Interview with Tadd Walford, Partridge, Structural Engineer

Over the past eight months, I have released a series of articles. This article is 'part 6' of a six-part series and will be followed by my '2019 wrap-up'.

The series documents 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 have given 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. Since the commencement of this series, the Building Commissioner has been appointed who will hopefully take the industry a step in the right direction.

Tadd Walford – Partridge

What is your area of expertise?

Structural Engineer

How long have you been involved in the construction industry?

Approximately 15 years

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

About 7 years, and shadowing and supporting other experts prior to that.

How are building defects categorised and/or what is the split between defective works caused by design shortcomings and those originating from defective workmanship?

In our experience, genuine design related flaws/defects only make up 25–30% of the claims we are involved in, with the majority of claims/cases associated with waterproofing and/or cladding related defects.

The structural defects observed are typically associated with cracking in concrete, excessive deflections etc. and are not catastrophic in nature. We must also note that the defects discussed above are not necessarily widespread or endemic, however, are encountered regularly enough that questions need to be asked about how to address them.

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?

NSW is a very cost driven market.

Not all clients or sectors want to spend the money and therefore, are sometimes inclined to take the cheaper proposal. This can sometimes lead to the industry and/or contractors tailoring down their work with a price to suit the market.

As a result, innovation goes down, no-one is prepared to take risks and corners are cut to meet the budget expectations of the client.

Whilst the NCC is obviously nationwide, I believe NSW has more issues than most. When you look at other countries like the UK or New Zealand and what their consultants and contractors get paid, there appears to be a huge rate difference and/or recognition of the value of good professionals – this means there is less room to move in Australia particularly when clients are cost driven of have budgetary constraints.

Were any concerns addressed in the recent changes to the NCC released in May 2019?

In my opinion, no changes were made to the NCC that are obviously going to address the immediate concerns in the construction industry.

Legislative reform is going to have more of an impact rather than the code itself and hopefully we will see this soon.

What are your concerns with respect to the increase in defects?

With any increase in defects, the flow on effect of this is that insurance costs/premiums will increase.

This impacts everyone as the budget expectations for projects etc. do not move with the expense structures of all of the trades and professionals involved.

One of my biggest concerns is that there are people out there that are not providing the same level of service as we try to do at Partridge and they are pricing accordingly. We lose a lot of work because we are competing with those who are not adhering to the standard of design/documentation we believe that they should be, which is why they are able to price the job at a lower level.

This will eventually have an adverse effect on everyone with the insurance costs skyrocketing to counteract all of the claims being made when a job is not done properly.

Hopefully reform will address this, and a new professional registration process may assist.

You have to ask whether the traditional certifying authority is working? Are they unbiased and completely separate from the process?

Developers are able to choose their certifier. This obviously drives a market where, if certifiers know they are going to get future work from that developer they may, perhaps not intentionally, be more relaxed with compliance issues or willing to assist in getting things across the line. For example, a developer may go to a particular certifier because they know they will be able to get certain things through that they would not achieve, or would have difficulties achieving, if they went with a different certifier.

In one particular case I have been involved in recently, when going over the site inspection records/notes, we noted that there were conflicts in dates of inspections and dates in certificates under the Final Occupation certificate. There are obviously discrepancies and checks not being done properly.

What needs to be done to fix the industry?

While the certification process is the way it is, it will cause issues. There needs to be reform.

A reform of the certification process will assist along with a registration requirement for certifiers and engineers.

I don't think we need to go down same route as Victoria where everything is peer reviewed as this system makes things unaffordable for smaller jobs and will either drive prices up or the profitability of jobs down further, resulting in more shortcuts etc.

Across the board regulatory controls will help. There is a recognition system in United Kingdom which takes into account the level of experience as well as education, etc. Whereas, in Australia, you can attain the highest level of registration in Australia by doing a series of essays/written responses and an interview rather than hands on practical experience and a peer review system.

Along with a university degree, 12 weeks work experience will qualify you to be a practising engineer – there is more that could be done.

In a structural sense, engineers working in the residential space will obviously vary from the level of expertise required for engineers working solely in industrial buildings or bridges etc. and in this regard, the registration requirements for industrial buildings or bridges may potentially need to be different than in the residential/low-rise building sector.

Licencing and registration means accountability. Things without a licence requirement attached to it – means that people can walk away, unlike a builder. A builder's licence means there is some accountability.

With the appointment of the Building Commissioner, if supported, he will most definitely have time during his appointment to make changes. However, he needs to be supported by engineers, certifiers, etc. and the industry as a whole in order to be effective in his role.

What are your thoughts on education and courses available at the moment?

For structural engineers coming out of university with a degree, I definitely think on the job training and experience is where you learn the most valuable lessons. You get training on job/industry specific things which is an obvious advantage over a broad education stream.

In my opinion, courses for engineers about risk and liability are not sufficiently covered in either an undergraduate or post-graduate stream. This is something you learn on the job and quite often, we have to use Court decisions as a yard stick to determine how to handle something. This is not ideal.

This is similar for builders. On the job experience and supervision are key.

How creative can you be in your area of expertise with rectification scopes? Is it possible to come up with a unique solution that will solve the problem, reduce potential rectification costs for a builder and achieve the results the consumer is looking for?

This depends on a number of things. If you are referencing an Opal Tower type issue, that is, a number of issues that have contributed to a bigger issue, once people are living there, it is almost impossible to fix things in an appropriate way without incurring significant costs.

For structural design issues (rather than a builder's defect), if you fix it up at the 'design' phase, you may be talking a couple of hundred dollars extra in the budget, if you don't discover it until construction is under way you could be up for thousand or tens of thousands, however, if the building is built you could be talking hundreds of thousands, or even millions of dollars.

There are obvious time and cost delays to the project to conduct a peer review at the design phase. However, early intervention could save millions of dollars and save impacting hundreds of lives later on.

An early peer review system may be one way of getting rid of the adversarial vibe amongst people and a wider spread adoption of that may make the process smoother or more frequent. The American Society of Civil Engineers have issued a practice note that addresses this directly and outlines the expected outcomes of peer reviews etc. and/or the suggested process to use when reviewing others work and we tend to refer to this a lot when carrying out our own reviews.

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 had a recent case in the Tribunal involving a plastic formwork wall system. The contractor had obviously run out of concrete at the top of the wall and when he backfilled the wall some gravel made its way into the top 100mm of the wall/formwork. The builder neglected to remove the gravel from the wall before pouring the next slab, so when the concrete was poured, it covered up the gravel and it consequently now forms part of the wall.

This was a residence with 1 ½ floors above and a retaining wall below, obviously not good from a structural point of view.

One of the arguments from the other side that nothing had failed (as yet) and the engineer inspection certificate said it was ok (presumably because an inspection was carried out prior to pour of the wall and also just before the pour of the slab over when things would have been largely concealed).

The Court system, comments about the process...

It is not always what is right or wrong, it is what you can prove. This is the underlying principle of the Court system, which sometimes gets in the way of justice.

Helen has a legal career spanning over 25 years and has for the past decade specialised in building, construction, strata and property law working in jurisdictions with a particular interest in trying to prevent problems before they occur and thinking outside the square to achieve solutions to meet the needs of her clients. Helen has recently joined Swaab as a Partner in the Property, Planning and Projects team.

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