Global reform

Following reviews of construction in high-rise residential buildings, the construction sector is facing major change with calls for a significant update of regulations. Hywel Davies reports

In response to the outcry over failings in tall buildings, government is set to introduce a Building Commissioner with responsibility for auditing workers in the industry. There will be greater protection for homeowners and owners’ organisations, to help them obtain compensation if builders or engineers have been negligent. The response has been described as the ‘biggest shake-up in building and construction laws in our… history.’

An independent report found that the ‘nature and extent of the problems [in the industry] are significant and concerning’, and ‘likely to undermine public trust in the health and safety of buildings if they are not addressed in a comprehensive manner’.

It calls for registration schemes for builders, surveyors, architects, engineers, designers, and building inspectors – and new mechanisms for training and licensing. The government proposals are intended to ensure that ‘people who work in the building and construction industry’ will have ‘to take responsibility for their work.’

The proposals are likely to mean ‘requiring designers to sign off on their designs, and builders to build their buildings in line with those designs.’ The proposed commissioner would have responsibility for enforcing the licensing scheme.

Other measures will give builders less control over the certifiers responsible for approving their work, and a bond defects scheme will make it easier for homeowners to remedy defective work.

The proposals are part of the state government of New South Wales’ response to a major review commissioned in August 2017 – and published in April 2018 – by the Building Ministers’ Forum, a collective of Australian state and territory ministers. Its report was the culmination of six months’ investigation by the chancellor of Western Sydney University, Peter Shergold, and lawyer Bronwyn Weir, who has many years’ experience of building regulations. Further responses will be delivered across Australia in the coming weeks.

The report was commissioned in reaction to a series of problems with tall residential buildings in Australia, including a fire in the Lacrosse Building in Melbourne. Since it was published, there have been highly publicised structural failures in the 36-storey Opal Tower, at Sydney Olympic Park. Significant cracks that developed in December 2018 have been attributed to design and construction failures. In early February, there was another high-rise fire in Melbourne, in a block of flats in Spencer Street.

Issues facing engineers and their associations across the world are very similar

Six days later, NSW fair trading minister Matt Kean released his response to the Shergold Weir report into compliance and enforcement in the Australian building industry. ‘When you buy a property in NSW, you have every right to expect that [it] is safe, structurally sound, and free from major defects. And, unfortunately, that is not always the case,’ said Kean.

He announced the state government would accept the ‘vast majority’ of the 24 recommendations in the Shergold Weir report, published just three weeks before Building a Safer Future, Dame Judith Hackitt’s review of building regulations and fire safety in England.

The two reports review building regulations in their respective countries and recommend reform. They are quite different, reflecting their respective terms of reference and context, and considerable differences between building regulations in the eight Australian jurisdictions and in England. However, the reports’ observations on building practices, culture and regulatory oversight are remarkably similar, and there is scope to learn from each other. Similarities include:

Support for performance/outcomes-based building standards. Both reports conclude that standards for building construction must allow innovation and use of new and emerging products and building methods. They also acknowledge that a performance- or outcomes-based model requires high levels of competency and transparency, which are lacking in current practices.

Architects and designers should be obliged to produce designs that show a proposed building will meet required safety standards. They should supply full evidence that relevant safety considerations have been addressed and managed, and that the building will comply with all relevant legislative requirements.

The role of building surveyors or control officers in both jurisdictions, and the need to avoid conflicts of interest and clients choosing their enforcement officials. Australia has four models across its eight jurisdictions but, where owners or builders can engage a private surveyor or local government to issue approvals, the process to be followed is essentially the same. There are similarities between Dame Judith’s model and those in Western Australia, South Australia and, to some extent, Tasmania.

Greater control over changes to approved designs. In particular, over changes to design in ‘design and construction’ models and during ‘value engineering’, with tighter control and full records of changes, which need to be enforced effectively. Linked to this is the need for:

Record keeping using digital records, to deliver and maintain key building design and safety information using new and emerging technologies (such as BIM) to give owners and safety managers access to all relevant information for the life of the building.

Competency of building practitioners, with both reports recommending improved competency of key practitioners so that performance/outcomes-based design and construction is delivered by those who demonstrate and evidence adequate qualifications and skills. The Shergold Weir report recommends a harmonised registration scheme for all eight Australian jurisdictions and compulsory professional development.

Comprehensive regulatory enforcement powers supported by meaningful penalties, to reward a compliance-based culture, with high-level coordination of relevant regulators – the ‘joint competent authority’ in Dame Judith’s scheme.

Both reports also address the role of fire authorities, maintenance of fire-safety systems during occupation, and building product safety and quality assurance.

The issues facing governments across the world, as well as professional engineers, are very similar as they strive to rebuild trust and confidence in their building and construction sectors. CIBSE is a global engineering body with members in the UK and Australia, so there is plenty of scope to work together to respond to the challenges our sector faces. While the exact destination may vary from state to state, the direction of travel is clear: regulatory change is coming, and we need to embrace it.

Hywel Davies is technical director at CIBSE