Interview with Allan Harriman - BCA Logic

Over the coming weeks, I will be releasing a six part article series. The articles will document my discussions with building consultants who are in the know when it comes to the current state of the NSW construction industry and the high percentage of properties which are found to contain building defects arising from original building works.

These experts will give their perspective on the current situation, the failings, the positives and their views as to what can be done to implement change and help builders, developers and consumers alike.

Presently, in place is the National Construction Code (NCC), implemented with a goal of achieving a 'nationally consistent, minimum necessary standard of relevant safety (including structural safety and safety from fire), health, amenity and sustainability objectives efficiently'.

There is apparent work to be done to achieve the goals of the NCC.

Allan Harriman

What is your area of expertise?

Building Regulations and Fire Safety Engineering.

How long have you been involved in the construction industry?

35 years.

How long have you been providing expert witness reports in building claims?

Since about 2007, 12 years.

With the NCC in place, in your opinion, why do you think there is still such a high rate of defective work arising out of residential construction in NSW?

In respect of fire safety, there is a vast array of products and building techniques.

For example, if we look at gas pipes and the combinations of outcomes. There are two types of pipe (copper and PEX), 10 common wall types, 3 FRL's and 5 manufacturers with approximately 3 products each. This means that for a humble gas pipe, there is almost a thousand combinations to achieve a proper installation of gas pipes available.

Combine this with other services such as water, NBN, PVC pipes and electrical cables, the recent increase in the number of wall types and new fire rated products to treat penetrations there are thousands of combinations and nearly as many test reports to consider when inspecting penetrations.

How do you think education could be improved for builders? Do you think it is a failure at the supervision level or are there other factors at play?

For sub-contractors, the technical courses do not teach fire sealing. There is no formal training available in this area which is a major shortfall.

Other factors at play are that the supplier's product brochures, do not tell the whole story. You need to read the test reports to check that the system is appropriate for the application. Sometimes getting the manufacturers to release these test reports may be difficult.

There is now only one home owners warranty insurer, perhaps if the insurer looked at all of the defects and determined the areas where most defects arise (at present waterproofing) and put the premiums into running educational short courses for builders on particular issues, such as waterproofing and fire, the incidence of defects may be lessened.

What needs to happen to make it work?

The best way is to have a design for the solution of the penetration prior to starting construction.

The design process needs to include test reports to ensure compatibility of the penetration as opposed to the substrate. Very few are designing this properly and the failure is that after a penetration is put in, and someone comes along and says seal it, it is too late. You cannot fix a penetration properly at this point, it needs to be done in the design phase.

If the sub-contractors are trained properly and are given the test reports before they start the work and have a proper design, it will work. When we are engaged prior to commencement of construction, we ensure a sample installation is constructed on site and to which the sub-contractors can keep going back to check when progressing through the construction of the building.

Job specific training is the answer as every site is different. Different products, different design, different solutions. It comes down to better design and more information shown in plans and specifications.

There are concerns about the whole 'design and construct' process.

How creative can you be coming up with a reasonable alternative solution to rectifying a defect without ripping everything apart and starting again?

It is difficult. Getting a test report is a test of a performance of a product in a wall of a particular service.

If you have a builder smash a hole in a wall, you can't just fix the hole, as installation and tolerances for fire safety measures are critical. You need precise measurements. Test reports are the ultimate test of performance so it is not always possible to do a 'quick fix'.

The majority of alternative solutions, involve applying an additional layer of a product that is a 'tested system' e.g. fire rated board, so that you can treat penetrations properly through that additional layer.

Out of interest, what is the worst or most unusual defect you have seen in your time reporting as an expert on building defects?

The scariest is having pipes going through a wall with 2 or 3 bricks missing at each penetration and this being repeated throughout a whole building.

I was involved in a strata site comprising 472 units. Upon inspection, there was no evidence of fire rated products on any of the services through the walls, which meant for the purposes of fire, all units were interconnected.

This was a home owners warranty insurance claim where the 'fire safety' defects were notified outside the two year statutory warranty period and accordingly, insurance was denied and the owners of the strata units wore the cost of rectification. In this case, it was estimated that the builder saved $350,000.00 during construction on fire safety, but, cost the strata owners $6 million to re-instate after the fact.

For further information please contact:

Helen Kowal, Partner
Phone: +61 2 9777 8321

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.