In the wake of London’s Grenfell Tower tragedy, product conformity has quite literally become a matter of life and death. A panel of industry experts will come together at DesignBUILD 2018 to discuss this issue as well as, following the Lacrosse fire here in 2014, what the building industry and government regulators should be doing now in Australia, including suggested changes to state legislation and the National Construction Code.
The panel’s facilitator, Rodger Hills, executive officer of the Building Products Innovation Council, says an almost perfect storm of conditions have allowed unsafe non-compliant and non-conforming products to enter the building supply chain.
“In Australia, as elsewhere, successive governments have stepped back on policing their own building regulations – leading to unsafe, unhealthy and poor-quality buildings,” Hills says.
A combination of unregulated online international marketplaces, cost-cutting, ignorance of code and variation requirements and flawed chains of certification only makes matters worse. Add to that a lack of independent regulatory oversight and weak penalties for those who knowingly flout codes.
“Each of these issues is cause for concern. Combined, they have created an impoverished building control system that barely deserves the title,” Hills says.
“It has taken the tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire in London to galvanise into action the building authorities half a world away in Australia, despite a similar cladding fire – thankfully with no loss of life – occurring in Melbourne in 2014 at the Lacrosse apartments.”
He is concerned that building audits in the wake of these incidents place unfair responsibility and financial burden on owners rather than contractors, a problem aggravated by unduly short “claims windows”.
“Even the Lacrosse building has been ruled safe for reoccupation by Melbourne’s city council and the unfortunate Lacrosse unit owners are facing around $15m to remediate their non-compliant cladding – that’s approximately $50,000 per apartment,” Hills says.
Worryingly, he says: “Cladding issues are just the tip of a much bigger systemic building compliance failure.”
“What about unsafe structural steel, dangerous wiring, asbestos-contaminated products, faulty glazing, substandard waterproofing, mould outbreaks and all the rest? We are suffering from a deluge of junk building products.”
Hills points out that, in just a single case, substandard glass at 50 Collins Street, Melbourne, is estimated to have cost $18m to rectify.
Hills will be joined on the DesignBUILD panel by Norman Faifer of the Australian Construction Industry Forum, David Baggs from Global GreenTag and University of Melbourne researcher Dr Paul Kremer.
These experts recommend a number of changes to state building regulations and the National Construction Code. Queensland is leading the way with legislative changes that are likely to be adopted by other states, says Kremer.
“Product conformity is now being forced into a situation that the entire supply chain (from
manufacturer to builder) form part of an imposed ‘chain of responsibility’,” Kremer says.
“Once adopted nationally, these amendments will form the basis of a new paradigm for all in the supply chain, from the specification of product to the supply and installation of conforming product.
“Regulators are now clamping down on product already installed and newly specified product, including the importation of product. I predict that importation will be the next battlefront, in that importers will need to declare product compliance as part of a customs declaration.”
Hills sees practitioners, professional associations and government working together on a solution. This could be aided by transparent guidelines for consumers and building owners, similar to the NABERS environmental rating.
Hills would like regulatory changes to mandate that manufacturers and suppliers have independently audited quality assurance systems (including random product audits) in place, as well as the creation of an Electronic Building Passport to capture electronically all documentation for the life of every new building.
“Large fines for non-conforming and non-compliant products could pay for the cost of random product audits, testing and enforcement,” he says.
The DesignBUILD panel, ‘Product Conformity: Now a Matter of Life and Death?’, will take place on Thursday 3rd May at 11am, at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre.