The Australian Institute of Architects (AIA) has made a lengthy submission to the Senate Economics Reference Committee into Non-Conforming Building Materials over the role architects play in specifying complying building materials in the construction sector.

According to the AIA, “the increasing presence of non-conforming products and materials is a matter of great concern to members of the Institute, while the use of non-conforming building products raises some very complicated issues, and dealing with it requires a multi-faceted approach, with public safety coming first and foremost, even if this comes with increased and more stringent regulation for the building industry.

The AIA told the senate hearing that currently there is an immediate need to introduce a rolling nation-wide audit of existing buildings for all non-conforming building products - and by that it meant not only cladding, although cladding did feature prominently in this proposal.

The range of available construction materials and products has expanded considerably says the AIA, with an enormous array of materials coming from international manufacturers, meaning any person can import construction products and materials, and many of these would not understand the Australian Standards nor the implications of using the material inappropriately.

There are also no effective measures to prevent the sale of non-conforming building products in Australia says the AIA, adding that, “Buildings must be functional, safe, and economical and must suit the needs of the people who use them.”

Of major concern, says the Institute, is the lack of in-depth knowledge of some builders and trades of the National Construction Code and Australian standards.

At the same time, it says, it is difficult for anyone in the building process, including architects who are specifying products, to be certain that they comply with the various standards. Fraudulent documents abound.

Architects have also reported that relying on the supplier or agent to supply the appropriate information and documentation can be difficult.

This calls into question any auditing process, an issue that was reported recently by Architecture & Design.

Put simply, when audits of non-complying building materials are carried out, the results are not only point to failure, but also, they are very much hard to fix in a post-build scenario.

For example, in February 2016 the Victorian Building Authority (VBA) completed a cladding audit - claimed to be the only comprehensive audit that’s been done in Australia that found that out of a total of 170 buildings surveyed, 85, or exactly half, had non-compliant cladding.

The VBA, along with the Melbourne City Council have said that there are still 41 structures under investigation, with 17 buildings still being worked on by the City of Melbourne.

Meanwhile in NSW, there have been claims that up to 2500 buildings could be clad in potentially dangerous materials, although the real figure is unknown.

According to the NSW minister for planning and housing, Anthony Roberts, “NSW has been active at the national level working with other States and Territories and the Australian Building Codes Board to develop proposals to strengthen regulation to minimise the risk of using building products that do not comply with required standards.”

However, says the AIA, there needs to be a concerted national approach, which means there is plenty more that needs to be done.

In that respect, the Institute went on to tell the senate inquiry that the development of new schemes within a framework that included an overall certification system by government and industry is needed.

These schemes could include:

  • Third-party certification from testing laboratories accredited by NATA
  • Mandating imported and local manufactured cladding to obtain a third-party certification 
  • Certification schemes under one umbrella to ensure minimum standards are upheld
  • Valid third-party certification for a nominated period
  • A national register of approved products with respect to each building class
  • Substantial fines for substitution of compliant with non-compliant building products
  • The use of appropriate expertise throughout all stages of the design and construction
  • process with special provisions for authorisation of product substitution
  • Regulation to require minimum education about the National Construction Code and Australian standards by all building practitioners
  • Introducing national licensing for all building practitioners such as drafters, building designers, project managers etc.

The AIA has also received support from a range of Australian building industry bodies over the past few months in their push for national regulations.

For example, the CEO of Fire Safety Australia (FSA), Scott Williams recently proposed that he would like to see a national register of complaint and non-compliant cladding – “a bit like what we do with medicines and the PBS,” Williams said.

“I’d like to see a national list or register of ‘fit for purpose’ cladding that will allow architects and designers, when they need to specify fire resistant cladding, to simply be able to refer to the register”.
Williams’ call has been echoed by the Australian Steel Institute (ASI), whose CEO Tony Dixon, called for an independent verification scheme for building products.

“While we recognise that it is extremely onerous to retro-check every component of a large building, there are practical ways of ensuring that building codes and regulations are honoured, such as independently assessed certification schemes for contractors or targeted assessment tools,” Dixon said. 

“With this approach, you are heading off issues long before they can become ‘life and limb’ risks,” he noted.

Along with the regulation of the materials and testing authorities, the AIA says that the regulation of building professionals, whether designers, draftspersons, certifiers, or project managers is essential to provide the community protection. 

“Regulation,” it told the senate, “is particularly important for project managers as they play a major role in the process and would provide that these professionals are educated to accredited standards, hold professional indemnity insurance, abide by a code of conduct, and undertake continuing professional development, thereby increasing quality outcomes and better mechanisms for consumer protection.”