Specialists not supervisors

While it’s convenient for some, building certifiers shouldn’t be made the scapegoats for defective building work.


Simon Norris

Building certifiers have taken a disproportionate share of the focus in the current debates and discussions about building quality. The media and some state governments inappropriately jumped onto blaming the 1990s move to private building certification as the root cause of the building quality issues that have come to prominence over the past year or so, even though some of the affected buildings had been certi-fied by the local government.

There seems to be a general misunderstanding of the role of building certifiers: they are not supervisors of the building work. Commentary has also suggested that building certification is in some way flawed because building certifiers have to rely on other experts when certifying a building. A certifier cannot be expected to have the detailed level of knowledge to approve building structural designs, fire safety systems, mechanical and electrical plans and so on. These specialist areas need the expertise of professional experts, especially on more complex and high-rise buildings.

The complexity of the building process also makes it difficult and time consuming to determine the cause of, and the people responsible for, defective building work when it arises. As was found with the Lacrosse building in Melbourne, it took more than four years for the courts to investigate and allocate responsibility for the fire in the building’s cladding. While the certifier was attributed with a proportion of the blame so were the builder, the architect and the fire engineers. It is unfortunate that in this and other more recent cases that the media and others jump to conclusions, with the building certifier assumed to be the culprit.

Building certifiers have also been the focus of attention in the contraction in the availability of professional indemnity insurance. While the flammable cladding issue has unsettled the building certification process with the exclusions that insurers are now applying to the certifier’s policies, to a very large extent the certifiers are victims of a global tightening in the market for professional indemnity insurance for every profession which has been driven by the flood of class actions. 

This response by insurers has unnecessarily created difficulties for the many certifiers who only work on Class 1 buildings (houses and townhouses), where cladding is not an issue. They have been swept up in the cladding issue that is predominantly a high-density, high-rise apartment and commercial building issue, and were left potentially unable to meet the conditions of their licence to operate. The eastern state governments amended the licensing requirements relatively quickly, but there was a lack of communication with the insurers so that the cladding exclusions in the licensing regimes and the exclusions in some professional indemnity policies align. A more durable solution to the insurance issue for certifiers and other building professionals is needed.

Irrespective of these recent challenges, the private building certification profession needs to be supported. The removal of local government’s monopoly on building certification was one of the most important pieces of micro-economic reform that we have seen in the building industry in decades. I’m sure that the system will always be able to be improved but the efficiency that the industry has gained is considerable. We should not forget that prior to building certification new home buyers had to wait weeks, and sometimes months, to obtain building approvals from their local councils. For those renting while waiting for the construction of a new home this represented thou-sands of dollars in unnecessary rental expenses. Additionally, builders suffered unnecessary delays to their cashflows and adverse impacts on profitability. 

As a final observation, I have long advocated that the benefit of private certification should also be extended to other parts of the building process, such as subdivision engineering approvals. Once development approvals have been obtained, with the required community consultation completed, the delivery of civil infrastructure predominantly requires the design and compliance with engineering standards, all of which are either codified or capable of being codified. Private certification in this part of the delivery process would save all stake-holders thousands of dollars in unnecessary costs and time delays, further improving home affordability. There have been some worth-while experiments but much more can be done to the benefit of the industry and our customers. 


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