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Innovation in housing

Innovation in housing

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A performance-based building code provides greater flexibility and enables innovation in how and with what we build. But are the benefits being fully realised? Is flexibility and certainty achievable?

Simon Croft

Chief Executive, Industry & Policy

One of the most fundamental shifts in Australia’s building laws occurred in 1996 when the Building Code of Australia (BCA) went from prescriptive regulation to performance or principles based.

The key difference was that the objective of the new BCA rules focused on the end output of what is to be achieved, as opposed to a ‘recipe-based’ prescriptive model. As an example, think of using a set recipe to make a cake as opposed to making a delicious cake of your own choosing.

The first approach means following a strict recipe of cooking methods and ingredients to make the cake. Whereas the outcome of ‘making a delicious cake’ allows any method or ingredients to do so, provided it meets some high-level principles (e.g., it must rise, it must be tasty and won’t poison the person who eats it).

HIA was one of the main drivers calling for this important shift. It aligned Australia with other comparable countries’ building codes in taking on this model. This has brought more flexibility and innovation in the way we build and the products with which we build. The performance-based code model, however, has not been without its detractors.

HIA was one of the main drivers calling for Australia’s building laws to shift from prescriptive regulation to performance or principles based.

Benefits of a performance-based code

In 2012, the Australian Building Codes Board (ABCB) commissioned the Centre for International Economics (CIE) to undertake an analysis (in part) of the benefits of adopting and applying the performance building regulations.

The report confirmed that the BCA (subsequently NCC), and in turn, the performance-based code, has made a significant contribution to national productivity and economic benefit. The estimates of these benefits are around $1 billion per annum (in 2012 terms).

The benefits cited included:

  • nationally consistent building regulation contributes to reducing costs and varying approaches across states and local councils
  • cost-savings relating to the efficiency of design and construction
  • flexibility to use new building products and materials, which encourages innovation by product manufacturers
  • less updating/changes needed to the BCA/NCC as the prescriptive approach becomes only one method of compliance (i.e., by using performance-based solutions).

Importantly, the CIE report said the NCC was only achieving 50 per cent of its potential benefits. Through a range of additional measures, a further $1 billion of annual benefits could be derived.

The most recent NCC 2022 amendments have increased the code’s complexity, with stringency levels being increased and a broader coverage over the design of a building going forward. 

Therefore, the benefits for great flexibility and innovation to meet the NCC will only increase as the rules become more prescriptive.

The most recent NCC 2022 amendments have increased the code’s complexity.
Industry education, capacity and uncertainty has hindered the uptake of Performance Solutions.

Uptake of Performance Solutions 

The uptake of Performance Solutions over the past two decades has not been as high as may have been expected for several reasons. Industry education, capacity and uncertainty of acceptance have played a part in this, as has some negative sentiment towards performance-based regulation at times.

In reality, nearly all buildings now use a component of Performance Solutions in their design and construction, particularly in Class 2-9 buildings. Furthermore, many of the solutions we commonly use in construction today have evolved from common Performance Solutions being applied and subsequently incorporated into the NCC as Deemed-to-Satisfy Provisions.

Importantly, the use of Performance Solutions in projects should not be seen as ‘trying to get around the rules’.

Instead, they are a legitimate form of construction. They can provide a better tailored solution for a building rather than making the one-size-fits-all DTS Provisions work for each and every building and each and every aspect of the building.

Challenges in the use of performance

The introduction of the performance-based approach has provided greater flexibility for the industry and enabled more innovation. Over the past two decades, however, we’ve occasionally heard the threat from regulators to revert back to the prescriptive model or building surveyors/certifiers/fire authorities being more conservative in their consideration of Performance Solutions. In these cases, a building incident may have occurred when a Performance Solution was used or perceived to have caused the problem.

This may not be a surprising reaction, but it can be misguided. When looked at in the broader context of how innovation drives efficiencies and productivity, as well as the unique construction circumstances often encountered for more substantial buildings, the reality is that the drafting of prescriptive regulation cannot keep up with innovation. To put this in context, most people will be aware of how long a proposal for change to the NCC or project proposal to an Australian Standard can take to result in an amendment. Relying on this as the means for having a competitive construction industry is not practical.

