Building regulators, owners and contractors have been grappling with persistent issues around quality in construction. We asked industry experts what is going wrong, and how builders and trades can start to raise the bar.
Problems including non-compliance with codes and defective workmanship have eroded consumer trust in the construction industry, according to the Shergold and Weir Review. Its 2018 final report entitled Building Confidence has become a roadmap for industry reform.
What Makes a Trustworthy Building?
The NSW Government has described the goal as the delivery of “trustworthy buildings.”
According to Martin Loosemore, Professor of Construction Management at the University of Technology Sydney, “Trustworthy buildings come down to trustworthy practice.” He believes that the increasing fragmentation of the industry leads to the inability to achieve trustworthiness.
Parts of the construction process keep getting broken down into smaller and smaller areas of practice. The primary driver behind this trend, however, is not achieving high quality, but saving money.
The fragmentation of trades, for example, carpentry, into separate trade subcontractors for cabinets, architraves, framing, or soffits also means that there is sometimes under-investment in training required for apprentices in terms of producing high-quality work.
Time Pressures Play a Role
Time is another key pressure, with many contract models passing risk down the supply chain to the smallest trade subcontractors. Those subcontractors are under competitive pressure to do things as quickly as possible for the lowest price.
“Organisations are [becoming] so small and lean, and they don’t have the time to invest in training,” Loosemore explains. “And there is often no need for a company to invest in a full apprenticeship because the work is so specialised.”
More integrity is needed to improve quality. That includes integrity around how negotiations are done and how contractors relate to and engage with those on site, for instance, subcontractors.
Lack of Building Code Knowledge an Issue
Failure to achieve compliance with the provisions of the National Construction Code (NCC) is a quality issue that has affected the reputation of the industry, as the Shergold and Wier report made clear.
CEO of the Australian Building Codes Board Neil Savery says some of the responses the ABCB is developing in response to the report’s recommendations would be relevant for builders and trades looking to improve their practice.
The ABCB also has a library of resources that builders and trades can access for particular subjects relating to NCC compliance.
“We are [also] gradually expanding our enhanced education program, that in the first instances is developing CPD (Continuing Professional Development) modules to improve practitioner awareness and understanding of how to use the NCC.”
Quality is More Than Minimum Compliance
There is an implicit belief in documents like the Shergold/Weir report and subsequent announcements that complying with the NCC will make a building fit for purpose. However, this is not always the case.
“The NCC was designed to ensure minimum standards of performance for structures and fire safety. It does not effectively address other important characteristics of a building, such as the durability and quality of components and finishes,” says Geoff Hanmer, Managing Director of Architectural Practice ARINA and Adjunct Professor of Architecture at the University of Adelaide. Hanmer is a recognised expert in building quality and construction regulations.
Waterproofing Issues – An Example of Quality Failure
One of the most common defects identified by Deakin University researchers—waterproofing issues—serves as a good example of failure to achieve quality. Hanmer explains that reasons for defective waterproofing can include the watering down of membrane products, an inspection regime that only looks at wet areas once tiles are in place over the top of the waterproofing, or design flaws, such as falls, being inadequate.
Another cause of defects is practitioners not reading the NCC, or not reading the Australian Standards referenced in the NCC, such as AS/NZ 3740, the Standard for internal waterproofing.
“Buildings should last a long time, and consumers expect them to be durable over a long period. But the NCC has no requirements for durability,” Hanmer says.
This is one of the things builders need to start aiming for—using durable products and systems so that houses and apartments will last 40 years or more without major maintenance. Hanmer also cautions against new products, suggesting decisions shouldn’t be based on first cost alone.
“Make sure any product being used is properly tested and has a valid certificate that it will perform for an appropriate period of time.”
The Need to Have ‘Eyes on the Site’
Supervision by the contractor and project management team matters, too.
Hanmer says there need to be “eyes on the site, people who are trained to know when they need to go to the site to check things [such as waterproofing] and know what to look for when they get there.”
Make Sure Everyone Has Understanding
As construction projects often involve a multilingual workforce, Hanmer highlights the importance of ensuring applicable Standards, procedures and manufacturers instructions have been properly understood. Often these documents are available in English only, and this can be problematic. That’s why it’s crucial to provide all the necessary information in community languages, which some suppliers now do.
Training can be another weak point. In many states, bricklayers, tilers, waterproofers, painters and carpenters may not have completed an apprenticeship, and may not have the depth of skill to achieve high quality, durable workmanship.
“We need to reform the industry so more people have the training and any leading hand or supervisor is required to be trained,” says Hanmer.