Compliance inspections remain a challenge for the Australian construction industry, both in terms of delivery and compliance certification. Defect rates remain stubbornly high, and questions have been raised around the independence and expertise of building inspectors. While there is no easy fix, there are some ways to improve the situation.
To address chronic issues with non-compliant work, the Victorian Building Authority carries out random site inspections of projects across the state. The findings of the latest report for July–September 2020 show that out of 2,064 inspections, 26 percent had identifiable compliance risks.
Of those projects, a small percentage had examples of non-compliance that could pose a serious risk to the safety of occupants or the structural integrity of the building. Overall, the most common issues included non-compliance in timber framing systems, structural steel and reinforcing, slabs and footings, fire safety systems, waterproofing, and unreinforced brickwork.
Action taken by the VBA included directives to fix the defective work, and in rare cases, issuing a stop work order.
Similar enforcement is being undertaken in New South Wales. The Office of the NSW Building Commissioner is also carrying out random inspections resulting in notices to remedy, stop work orders, or bans on completion of sales contracts.
Proposals for Improving Compliance Oversight
Enhancing enforcement powers is one of the options on the table for a national approach to addressing the role of building compliance practitioners, such as building certifiers, building surveyors and building inspectors.
The Australian Building Codes Board (ABCB) has just released a discussion paper on the integrity of private building inspectors and their role in enforcement. It is seeking industry feedback on the options until April 26, 2021. Read the paper and have your say here.
One of the challenges the paper identifies is that the rules around who appoints the compliance practitioner and what powers they have varies between states and territories. The discussion paper’s recommendations aim to remove conflicts of interest whereby the builder, architect or other project delivery partner appoints the building surveyor or certifier.
The paper also addresses the quality and compliance dimension by providing enhanced supervisory powers and a requirement for mandatory reporting by compliance inspectors.
Potential Changes to Mandatory Inspections
The second set of proposals around mandatory inspections has also been developed, and the ABCB released a discussion paper for industry feedback at the end of 2020. It suggests a nationally harmonised model for mandatory inspections based on the complexity of the construction project.
The most rigorous inspection regime would apply to buildings like hospitals, aged care, and other developments housing a significant number of people who would require physical assistance to evacuate in the event of a fire.
Advice From a Building Surveyor
Regulatory changes are one part of the solution—the other is improving how builders manage quality and prepare for mandatory inspections.
Private building surveyor Tim O’Reilly, a member of the Australian Institute of Building Surveyors NSW Chapter Committee, says that based on his observations working in both the residential and commercial sectors, builders need to manage the regulatory components of their projects better.
“Builders who are thinking of issuing a certificate of compliance for their work are going to have to make dramatic changes before they can realistically contemplate saying the work they have managed or supervised is actually compliant,” he says.
Everyone Needs to Know the Code
O’Reilly says the builder generally relies on the building surveyor to undertake their quality assurance in relation to the work and documentation. Deficient knowledge of the building code requirements and relevant standards can be a contributing factor to this.
“More recently, especially in NSW where the Government is undertaking audits of partially completed building work, it has become apparent that a builder cannot rely on a licenced sub-trade as having a complete understanding of the Building Codes and Associated Australian Standard(s) under which they work.”
According to O’Reilly, this is not an area currently targeted by the various governments and broader industry bodies—so he does not expect it to change “any time soon.”
“This means to avoid unnecessary delays both at inspection stage and final documentation stage, the principal builder needs to have a total understanding of the statutory elements of all components within their building.
“Where a builder lacks a complete technical understanding of the component in question, the services of an expert should be engaged.”
How to Improve – and the Payoff of Doing So
“Ultimately, time is money, and unnecessary delays cost time,” O’Reilly says. “Relying on a building surveyor to check compliance of completed works or quality control certificates that the builder has not vetted causes delays.”
He says it would be easier—and less time-consuming—for the builder to implement quality assurance of sub-trade work as soon as it is completed and before the following trades cover it.
“This does not mean simply obtaining a single paragraph compliance statement that makes some vague reference to the ‘relevant BCA Clause and necessary Australian Standard’ as is all too often the case.”
Other practices builders can implement include improving how the site is managed and reviewing the parameters of any proprietary products used. O’Reilly also recommends obtaining Inspection and Test Plans (ITPs). This involves undertaking quality control checks, including contractual test and hold processes, and vetting the certificates before they are submitted to the building surveyor for final review.
“Ideally, to make the project easier for all involved, a building surveyor should be there for a final check (of each critical stage) only, to pick the few items that may have been overlooked.”