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Victoria’s regulatory system leaves home-buyers vulnerable, but the Government has an opportunity to raise the bar for builders.
Windows that barely open, no sound proofing, leaky ceilings and balconies – the list of faults we see in new buildings around Victoria could fill several articles.
These kinds of problems are common in the everyday construction of residential apartments, townhouses and homes. And it’s owners and the people living in the resulting low-quality housing who are suffering.
Poorly constructed homes are the unfortunate result of a regulatory system focused on minimum standards that is failing to protect end-users and leaving buyers vulnerable.
It is a system that undermines quality by having designs driven by minimum standards and little, if any, quality control during the construction phase.
This is because, despite what many in the industry may argue, regulatory compliance is not the same as quality compliance, or even (in many cases) the same as good practice.
But most of us would like our homes to not just meet minimum requirements, but also to be ‘high quality’.
For many of us, buying a newly built house is a unique lifetime investment. We should expect it to be well built and without problems for at least the next ten years. We should also feel protected by a legal system that works and help us. This just isn’t the case.
The Victorian Government, however, now has an opportunity to change the system and offer better protection for people buying new homes.
The Victorian Government’s Building Reform Expert Panel is reviewing the industry’s legislative framework at a broad level, and the process to enforce the application of the new National Construction Code in Victoria. It is vital they include quality and compliance assessment in this process.
Currently, ‘quality assessment’ often defaults to a ‘buyer-beware’ approach, with new home-owners left to detect problems when they move in. But buyers are often ill-equipped to judge the quality of their new building beyond its superficial outer layer of paint, carpets, and fixtures. This is acknowledged in the Government’s own building regulation impact statement.
And yet, it remains the buyer’s responsibility to list their home’s ‘defects’ after moving in. If they don’t, or can’t, see a fault, it won’t be addressed.
Even when faults are reported, the power imbalance between home-buyers and developers can make it difficult to have all problems identified and properly rectified – particularly for apartment-owners.
In theory, these faults should only be superficial, because a building’s structure is assessed throughout its construction. But, currently, Registered Building Surveyors only need to attend the construction site four times during construction, and are not always available when the works are progressing.
Therefore, even if a structural stage is ticked off as ‘compliant’, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it was completed to a satisfactory standard.
That’s because we have reached a stage in Victoria where buildings that comply with minimum regulatory standards can still fall below the standards expected by the community.
How did it come to this?
Part of the problem is that subcontractors, like plumbers or electricians, sign-off their own work. Often this is done with no consideration of the building as a whole. It means we end up with situations where, for example, kitchen pipes are located outside on the main façade of the building, rather than being inside as per the design.
This is still technically ‘compliant’, because the final approval is from the plumber, not the design team.
Pipes entering from the outside are potential sources of water leaks and fire penetration, and can undermine the ability of the building to retain heat or cooling. This can result in poorly designed and installed façade solutions that do not waterproof effectively. They also simply look bad.
While the builder’s representative and a builder’s surveyor oversee this process, the number of poor-quality outcomes in new buildings suggests this oversight isn’t working on every site.
When it comes to the overall building, the Registered Building Surveyor (RBS) is responsible for certifying that construction complies with the Building Code of Australia (BCA) and other relevant Australian Standards.
However, recent evidence suggests that surveyors aren’t sufficiently trained or experienced, are working under pressure, receiving low fees, and are insufficiently audited.
As a result, building inspections have often become a largely ‘tick-box’ affair, with inspectors inadequately briefed and not made aware of the design details.
Even when sub-contractors deliver a perfect service and the surveyor conducts a meticulous and thorough mandatory inspection, their roles are still limited to compliance with minimum requirements in the Building Act, Building Regulations, National Construction Codes and/or building permit.
And, in practice, this results in them only inspecting a narrow band of the quality spectrum, ‘ensuring key structural, safety and amenity matters are achieved’.
While ‘quality’ can be subjective, it is reasonable to expect a building to perform over time, be flexible to changing demands, and hold its aesthetic appeal. But the realities of tight margins and a sub-contractor workforce that prefers to quote on standardised building solutions (otherwise known as ‘‘deemed-to-satisfy’ solutions), means no one is focused on the actual quality of the building.
And this is all perfectly legal. These ‘bare minimum’ standards are all the legislation requires.
Separating compliance and quality
While there are steps buyers can take to protect themselves, ultimately legislative change is required to ensure everyone is better protected.
We made a series of recommendations in our submission to the Victorian Inquiry into Apartment Design Standards late last year. One of our recommendations was that construction companies need to have a system in place to protect consumers.
Another solution would be to put the responsibility for regulatory compliance back onto the builder. After all, the builder doesn’t actually build anything (that’s the sub-contractors, like concreters, carpenters and plumbers), but instead manages the trades and suppliers, while being responsible for safety.
This solution isn’t straight-forward, as many domestic house builders are small family businesses with limited capacity to take on new compliance roles. But if we could find a reasonable way for builders to monitor and document the build’s compliance (ideally as a condition of maintaining their license), building surveyors would then be free to consult on overall quality.
This would shift the surveyor’s role to one of quality assurance, away from their current role (which is more akin to compliance officer).
Compliance simply means that the design and the works comply with codes and regulations, while quality assurance includes all the other design requirements to achieve the levels of quality expected by the owners.
A change like this would mirror the UK, where the regulatory system distinguishes between responsibilities for building compliance and for quality assurance. It would also honour the original intention of building regulation, which was to ensure the safety and wellbeing of occupants.
Unfortunately, quality assurance in the Victorian building industry has been replaced with minimum regulatory compliance. Sometimes even those minimum standards aren’t met and, when they are, they often fall short of community expectations.
The Building Reform Expert Panel has the rare opportunity to propose recommendations to lift these standards across the industry in Victoria. Doing so would protect hundreds of thousands of home buyers both now, and into the future.
Learn more about Infrastructure research.
By Dr Paulo Vaz-Serra and Dr Andrew Martel, University of Melbourne
Banner: Getty Images
First published on 16 November 2022.
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