OMG not Pink Batts. Not again. Hadn’t that fiasco died 10 years ago? NO. Like a zombie, it reared its ugly head in the Federal budget this week, not once but twice. And that foretells an uncertain future for social housing.

Firstly, when the federal finance minister was asked how the infrastructure monies in the budget would be delivered, Mathias Cormann, always courteously nasty, couldn’t give any answer about the LNP’s plan (assuming there is one). Instead he rehashed the usual trope about the last stimulus package by the Labor Party “putting pink batts in roofs, only to cause fires, and rip them out”. Not done with batts he then threw in overpriced school halls for good measure. Pink batts bad.

The second mention was by Annabel Crabbe in an excellent piece for the ABC, discussing the budget: “there are two purposes to every dollar spent. One is to pay someone to do a job. That's an end in itself, because that person then spends the wage he or she earns. The other purpose…is to create something that is useful to others in the process. That was certainly the thinking behind the Pink Batts scheme in GFC. Pay people to do something (install insulation) that also creates a public good (energy efficiency through insulated homes)”.

She then added: “As a Keynesian measure, it was profoundly successful, and Wayne Swan was named Euromoney’s Finance Minister of the Year. As a public administration measure it was less of a success, as you will no doubt recall”. Pink batts good, then bad.

It’s that ‘failure of public administration’ that needs to be examined urgently, as we re-run the stimulus budget again, this time with ‘social housing’ as the headline (even if not yet for the federal LNP). Social housing is in danger of becoming the new Pink Batts. Only this time the stakes are much higher: truckloads more cash with a far more wide-ranging and demanding purpose.

Pink Batt Lessons

As recently discussed, a successful construction program is ‘small-part’ design and ‘large-part’ process. Both the insulation and school upgrades were well intentioned and well designed, but both programs suffered terribly in delivery. Learning to better design the process is the focus today.

So, what can we learn from the Pink Batts? It wasn’t the idea that was faulty, far from it, but the implementation: delivered too quickly, by unregulated private enterprise, made up of companies with a lack of skill and supervision using imported materials full of VOC’s (whilst promising to ramp up local production). Some of that toxic insulation is still sitting in containers, unable to be used to finish the program. It was a failure of planning at the large end of the program and a failure of oversight at the small end.

Equally instructively we can learn a lot from the Schools initiative, which featured Halls and COLAS (Covered Outdoor Learning Areas). Reports into the program, more correctly called ‘Building the Education Revolution or BER’, were undertaken at the behest of various governments. Amongst the many thorough examinations of the program, two stand out: the widely discussed report by the BER Implementation Taskforce headed by Brad Orgill, and a far lesser known report by the NSW Legislative Council.

The Orgill Report.

Overall it found that the program was a success (you didn’t see that much reported, particularly on the ABC), but it found particular fault with NSW and Victoria. The problem was the costs, timing and particularly the appropriateness of the designs. The Sydney Morning Herald of 9 July 2011 summed it up succinctly:

“NSW attracted more complaints and racked up higher costs than any other state during the Building the Education Revolution program. But the NSW government could have delivered better results if it had involved school communities early on, the chairman of the BER Implementation Taskforce, Brad Orgill, said…the taskforce concluded the program was a success. However, the NSW and Victorian governments - responsible for delivering 37 per cent of projects - were criticised for their poorer performance on cost and quality and made ''a mistake not to embrace school communities more effectively in decision making''.

In NSW and Victoria the whole program was given to very large ‘project manager’ firms, who then engaged very large construction firms, to build standardised solutions, all run on a centralised basis. To the costs of construction, labour and materials was added a margin for the contractors, which was then further inflated by the project managers fees. This caused cost blowouts by up to 40% and time over-runs.

By comparison the projects in Western Australia were more likely to be brought in on time and budget. The difference? In WA individual projects were portioned out by the Department of Education to architects (most already known to them), to design with individual communities and deal directly with the contractors. The old-fashioned ‘architect-as-co-ordinator’ approach.

Regular readers will know that we have little love of project managers. And the ‘Orgill Report’ is central to forming that view (as well as our daily drudgery of dealing with all but one of them). There can be no clearer analysis of the shadow that falls between the promise and product of PMs. Turns out that by-passing the PMs and having architects deal directly with clients and contractors has more value: attuned designs, delivered at less expense. Who knew? You can read the ‘Orgill Report’ here.

