NSW Con­struc­tion Indus­try — an expert’s per­spec­tive (part 6 of 6)

Inter­view with Tadd Wal­ford, Par­tridge, Struc­tur­al Engineer

Over the past eight months, I have released a series of arti­cles. This arti­cle is part 6’ of a six-part series and will be fol­lowed by my 2019 wrap-up’. 

The series doc­u­ments my dis­cus­sions with build­ing con­sul­tants who are in the know when it comes to the cur­rent state of the NSW con­struc­tion indus­try and the high per­cent­age of prop­er­ties which are found to con­tain build­ing defects aris­ing from orig­i­nal con­struc­tion works. 

These experts have giv­en their per­spec­tive on the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion, the fail­ings, the pos­i­tives and their views as to what can be done to imple­ment change and help builders, devel­op­ers and con­sumers alike.

Present­ly, in place is the Nation­al Con­struc­tion Code (NCC), imple­ment­ed with a goal of achiev­ing a nation­al­ly con­sis­tent, min­i­mum nec­es­sary stan­dard of rel­e­vant safe­ty (includ­ing struc­tur­al safe­ty and safe­ty from fire), health, ameni­ty and sus­tain­abil­i­ty objec­tives efficiently’. 

There is appar­ent work to be done to achieve the goals of the NCC. Since the com­mence­ment of this series, the Build­ing Com­mis­sion­er has been appoint­ed who will hope­ful­ly take the indus­try a step in the right direction.

Tadd Wal­ford – Partridge

What is your area of expertise? 

Struc­tur­al Engineer 

How long have you been involved in the con­struc­tion industry? 

Approx­i­mate­ly 15 years 

How long have you been pro­vid­ing expert wit­ness reports in build­ing claims?

About 7 years, and shad­ow­ing and sup­port­ing oth­er experts pri­or to that.

How are build­ing defects cat­e­gorised and/​or what is the split between defec­tive works caused by design short­com­ings and those orig­i­nat­ing from defec­tive workmanship?

In our expe­ri­ence, gen­uine design relat­ed flaws/​defects only make up 25 – 30% of the claims we are involved in, with the major­i­ty of claims/​cases asso­ci­at­ed with water­proof­ing and/​or cladding relat­ed defects. 

The struc­tur­al defects observed are typ­i­cal­ly asso­ci­at­ed with crack­ing in con­crete, exces­sive deflec­tions etc. and are not cat­a­stroph­ic in nature. We must also note that the defects dis­cussed above are not nec­es­sar­i­ly wide­spread or endem­ic, how­ev­er, are encoun­tered reg­u­lar­ly enough that ques­tions need to be asked about how to address them.

With the NCC in place, in your opin­ion, why do you think there is still such a high rate of defec­tive work aris­ing out of res­i­den­tial con­struc­tion in NSW?

NSW is a very cost dri­ven market. 

Not all clients or sec­tors want to spend the mon­ey and there­fore, are some­times inclined to take the cheap­er pro­pos­al. This can some­times lead to the indus­try and/​or con­trac­tors tai­lor­ing down their work with a price to suit the market. 

As a result, inno­va­tion goes down, no-one is pre­pared to take risks and cor­ners are cut to meet the bud­get expec­ta­tions of the client. 

Whilst the NCC is obvi­ous­ly nation­wide, I believe NSW has more issues than most. When you look at oth­er coun­tries like the UK or New Zealand and what their con­sul­tants and con­trac­tors get paid, there appears to be a huge rate dif­fer­ence and/​or recog­ni­tion of the val­ue of good pro­fes­sion­als – this means there is less room to move in Aus­tralia par­tic­u­lar­ly when clients are cost dri­ven of have bud­getary constraints.

Were any con­cerns addressed in the recent changes to the NCC released in May 2019?

In my opin­ion, no changes were made to the NCC that are obvi­ous­ly going to address the imme­di­ate con­cerns in the con­struc­tion industry.

Leg­isla­tive reform is going to have more of an impact rather than the code itself and hope­ful­ly we will see this soon.

What are your con­cerns with respect to the increase in defects?

With any increase in defects, the flow on effect of this is that insur­ance costs/​premiums will increase. 

