Cladding on fire, high rise with cracks: What’s next for building industry regulation?

Since the Grenfell Tower tragedy, defects in high rise residential buildings have grabbed headlines, concerned the public and drawn the attention of regulators. While fire spread strikes a particular fear, the threat of structural failure has also captivated us, with the evacuation of a residential high rise building unprecedented in our industry.

It was in 2017 in the wake of Grenfell, that the Buildings Ministers Forum commissioned a report on the compliance and enforcement systems for the building and construction industry: “Building Confidence: Improving the effectiveness of compliance and enforcement systems for the building and construction industry across Australia”. 

The report’s authors, Professor Peter Shergold and Bronwyn Weir released their findings in February 2018, among them that greater focus is required to enhance public trust through improvements in areas such as:

  • roles, responsibilities and accountabilities of parties
  • education and training
  • licensing and accreditation
  • quality and assurance
  • inspection regimes
  • auditing and enforcement practices.

The report provided 24 recommendations and we have highlighted a few of the recommendations below:

  • introducing a nationally consistent registration system for certain categories of building practitioners and compulsory Continuing Professional Development
  • increased levels of prescribed requirements for the registration of building practitioners
  • creating a central database in each jurisdiction to provide information on regulatory activities and to make the work of the BMF accessible by the owners or purchasers of buildings
  • imposing a duty on design practitioners to prepare documentation to demonstrate that the proposed building will comply with the NCC, including an independent third party review
  • maintaining a comprehensive digital building manual for Commercial buildings to be passed on to successive owners.

A year on and the NSW Government has responded to the report stating that the following major reforms will be implemented:

  • appointment of a Building Commissioner
  • an overhaul of compliance reporting
  • implementation of a registration scheme for building practitioners with reporting obligations 
  • ensuring that there is an industry wide duty of care to homeowners.

With the response expressed at the level of aspirational goals, an extensive period of industry and community stakeholder consultation is expected.

It was a busy month for report releases in NSW as February 2019 also saw the release of the Opal Tower Final Report commissioned by the NSW Minister for Planning. The Terms of Reference for the report included not only to identify the cause of the damage but also to make recommendations for the avoidance of this type of damage in future. 

On the cause of the damage, the report found the as-constructed hob beam/panel assembly was under designed according to the NCC and the Australian Standard for Concrete Structures (AS3600). The report also noted a number of construction and material deficiencies.

In addressing how to avoid this type of incident in the future, the report recommended:

  • the creation of a government Registered Engineers database developed in partnership with an appropriate professional body.
  • independent third party checking and certification of engineering designs and subsequent changes to the design of critical elements by a Registered Engineer, including confirmation of what are the critical elements for all major construction projects.
  • critical stage, on-site checking and certification by a Registered Engineer that construction is as per the design for all major construction projects. All changes to identified critical structural elements that are proposed and made during construction should also be certified by an independent Registered Engineer.
  • an online database be created, where all certifications may be viewed by a broad range of stakeholders including owners and prospective owners; before, during and after construction. The aim is to increase transparency of the approval and certification process.
  • a Building Structure Review Board be formed, with the major purpose being to establish and publish the facts relating to structural damage of buildings arising from design and construction, investigate their causes and to recommend changes to Codes and Regulations where appropriate.

These recommendations focus on increased regulation of the structural design and certification process. Whilst they focus on one (albeit one fundamental) aspect of the design and construction process they are consistent with and in some instances endorse and develop the Shergold Weir recommendations.

We await with interest what form these reforms shall take and the detail of how they will be effected.

This publication does not deal with every important topic or change in law and is not intended to be relied upon as a substitute for legal or other advice that may be relevant to the reader's specific circumstances. If you have found this publication of interest and would like to know more or wish to obtain legal advice relevant to your circumstances please contact one of the named individuals listed.