Why are so many of today’s buildings poor in design and construction? Recent columns have argued that building procurement has changed, and not for the better.
Firstly, we looked at project managers, with pitiful knowledge of design and a desire only for value engineering (it is neither); weasel words as code for cost cutting.
The second instalment looked at how the training and quality of building workers has degraded from craftsmen to tradies to subbies (lackeys was one unkind suggestion).
This last of three instalments looks at the role that architects play in the process; and how a shadow falls between design and execution of a building.
Increasingly what's drawn on paper bears little resemblance to what is built. This is often attributed to increasing difficulties in compliance with planning and building codes. A case study on apartment buildings in NSW will help explain the complexities of current process and practice.
50 years ago, planning and building approval for blocks of flats could be obtained in a single application. Planning considerations were simple, but lead to unfortunate outcomes such blocks of flats on main roads, or 8 storey blocks next door to a single storey house.
If the planning was simple, building design was simpler. Ordinance 70 (the building code) required minimum considerations, construction techniques were limited, and the outcomes had cookie cutter sameness.
Apartments in all directions with no consideration of sunlight. Naturally ventilated and no AC. A single lift and a fire stair. An internal carpeted corridor. No underground car parking, cars visible from the street. Rooftop unused except for a lift overrun (later colonised by mobile phone towers). Small, simple balconies with balustrades of steel uprights or glass to 2’10”.
Construction was simple, concrete floors on exposed brickwork, minimum transfer floors. Single glazed windows in thin aluminium sections with no wind ratings. Not coated or annealed or laminated. Vermiculite ceilings. Small rooms with simple internal fit outs: kitchens in particleboard and laminate.
The building was ungainly, if not ugly, and you got that guaranteed outcome, whether or not the architect continued to be involved; because the building was so simple, straightforward and rational no changes needed to be made.
Compare that to recent apartment buildings in Sydney, designed to comply with the National Construction Code for building; and the State Environmental Planning Policy 65 (SEPP 65) and its addendum technical controls, the Apartment Design Guide (ADG) for planning. Only registered architects can design them. They are no longer ‘flats’.
The ADG code is extraordinarily complex with detailed design requirements for FSR, height, setbacks, materials, acoustics, energy, water and thermal requirements. It’s unnecessary complexity, inherent contradictions, fallacies and outright stupidities will be the subject of a future column.
Suffice it to say that the planning rules are so complex and contested in Development Applications (DA) that owners allow one to two years to get a relatively simple apartment block approved by local council, but it is only the beginning of the process.
The approval represents a virtual desire, often intended to have high quality to meet the codes. It is then dumbed down to an ordinary version in death by thousand cuts. Literally.
The first changes are cuts by the owners or project managers in the name of value engineering (see here). It is further dumbed down when the building is tended for construction by builders (see here). The Construction Certificate (CC) now bears only a passing resemblance to the DA.
How can this be? Surely the approved design prepared carefully by the registered architect, with detailed arguments, and thoroughly vetted by Council, (and increasingly the Land and Environment Court) is set in stone (if only that pun was true). Not so. There is no assured requirement for the architect to continue to be involved.
If the architect is terminated (contractually), or otherwise sidelined, a new architect or draftsperson can be employed to redraw the building. The design can be changed in many ways to take out some of the ideas, the finesse and the detailing.
One way is where the owners can apply to Council change the approval, in a process known as a clause 4.55 (or cl. 4.56 in a court approval). This doesn’t need to be the original architect and has none of the checks and balances of the original approval process. Locals are not advised, and detailed requirements in the original DA are not required.
Some buildings have five or more of these amendments, costing far less than the original approval process, and are approved far more quickly. Ultimately the integrity of the original design dies.
Another process for change can be where the Certifier (who has control of approving the CC) can accept many changes. The CC can vary substantially from the development approval, although recent changes to the Building Professionals Board have curbed the worst excess of these changes.
Yet another way in which changes occur is the complexity of the construction process. Complex structural layouts and services (AC, ventilation, lighting, fire protection) lead to difficulties in coordination that are better resolved by the original designer than the draftsperson.
Then the construction process lowers the quality further. The builder is under pressure given the length of time for the approval process (the original building may have been unoccupied and unearning for years). The trades or subbies in the building are less skilled, and there is no clerk of works or foreman on site and no QA (see here).
The incentive to build well can also be undone by the banks’ demands for presales (that discussion can be found here). And once the building is built any defects will not be addressed. Builders are able to disappear through a false bankruptcy, phoenixing as a new company with the same people, but no liability for the previous project. This leaves the certifier, architect and engineer responsible for a building they had little control over (see here).
Given that outcome you would expect that SEPP 65 would require an architect to be engaged all the way through to sign off on the final construction, but it doesn’t. Or that council would insist on the architect’s eye, using a standard clause that requires the architect’s continued involvement. But they don’t.
The City of Sydney, priding themselves on ‘design excellence’, have refused on numerous occasions to invoke that clause despite entreaties by your correspondent. It is only used for designs which are the result of a design competition. Unnecessary elitism. They then wonder why the final buildings don’t look like the submitted computer generated illustration (CGI).
Council planners work so assiduously to get to a high standard in design, only to have the final building bear little resemblance. Do they ever look at the outcomes of their extended negotiations and arguments? NO. They live on a fantasy planet, with no connection to the real world, not realizing that the enforcement of one simple clause added to the DA would change the whole process.
Tone Wheeler is principal architect at Environa Studio, Adjunct Professor at UNSW and is President of the Australian Architecture Association. He was on the Building Professionals Board for 5 years. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and are not held or endorsed by A+D, the AAA or UNSW. Photos by the author. Comments can be addressed to [email protected].