This impacts every­one as the bud­get expec­ta­tions for projects etc. do not move with the expense struc­tures of all of the trades and pro­fes­sion­als involved.

One of my biggest con­cerns is that there are peo­ple out there that are not pro­vid­ing the same lev­el of ser­vice as we try to do at Par­tridge and they are pric­ing accord­ing­ly. We lose a lot of work because we are com­pet­ing with those who are not adher­ing to the stan­dard of design/​documentation we believe that they should be, which is why they are able to price the job at a low­er level.

This will even­tu­al­ly have an adverse effect on every­one with the insur­ance costs sky­rock­et­ing to coun­ter­act all of the claims being made when a job is not done properly. 

Hope­ful­ly reform will address this, and a new pro­fes­sion­al reg­is­tra­tion process may assist.

You have to ask whether the tra­di­tion­al cer­ti­fy­ing author­i­ty is work­ing? Are they unbi­ased and com­plete­ly sep­a­rate from the process? 

Devel­op­ers are able to choose their cer­ti­fi­er. This obvi­ous­ly dri­ves a mar­ket where, if cer­ti­fiers know they are going to get future work from that devel­op­er they may, per­haps not inten­tion­al­ly, be more relaxed with com­pli­ance issues or will­ing to assist in get­ting things across the line. For exam­ple, a devel­op­er may go to a par­tic­u­lar cer­ti­fi­er because they know they will be able to get cer­tain things through that they would not achieve, or would have dif­fi­cul­ties achiev­ing, if they went with a dif­fer­ent certifier.

In one par­tic­u­lar case I have been involved in recent­ly, when going over the site inspec­tion records/​notes, we not­ed that there were con­flicts in dates of inspec­tions and dates in cer­tifi­cates under the Final Occu­pa­tion cer­tifi­cate. There are obvi­ous­ly dis­crep­an­cies and checks not being done properly.

What needs to be done to fix the industry?

While the cer­ti­fi­ca­tion process is the way it is, it will cause issues. There needs to be reform.

A reform of the cer­ti­fi­ca­tion process will assist along with a reg­is­tra­tion require­ment for cer­ti­fiers and engineers.

I don’t think we need to go down same route as Vic­to­ria where every­thing is peer reviewed as this sys­tem makes things unaf­ford­able for small­er jobs and will either dri­ve prices up or the prof­itabil­i­ty of jobs down fur­ther, result­ing in more short­cuts etc. 

Across the board reg­u­la­to­ry con­trols will help. There is a recog­ni­tion sys­tem in Unit­ed King­dom which takes into account the lev­el of expe­ri­ence as well as edu­ca­tion, etc. Where­as, in Aus­tralia, you can attain the high­est lev­el of reg­is­tra­tion in Aus­tralia by doing a series of essays/​written respons­es and an inter­view rather than hands on prac­ti­cal expe­ri­ence and a peer review system. 

Along with a uni­ver­si­ty degree, 12 weeks work expe­ri­ence will qual­i­fy you to be a prac­tis­ing engi­neer – there is more that could be done. 

In a struc­tur­al sense, engi­neers work­ing in the res­i­den­tial space will obvi­ous­ly vary from the lev­el of exper­tise required for engi­neers work­ing sole­ly in indus­tri­al build­ings or bridges etc. and in this regard, the reg­is­tra­tion require­ments for indus­tri­al build­ings or bridges may poten­tial­ly need to be dif­fer­ent than in the res­i­den­tial/low-rise build­ing sector. 

Licenc­ing and reg­is­tra­tion means account­abil­i­ty. Things with­out a licence require­ment attached to it – means that peo­ple can walk away, unlike a builder. A builder’s licence means there is some accountability.

With the appoint­ment of the Build­ing Com­mis­sion­er, if sup­port­ed, he will most def­i­nite­ly have time dur­ing his appoint­ment to make changes. How­ev­er, he needs to be sup­port­ed by engi­neers, cer­ti­fiers, etc. and the indus­try as a whole in order to be effec­tive in his role.

What are your thoughts on edu­ca­tion and cours­es avail­able at the moment?

