Building procurement has changed, and not for the better, in three broad ways: last week we looked at how project managers (PMs) took over the process from architects, next week we will look at how approvals and codes have become far more complex and vexatious; and today we will examine how the quality of building construction itself has deteriorated.

Parallel to the four-decade rise of the PM have been changes in the way buildings are built.  The ‘craftsmen’ of the nineteenth century; the stonemasons, bricklayers, carpenters and joiners who could undertake very complex and detailed work gradually became uneconomic as modern architecture demanded ‘factory-made’ repetition.  By the 1960’s the craftsmen became ‘tradesmen’ (always men), but they were then supplanted by ‘subcontractors’, (working to a head contractor not a builder). 

Take a door for example. A craftsman can make an oversized panelled door from solid timber, set in a special hand rebated frame with elaborate architraves, using specialist hinges. A tradesperson carpenter/joiner, with years of experience after TAFE trade training can fit a ‘solid core’ door in a custom-made frame, with flushline rebated hinges, to eliminate architraves for minimalist detailing.

Now a semi-skilled sub-contractor installs the doors in most project homes, the door having already been hinged and rebated into a frame, then a different sub-contractor installs the architrave, and yet another installs the skirting. The costs go down, but so does the quality. Now no-one is taking responsibility for the ease of swing or the correct undercut. It is the inexorable decline of the ‘chippie’.  

Another example that architects know well: you need to build some elaborate brickwork so you search for a ‘brickie’ over the age of 50 because so few young people taking up the trade - it’s much more physically demanding than IT. Those who do take up the trade quickly find they don’t need to complete a TAFE course to be laying veneer walls to houses. No longer a brickie - a specialised tradesperson’s nickname – they’ve become ‘subbies’.

So, we may summarise the decline in construction skills as: “once were crafts, then were tradies, now are subbies”. 

Little-by-little, the attention to detail has declined and the quality suffered, and this loss has a direct impact on long-term maintenance, the cost of repairs, possibilities for reuse or recycling of materials and ultimately the lifespan of the building; all impinging on a building’s sustainability.

The decline in diversity and quality of building skills in Australia can be pinned to two factors: falling apprenticeship rates, egged on by the erosion of TAFE training. Surprisingly this dumbing down was accelerated under the last federal Labor government, supposedly the workers’ friend but led by the muddled middle-class Julia Gillard. It became far worse under the more recent LNP troika whose mantra for market-based solutions is totally ill-suited to training.

Ironically, this dumbing down of skills comes at the time that buildings have become far more complex. Increased code compliance, wider choice of materials, more complicated designs and greater performance demands all require better coordination and sophistication. The response however has been to further compartmentalise work on site: the building process itself has become more episodic and individualised, with each trade isolated.

The result is that most workers on sites now have little to no trade training, only ‘on-the-job’ experience, and that is limited to only one aspect of the complex process. The final build quality is almost entirely dependent on the expertise of the site manager (the humble ‘foreman’ has been re-badged as a manager). They too have little trade experience, often being graduates of university building management courses, they are well paid on large sites, but often suffer under extreme stress.

So, we may summarise the process-driven obsessions on construction sites now as being: “all quality assurance, with lesser quality”.

A few spectacular structural cracks in apartment buildings have garnered hot attention but are not the key issue here: the number of affected apartments is exceedingly small (if greatly distressing for those owners). Moreover, it is the poor quality of finish in most apartments (and mass-built houses), where waterproof failure is rife for instance, that is the unaddressed issue.  

These issues are highlighted in apartment buildings because rectification can become very complex once the building is strata divided and sold. Almost ten years ago research by the City Futures Lab at UNSW examined the rise in complaints by strata-title owners in NSW, and the problems of increased litigation against the builders; the report can be found here.

The response then, as it is now to the recent spate of building failures that have gained wide publicity, has been to blame the certification system. This is also the misguided approach being taken in the NSW Building Practitioners Bill, which we have examined in the Architecture & Design newsletter here.

The argument goes that increased regulation by certifiers can address the problem, but the role of certifiers is limited to ‘compliance’, not quality. A fire door can be badly painted, leading to poorly poured concrete stairs, with rusting handrails, but if it has a certificate, it complies.

To suggest that certifiers can become replacements for the long-gone clerk of works, who ensured quality assurance in the 1960’s and 70’s, is fanciful. The recent ructions have increased insurance premiums to the point that almost one third of A1 certifiers in NSW (the highest level) have handed back their accreditation. The current public fracas is making things worse, not better.

Lastly, who’d be a builder? Competition in building tenders is fierce. Highly efficient project house builders undercut each other in a desperate fight for work, forcing subcontractors to work for below-award wages, or go bust.

Builders of larger buildings are under enormous pressure to cut costs, often by using untested or falsely certified products. Hence buildings have plasterboard with asbestos, or non-conforming external cladding.

Increased regulation is not the answer. We changed the building process over the last 50 years to concentrate almost solely on costs, seeing buildings as ‘commodities’ with limited lifespans along the way. To reverse that direction and concentrate on quality is a massive task. But one we must start on now.

Tone Wheeler is principal architect at Environa Studio, Adjunct Professor at UNSW and is President of the Australian Architecture Association. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and are not held or endorsed by A+D, the AAA or UNSW. Comments can be addressed to [email protected].