An overhaul of NSW’s building certification process is on the way as the state government responds to a damning independent review of the Building Professionals Act 2005(BP Act).
Penned by former treasury secretary Michael Lambert and released as a publicly accessible draft in August last year, the near 400-page document assesses the effectiveness of the NSW’s building regulation and certification system, including all of its planning and building controls, compliance and record keeping processes, and the role of Fair Trading and the Home Building Act in the licensing and oversight of builders and other building trades.
Among the many goals of the review was to assess the cause of building defects in the state, which according to the report is significant and higher in incidence in NSW than in the balance of Australia.
The review lead to an alarming number of issues associated with fire safety certification and review for NSW buildings, which Lambert stopped short of suggesting is a total shambles.
“Fire safety is a paramount concern in building regulation and there is clear evidence that the current system of checking to ensure the proper design, installation and maintenance of fire safety systems is not working,” says Lambert’s draft report, available from the Building Professionals Board website.
“Indeed the design of the current regulatory system is quite inadequate and is not capable of delivering on its objective of the assurance of having in place effective fire safety systems.”
A 2012 fire in a Bankstown apartment block led to the death of student Connie Zhang. The building was found to be riddled with certification problems. Photography by George Voulgaropoulos/Torch Publishing
PROBLEMS: SELF-CERTIFICATION & ALTERNATIVE SOLUTIONS PATHWAYS
As it stands, a Construction Certificate (CC) or Complying Development Certificate (CDC) will be issued in NSW based on building plans which can include statements of intent to building systems and elements such as fire safety systems.
The problem is that once construction starts a certifier is permitted to assess these systems by drawing on certification from “suitable persons”. According to the report, these suitable persons are, in practice, unsuitable as they are unaccredited and typically the ones constructing/installing the fire safety system.
“What happens in practice is that those responsible for the design, installation, commissioning and maintenance of the fire safety system certify their work, so that what is in place is a form of self-certification but with the person doing the certification not being accredited and hence not able to be relied on by the building certifier,” says the report.
“This means that the certifier cannot legally rely on the certification and Fire and Rescue NSW (FRNSW) has no assurance that fire safety certification has any validity.”
The report also outlined issues with the alternative solutions provision in the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act for when it comes to reviewing alternative solutions for fire safety systems.
Currently, FRNSW is required by law to review these alternative solutions, but Lambert suggests they are ill-equipped to do so.
“FRNSW does not have the resources or expertise to assess the alternative solution designs and performance assessment reports and then develop a fire safety report for all notified alternative solutions,” he says.
“The area design and performance assessment of alternative fire safety solutions is highly technical and requires a qualified and experienced fire engineer to undertake the role.”
Lambert concludes by explaining that there is clear evidence that the current system of checking to ensure the proper design, installation and maintenance of fire safety systems is not working.
Here’s an excerpt:
The current system imposes a prime responsibility on FRNSW in regard to assessing the fire protection systems for Class 1b-9 buildings in regard to alternative solutions and there is not an adequate system of review of fire protection systems for other complex buildings. The prime responsibility for review of fire safety systems should rest on suitably qualified and experienced accredited certifiers, with FRNSW able to rely on this system and undertake targeted risk based assessments.
NEW LEGISLATION, PROPOSED REFORMS
Lambert’s report lists a number of reforms to the fire safety regulation and certification system which the state government now says it will consider as part of new legislation to be introduced to Parliament next year:
- Those designing, installing, commissioning and maintaining fire safety systems must be accredited and required to certify their work according to accreditation schemes developed by the relevant professional associations
- Alternative solutions for fire safety be assessed by a Peer Review panel assessment
- Incorporate the International Fire Engineering Guidelines or an alternative equivalent requirement as a mandatory referenced document for the purposes of pursuing an alternative solution for fire safety systems
- Provide access to FRNSW to all information on all alternative solutions for fire safety systems through the local government portal
- Amend the EP&A Regulation to remove the requirement for FRNSW to produce an initial (Clause 144) and final (Clause 152) fire safety report