NSW Legislative Council Report

In 2010 a small committee, led by the NSW LNP, examined the BER program and provided a detailed report with several findings followed by recommendations, some of which are worth listing here. Although they were specifically for future school’s projects, and the list is long, it’s important for the future.

Some Findings

1. That managing contractors have charged unacceptably high management and design fees for BER projects in NSW public schools.

3. That both the Benchmark Value test and the tendering process used by the NSW Department of Education and Training were flawed and failed to secure value for money.

4. That the NSW Government took an overly prescriptive approach to the Commonwealth's BER Guidelines in relation to project priorities.

5. That a number of NSW public schools have buildings that are not fit for their purpose, due to the NSW Government’s inflexible approach to project priorities and design templates.

6. That the NSW Department of Education and Training failed to engage with school communities including teachers and principals and consequently lost opportunities to contain costs and achieve outcomes that best suited each school.

7. That in the context of costs of projects in NSW public schools, value for money has not been achieved.

9. That the NSW Government placed too great an emphasis on the rapid delivery of projects, to the detriment of the quality and cost of these projects.

10. That officers from NSW Government agencies actively dissuaded NSW public school principals from self-managing their projects.

Some recommendations

1…the NSW Government should allow a flexible approach to the priority list of project types set out in the Commonwealth BER Guidelines.

2…the NSW Government should allow a flexible approach to building design templates.

3… the NSW Government should ensure school communities are genuinely involved in decision-making regarding their facilities.

5…the NSW Government should focus more on ensuring value for money is achieved in terms of quality and cost, rather than time.

7…the NSW Government should ensure that the projects reflect the needs of their school communities, while demonstrating transparency regarding costs and timelines.

8…the NSW Department of Education and Training explore options for the delivery of its capital works projects beyond the BER Program that better involve the school community, including parents, principals and teachers, in both design and development decisions and managing project delivery.

The report in full can be found here.

Social Housing is the New Pink Batts

Recently the Federal ALP in opposition and the NSW LNP in power have advocated building social housing, which would be a way of fulfilling Annabel Crabbe’s twin benefits: creating work and creating socially beneficial outcomes. But we are in danger of repeating mistakes from the Pink Batts (and school COLAs) unless we learn two vital lessons.

1. HOW? Community distributed

Unlike big ticket infrastructure programs, such as new highways, which can be centralised with large firms, social housing must NOT be concentrated, either geographically or administratively. It must be devolved to the communities it serves. It must be a myriad of small-scale projects rather than the one big project. Let a thousand flowers bloom.

The recent east coast bushfires have shown just how vital local communities are, centred around their Council. We need to revive the idea of ‘Council Housing’ from 19thC Australia; and as seen so valuably in the boroughs of London, especially 20thC modernist Camden. That’s the administrative size.

Homelessness and housing stress are everywhere, not just in the downtown doorways. It is the local providers, often churches and not-for-profits, close to the local people, who know the housing stress, and how best to respond. Community groups, the local care-givers, must be the key clients, on behalf of the local in housing need, and must be the directors of the spending.

They may be a Community Housing Provider (CHP), a local Council, churches on their own land, or a local group that comes together knowing the local need. There is no one-size-fits-all.

2. WHAT? Small scale works

The resource of social housing is for the community and must be equitably distributed amongst the community. There can be no ‘mass solution’, no ghettoes of socio-economic stress, and no large-scale buildings. It must be embedded IN the community, remembering E.F. Schumacher’s dictum Small is Beautiful.

For the projects to reach into individual unique communities we must bypass the project managers, and their standardised solutions, and turn to small collaborations of architects and contractors, who can propose customised solution of value. Worried about rorting? – the community would have access to Government sanctioned Quantity Surveyors (QS) to establish reasonable rates for cities and regions.

The clients, empowered by government fiat and resources, will control the process. If they say that the architectural firms must have equal male and female partners to work with them, they may well be pleasantly surprised. If they say that 10% or more of the construction crew must be female, we may see a leap in apprenticeships. Who knows where this might end?

Think global, act local, to take the control of the process, and deliver worthwhile social housing.

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. Tone does not read Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or Linked In. Sanity is preserved by reading and replying only to comments addressed to [email protected]