Something rotten with the state of building

OPINION: Thank you to all the readers who give great feedback on these columns. Your stories of your own battles with bureaucracy motivate me to keep writing. Suggestions for topics are always welcome, although I have quite a backlog already.

After I touched on untreated timber a couple of weeks ago, several people asked for me to expand on leaky buildings. It is a woe-begotten tale of mismanagement on a grand scale.

In 1996, the Commission of Inquiry into leaky buildings of the previous decade bemoaned "a loss of collective memory, and lack of conventional wisdom, among inspectors, architects, engineers, developers, and contractors regarding the requirements for effective building".

"Hang on" the astute reader may ask, "wasn't the problem in the period from 1998 to 2003?"

The National Party had been under pressure from the Greens because timber treatment uses some particularly nasty chemicals (such as arsenic) that could be bad for the environment. Untreated timber was allowed to be used for house framing on 28 February 1998, until the Building Industry Authority issued a directive on 9 March 2003, re-introducing treatment for all consents.

The Commission of Inquiry mentioned above was the Canadian inquiry. They had a massive and highly publicised problem. Sure, this was the era before Google, so research took more than a mouse click, but the most basic due diligence a government should carry out prior to changing regulations would be to check what other countries' experiences have been. New Zealand blindly copied a known disaster.

The blame doesn't lie solely with untreated timber. Town planners with no construction experience started using roof area instead of floor area, measuring boundary dimensions to roof lines instead of walls, and setting arbitrary height limits – all because it meant more resource consents would be needed.

Developers responded with the infamous "Mediterranean style", totally unsuited to our climate conditions, with flat roofs and no overhangs allowing them to squeeze the most building space into the rules.

Post-disaster, planners actually returned to rules that reflected the needs of the building industry to some extent. But after a decade, I started to see an influx of the same rules and interpretations that created so many problems. It seems we don't learn from history.

Most architects, including myself, had trained at Auckland University, where the Architecture School was split into petty factions, many staff had no practical experience, and it was greater "status" to teach theory than technical skills. In short, the education was negligent and the qualification just about worthless for anything outside of academia. It took ten years to teach myself to be competent for the sort of complicated buildings we were designing.

The standard of drawings given to builders was not good enough for the high-risk details that were required.

The dismantling of apprenticeships meant young chippies and tradies were unleashed on buildings without the experience to work through difficult projects. In earlier times, skilled main contractors would be on site to check and coordinate work, but a new breed of project managers were saving clients money by tendering out each trade separately, with no supervision of specialist skills on the actual project. I set up my own practice primarily so I could refuse projects that involved working with them.

Product suppliers, such as a certain Australian firm, happily sold materials that were simply not suitable for what, where, and how they were being used. Some claddings relied on nothing more than a coat of paint at every joint to keep water out. It was never going to last.

Helen Clark's Labour Party responded to the disaster by disbanding the Building Industry Authority – the government agency that was the ultimate regulator of the construction system. This was a cynical ploy to remove the government from liability as the BIA could no longer get sued.

Instead, the liability was dumped on councils. Building inspectors had probably the smallest part to play in the debacle. They had no say over the design, did not carry out the faulty workmanship, and were not present during most of the construction.

By tradition, they checked some basic structural, fire, and plumbing issues, as accepted by the BIA and courts up until then. Their processes failed to change with the times, and the courts retrospectively decided that building inspectors should have done more. Their employers - the councils, and therefore the ratepayers, had to shoulder a small proportion of the responsibility.

There is a grossly unfair legal principle that is applied to construction projects called "joint and several liability". It exists mainly to ensure lawyers make money by always having someone to sue. That small proportion of responsibility meant councils were jointly liable for the whole thing. When problems arose, building firms went bust, and councils were the "last man standing".

The courts reached deep into ratepayers' pockets. You, the public, ended up paying for the damage, while most perpetrators never paid a cent.

Along with many others in the architecture profession, I have lobbied hard to change the law to "proportional liability" for leaky buildings and any other problems. We should each take our fair share of responsibility, and limit councils' exposure to their small share. Government legal advisers have resisted.

I would like to see all councils join together with building professionals and ratepayers' associations to promote this at the national level on behalf of ratepayers.

-Andrew Bydder is a Hamilton architect.


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