The building issues of the past several years continue to be of concern in 2019. The Lacrosse building fire in Melbourne in 2014 brought non-compliant cladding materials into the spotlight, an issue thrown into even greater relief by London’s catastrophic Grenfell Tower fire in 2017.
Further incidents back in Australia have continued to cause significant disquiet within and outside of the building industry. Similar to Lacrosse, there was another Melbourne cladding fire at the Neo200 building; in Darwin, nine apartment blocks were found to have non-compliant transfer slabs; and in Sydney, evacuations from the Opal Tower and Mascot Towers apartment buildings kept the issue of building quality in the public arena.
These events have created a push for action as government bodies, industry organisations and individuals recognise the need for firmer enforcement to ensure building safety. The Victorian Government, for example, is looking to impose stricter regulations on building designers.
Many changes are proposed within Peter Shergold and Bronwyn Weir’s report Building Confidence. Published in 2018, this report was commissioned by the Building Ministers’ Forum (BMF) in 2017, following the Lacrosse and Grenfell fires. Building Confidence is well known for its 24 recommendations to improve enforcement and regulation in the building industry. These have now become the foundation of the BMF’s national approach to strengthen the building and construction sector. A Government implementation team is working on specific recommendations from the report to improve the construction industry.
These events, plans and issues relate to overarching changes for the building industry as a whole. In this large-scale context, it is easy to forget about the importance of each building designer’s good practices and professionalism. The need for high quality documentation in each project is of utmost importance. This includes drawings, details and construction specifications. NATSPEC, the National Building Specification, specifies the required quality of construction, helping building designers to dictate the quality of construction required, on behalf of their clients.
Building designers have a professional responsibility to specify products that conform to regulations and are used in a compliant manner. This ensures that any building they design is safe for its occupants. With NATSPEC documentation, building designers can clearly specify their quality requirements. This helps everyone involved in the design and construction process to be aware of the necessary standards. NATSPEC emphasises compliance with the Building Code of Australia.
There has been something of a culture change since Lacrosse, Grenfell and the Building Confidence report. Indeed, the report’s authors highlight the need for a cultural shift in the industry. Jurisdictions have become more aware of industry problems and have put solutions into action. Several states and territories have conducted cladding audits to assess the level of risk in their area. As of their last report, the Victorian Cladding Taskforce has assessed 2227 buildings, of which 1069 were found to have combustible cladding. There have also been legislative approaches, most notably Queensland’s “Chain of responsibility” amendments.
The National Construction Product Register (NCPR), an initiative by NATSPEC, has been part of the culture change by encouraging greater responsibility for the overall safety of buildings. Government and industry bodies support NATSPEC as the administrator of the NCPR.
The NCPR is a national database of construction products that have verified evidence of conformity. Manufacturers apply to NATSPEC to have their products included on the register, and NATSPEC verifies that each product has valid evidence of conformity. Building professionals, including building designers, can then access the free database to check the validity of products in their projects.
Designed to be used in all stages of the design and construction process, the NCPR is a crucial part of the effort to improve regulation in the building and construction industry. It is especially valuable when considering product substitution. Products chosen as substitutions must satisfy the conformance requirements of the construction specification. The building designer can use the NCPR to check whether a proposed substitution has a verified certificate of conformity.
The NCPR helps building designers and other building professionals to reduce the risk caused by non-conforming building products. Building professionals have a responsibility to work with products that are appropriate, fit for purpose and safe. State government responses and the BMF’s national approach reflect this obligation and reveal the seriousness of the construction industry’s problems. Responsible for their individual practices and projects, building designers can contribute to the culture change by ensuring that they specify quality with NATSPEC and use products with verified evidence of conformity. By using the NCPR, building designers are doing their part to improve building safety.
NATSPEC is a not-for-profit, Government- and industry-owned organisation. It is impartial and not involved in any advocacy or policy development. NATSPEC maintains the National Building Specification and has been a valued part of the industry for over 40 years.