HIA continues to proactively contribute to the work to lift the standard of Performance Solutions and is supportive of the principles that underpin it.

The ABCB, not unlike other international code writing bodies responsible for comparable building codes, has found it difficult at times to turn highly subjective and difficult-to-measure statements that use terms – such as ‘To the degree necessary’, ‘contain features that facilitate’, ‘appropriate to the function and use of the building’ – into quantified Performance Requirements.

This in turn can make developing Performance Solutions to satisfy the more subjective Performance Requirements difficult, because the policy target is not clearly articulated. This includes how they are to be documented, when in a build process they need to be developed and assessed, and who has the relevant expertise to develop a Performance Solution.

HIA continues to proactively contribute to lift the standard of Performance Solutions and is supportive of the principles that underpin it.

Help is at hand

One of the best quotes I remember from a discussion about the performance-based code with a government regulator was that they wanted the rules to provide ‘ultimate flexibility with concrete certainty’.

So, can these two objectives be achieved? 

A four-step process for developing a Performance Solution was recently developed and is now embedded in the NCC which is designed to support the documentation of Performance Solutions. This is the requirement for a performance-based design brief (PBDB), which is to be submitted for any Performance used in the design of a building.

To supplement this, HIA has produced a simple template to help document solutions, particularly simple and generic solutions.

Using international building code content and standards prepared by reputable international bodies as the basis for Performance Solutions represents an alternative approach to developing a unique solution from the ground up. One such body is the International Code Council (ICC), which develops the most widely used building codes in the US, known as the I-Codes. This includes the International Building Code and International Residential Code. It is possible for the content of these and other volumes of the I-Codes to be used as input in the development of Performance Solutions to demonstrate compliance with the NCC for innovative building design.

Through its Family of Solutions, the ICC can provide technical expertise regarding the equivalence of relevant I-Code content for the purpose of the designer developing a Performance Solution. Alternatively, practitioners can sign up to obtain discounted access to a wealth of technical information, I-Code content, ICC standards and material not covered by the NCC, by subscribing to Digital Codes Premium: Create Your ICC Digital Codes Account.

The ICC can also provide manufacturers with evaluations for modern methods of construction, which involves processes to design, fabricate and transport building elements off-site for fast, safe and efficient on-site assembly.

With more than 90 years’ experience and thousands of reports, ICC Evaluation Service (ICC-ES) is the industry leader in performing technical evaluations of building products, materials and systems. Known for its expertise in code compliance and development of Acceptance Criteria for innovative products, ICC-ES is a subsidiary of the ICC. It’s accredited by JASANZ for WaterMark certification, American Association for Laboratory Accreditation and the ANSI National Accreditation Board to the requirements of the New Zealand Building Code, and the National Construction Code (NCC), of ISO/IEC 17065, Standards Council of Canada and EMA for Mexico.

An ICC-ES Evaluation Service Appraisal (ESA) report on a specific building product represents an independent evaluation of how the product meets performance or prescriptive provisions in the NCC. An ESA, which is a new offering in the Australian market to demonstrate compliance with the NCC’s evidence of suitability requirements for building products, can be extended in scope to include evaluation for markets in North America and other parts of the world.

Reports issued by ICC-ES represent the highest quality product evaluations, providing manufacturers, building professionals and the industry with valuable tools to ensure safety on the construction site while allowing innovation to thrive. For more information, visit the International Code Council (ICC)

Need to know more

HIA has produced a range of supporting tools and resources including a template to help document Performance Solutions, particularly simple and generic solutions.

HIA also works closely with the ABCB on its projects related to the performance-based code, as well as looking to incorporate commonly used Performance Solutions into the code. This is to enable greater consistency, streamline approvals and give all parties more certainty.

Get in touch if you want to know more.

First published on 5 December 2023

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