Interview with Steven Nakhla - SJN Building Consultants

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 construction 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.

Steven Nakhla-SJN Building Consultants

What is your area of expertise?

I am a general building consultant, a licenced builder and teach the Diploma of Building Studies at TAFE NSW.

How long have you been involved in the construction industry?

15 years

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

3 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?

There is a lack of training for builders and a skill shortage in the trades. With the competitive nature of tendering i.e. 'the cheapest price always wins', there is no incentive to slow down and do formal quality control inspections. There is a lot of 'greed' and 'rush', with developers and builders taking shortcuts to finish a job quickly and at a lower cost.

This means that there is no time to do quality inspections in between each trade and too much temptation for builders to manipulate design to get the job done cheaper and quicker.

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?

There is a need to remove, or at least reduce, the number of private colleges which have sprung up to 'train' and qualify builders. There needs to be a higher level of control over what is being taught, and a higher level of training on the job under qualified supervisors.

To obtain your builders licence in New South Wales, you need a Diploma in Building Studies and work for two years under supervision.

The problem is, who are you being supervised by and what course are you doing? A number of the courses offered in NSW are now condensed into a couple of weekends to make them more attractive, and, if you are supervised by a builder who does not know how to do it properly, you will pick up the same mistakes and the cycle will continue. Builder after builder will pick up incorrect techniques and defects will continue to rise.

There needs to be decent courses offered, via TAFE, colleges or universities who take responsibility for the qualification. There also needs to be supervision by someone who is qualified for a decent length of time. I have seen too many times, a site supervisor who is trying to 'supervise' up to 30 housing sites at once. There is just no time for this supervisor to even get to 10 sites, let alone 30 sites and have time to inspect the work properly.

With the lack of education, is it a surprise that builders can't navigate their way through the BCA?

What about the BCA itself In your opinion, is there any shortfalls in the BCA?

There is not much wrong with the BCA itself, it just needs to be taught as a part of the building courses and building licence requirements.

Quite simply, the BCA is not presently used by builders. As a builder, you learn from people above you as an apprentice, you do what they do and if your supervisor does not know what is right and wrong, how could you possibly know.

To acquire the Australian Standards, it is expensive. They are unaffordable and most builders struggle to afford them so how are they supposed to follow them if they can't even buy them. All Australian Standards should be free and public knowledge. Some currently cost over $250 and there are over 50 of them referenced in the NCC.

What, in your opinion, can be done to improve the increasing numbers of defects arising out of construction work in the residential sector?

There should be hold point inspections throughout the construction verified by an independent body who is not paid by the builder. If there was verification of works at various hold points during construction, for example in between each trade, by an independent quality control body, builders would learn on the job, reducing the need for rectification of defects after the job is finished.

I also believe owner/builder licences should be removed altogether with more stringent builders licence qualifications. There needs to be ongoing testing of builders, not just the CPD requirements.

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

There is always a way to fix defects, and there is an obligation to determine a reasonable way to fix defects with minimal invasive works and there are many different methods of remedial work that can achieve results. You just need the best building consultant who can provide you with as many options as possible.

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

I once had a renovated home where they had concealed an entire asbestos roof inside a new ceiling space just by framing over it. This was a matter where a pre-purchase building inspector had missed the defect during his inspection and the client bought the home unaware of the major defect.

Any closing comments?

I think the construction boom that has just ended will force those'dodgy' builders out of the game. There will only be room for good builders who have kept clean and do a good job. The boom has given rise to more defects, too many jobs were done too quickly. There has been an unhealthy competition in the industry where builders want to give the cheapest price for the fastest job without building a quality building. You need to be pro-active with front end inspections, if you wait until after the fact, complex problems arise.

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.