paperwork] and then in-situ it fails.”
Ms Montgomery-Hribar said it was worth anyone working on procurement to make a phone call to check the validity of paperwork for key products. The guide details the appropriate bodies to contact for many product areas, and what to look for in terms of standards and certifications.
It also sets out decision trees for procurement that apply to both the design and specification stage and the on-site construction stage.
“I wanted to put down at the end, ‘If in doubt, throw it out or send it back,’” Ms Mortgomery-Hribar said.
“The domino effect
“We are very fortunate in Australia we have not had [more] major injuries or fatalities.”
She said the working group had wanted to put some case studies into the guide, but that as most of these involve matters were currently in litigation, no details could be made public about particular projects, manufacturers and products involved.
This makes it more difficult, she said, for those developing procurement plans to know which products pose the greatest risk.
Ultimately, the project sponsor has to be the starting point for good procurement, she said, developing a procurement model and strategy that will minimise risk and maximise outcomes.
As part of that, having a lifecycle analysis of products is of major assistance, as this then ticks the financial and environmental sustainability boxes and gives greater assurance that the product will not fall short on compliance and performance.
Peter Barda, chief executive of the Australian Construction Industry Forum, said that clients – such as developers – needed to be paying attention to product compliance at “the front end”.
“That’s the end where it’s cheapest and easiest to fix. As you go along, if you find the procurement methodology was wrong, or the construction methodology was wrong, or the design specifications were wrong, it gets more expensive to fix,” he told The Fifth Estate.
A client’s procurement strategy also needs to include the procurement of subcontractors, and Mr Barda said the aspect of building a solid, collaborative team at the outset, which involves the client, the designer, the builder and the consultants, was essential.
Clients also needed to be “really clear about what there need is with building or refurbishing an asset, and this holds true for any asset, from a home to a hospital”.
“Hasten slowly, listen to the experts and be clear about the scope, and also be realistic about what you’ve got to pay to get what you want,” Mr Barda said.
He noted that pursuing a race-to-the-bottom on price as a procurement strategy “flies in the face of the old maxim that ‘you get what you pay for’.”
Kristen Brookfield, HIA senior executive director building, development and environment said that product compliance is as important for sustainability as it is for the quality of the building itself. The bottom line is, non-compliant products that result in the need for re-work either during or after construction are resources going to waste.
“Sustainability is as important as the structural solidity of the building,” she told The Fifth Estate.
Ms Brookfield pointed out that ultimately, it is the builder and the certifying surveyor who shoulder the responsibility for poor procurement outcomes, and of the two, it is generally the builder who has to draw on their insurance to make good.
Surveyors and certifiers do have a degree of obligation and responsibility to ensure that each stage of the build is fit-for-purpose and compliant with the relevant building code and other mandatory standards. However, there is no state that carries out post-occupancy surveys, she said.
This leaves the builder the “last man standing” if product failure occurs during the defects liability period, and beyond that, it leaves the asset owners and end users potentially without legal recourse, as the recent case involving Brookfield Multiplex and a residential development in Queensland showed.