For struc­tur­al engi­neers com­ing out of uni­ver­si­ty with a degree, I def­i­nite­ly think on the job train­ing and expe­ri­ence is where you learn the most valu­able lessons. You get train­ing on job/​industry spe­cif­ic things which is an obvi­ous advan­tage over a broad edu­ca­tion stream.

In my opin­ion, cours­es for engi­neers about risk and lia­bil­i­ty are not suf­fi­cient­ly cov­ered in either an under­grad­u­ate or post-grad­u­ate stream. This is some­thing you learn on the job and quite often, we have to use Court deci­sions as a yard stick to deter­mine how to han­dle some­thing. This is not ideal. 

This is sim­i­lar for builders. On the job expe­ri­ence and super­vi­sion are key.

How cre­ative can you be in your area of exper­tise with rec­ti­fi­ca­tion scopes? Is it pos­si­ble to come up with a unique solu­tion that will solve the prob­lem, reduce poten­tial rec­ti­fi­ca­tion costs for a builder and achieve the results the con­sumer is look­ing for?

This depends on a num­ber of things. If you are ref­er­enc­ing an Opal Tow­er type issue, that is, a num­ber of issues that have con­tributed to a big­ger issue, once peo­ple are liv­ing there, it is almost impos­si­ble to fix things in an appro­pri­ate way with­out incur­ring sig­nif­i­cant costs.

For struc­tur­al design issues (rather than a builder’s defect), if you fix it up at the design’ phase, you may be talk­ing a cou­ple of hun­dred dol­lars extra in the bud­get, if you don’t dis­cov­er it until con­struc­tion is under way you could be up for thou­sand or tens of thou­sands, how­ev­er, if the build­ing is built you could be talk­ing hun­dreds of thou­sands, or even mil­lions of dollars.

There are obvi­ous time and cost delays to the project to con­duct a peer review at the design phase. How­ev­er, ear­ly inter­ven­tion could save mil­lions of dol­lars and save impact­ing hun­dreds of lives lat­er on.

An ear­ly peer review sys­tem may be one way of get­ting rid of the adver­sar­i­al vibe amongst peo­ple and a wider spread adop­tion of that may make the process smoother or more fre­quent. The Amer­i­can Soci­ety of Civ­il Engi­neers have issued a prac­tice note that address­es this direct­ly and out­lines the expect­ed out­comes of peer reviews etc. and/​or the sug­gest­ed process to use when review­ing oth­ers work and we tend to refer to this a lot when car­ry­ing out our own reviews.

Out of inter­est, what is the worst or most unusu­al defect you have seen in your time report­ing as an expert on build­ing defects?

I had a recent case in the Tri­bunal involv­ing a plas­tic form­work wall sys­tem. The con­trac­tor had obvi­ous­ly run out of con­crete at the top of the wall and when he back­filled the wall some grav­el made its way into the top 100mm of the wall/​formwork. The builder neglect­ed to remove the grav­el from the wall before pour­ing the next slab, so when the con­crete was poured, it cov­ered up the grav­el and it con­se­quent­ly now forms part of the wall.

This was a res­i­dence with 1 ½ floors above and a retain­ing wall below, obvi­ous­ly not good from a struc­tur­al point of view. 

One of the argu­ments from the oth­er side that noth­ing had failed (as yet) and the engi­neer inspec­tion cer­tifi­cate said it was ok (pre­sum­ably because an inspec­tion was car­ried out pri­or to pour of the wall and also just before the pour of the slab over when things would have been large­ly concealed).

The Court sys­tem, com­ments about the process…

It is not always what is right or wrong, it is what you can prove. This is the under­ly­ing prin­ci­ple of the Court sys­tem, which some­times gets in the way of justice.

Helen has a legal career span­ning over 25 years and has for the past decade spe­cialised in build­ing, con­struc­tion, stra­ta and prop­er­ty law work­ing in juris­dic­tions with a par­tic­u­lar inter­est in try­ing to pre­vent prob­lems before they occur and think­ing out­side the square to achieve solu­tions to meet the needs of her clients. Helen has recent­ly joined Swaab as a Part­ner in the Prop­er­ty, Plan­ning and Projects team.