Many builders have come across non-compliant materials. This is despite the strictness of the country’s building codes. Here’s why this is such a major issue in the building sector.
There’s no denying the importance of building compliance in Australia. The country’s inhabitants often live in areas that are at risk from natural disasters. Bushfires occur at a rate of 50,000 per year. This has a devastating effect on the natural environment. It also causes major issues for the buildings that get caught up in the fires.
Australia also experiences an average of 13 tropical cyclones each year. These events batter buildings with heavy winds. They also lead to water ingress. This causes structural damage as well as destroying property. Even January 2018’s Tropical Cyclone Joyce still delivered 88mm of rain in a day. This, despite it only being a category one cyclone.
The building codes that you follow are in place to protect Australian buildings from such issues. Any shortcomings create vulnerabilities. For example, a building may be structurally sound. But issues that allow for water ingress can still compromise this structure. This often happens even if the building’s structure meets all relevant codes.
The potential for vulnerabilities isn’t a small issue either. In fact, a survey from 2013 highlights how widespread the issue is.
What Does the Survey Say?
The Australian Industry Group published the survey. It asked over 200 people in the building industry about their experiences. The survey focused on non-compliant materials. The results were shocking. The survey found that 90% of those quizzed had come across non-compliant materials. This displays a startling level of negligence from manufacturers. It also places a greater burden on builders. They have to check every material they use for signs of non-compliance. With the problem being so widespread, these checks take time. Moreover, finding non-compliance means finding a new supplier. Again, this takes time. This all adds to the cost of building projects.
Many also believe that non-compliant materials saturate the market. Some even go so far as to claim they make up 50% of the available materials.
Those in the industry believe that a lack of building code enforcement is to blame. The punishments aren’t severe enough, assuming they come at all. With little risk of punishment, some manufacturers take shortcuts. Often, these aren’t noticed until the completion of a project.
The report also separated the compliance issue into four key categories.
Category #1 – Electrical
Electrical problems are a major issue. All 220 survey-takers noted that they’d experienced issues with electricals. Furthermore, more than two-thirds said that these issues have cost them money. This can come from lost revenue and may even cost jobs.
Fake products seem to be the main issue. Moreover, the problem affects both lighting and electrical products. The market’s competitiveness is also a problem. Some survey-takers had fallen victim to false marketing claims. It’s likely that the manufacturers made these claims to get a jump on their competition.
Many also pointed to a lack of regulatory action as a problem. In fact, many respondents said they don’t know how to report non-compliance. This suggests that regulators aren’t communicating well with the industry.
Category #2 – Glass and Aluminium
Glass and aluminium products aren’t much better. In fact, more than 80% of respondents report experiencing non-compliance with such products.
The problem here is a lack of trust in the current certification schemes. Some survey-takers claim the certification is a “paper exercise”. As a result, it doesn’t test manufacturers enough. The lack of a clear regulatory body was also cited as an issue. Many point to this lack of regulation as a problem. It allows manufacturers to get away with making faulty products.
Again, these problems create a cost for builders. Several of the respondents said that non-compliance causes quoting issues. Often, this meant making a loss on the quote to keep their customers happy.
Category #3 – Steel
Steel is almost as much of a problem as electrical. About 95% of the respondents noted coming across non-compliant steel products.
Respondents pointed to first-party certification schemes as the problem here. This created a conformance standard that doesn’t meet the needs of the building industry.
Moreover, many respondents mentioned imported products. Many of these don’t meet the standards outlined in the Australian building codes. Yet, false claims and a lack of conformance checks allow them to seep into the supply chain. This increasing exposure may even set a standard that other manufacturers follow.
Category #4 – Wood
While not as big of an issue as the other three categories, wood still has its problems. Engineered wood, in particularly, seems to be an issue. The processes used to engineer the wood often lead to a reduction in quality. Plus, the Australian standards don’t offer the level of testing that many look for.
Issues with engineered wood include the following:
- Resins with high water content
- The use of formaldehyde
- Either no or incorrect labelling
- Products not meeting the required strength specifications
Wood is a key component in many Australian buildings. It’s also used in many flooring solutions. As a result, non-compliant engineered wood places buildings at risk. The same goes for the other materials mentioned.
The problem here is that many of these problems don’t come to light until much later. The materials usually hold up to the rigours of the construction process. But they create vulnerabilities. It only takes one thing to go wrong to expose these issues.
The Effects of Non-Compliance
In 2017, a huge fire engulfed Grenfell Tower in London. The event made the national news. The 24-storey building ended up gutted by the fire. It destroyed over 150 homes, but it was the human cost that made this such a disaster. The disaster led to the deaths of over 70 people and caused a similar number of injuries.
The cause of the fire came down to the external cladding used throughout the building. Tenants had complained about the fire risk several times before the disaster. On top of that, there was also a problem with exposed gas pipes in the building. The aftermath saw lots of legal action. British police launched investigations into 60 different companies.
Why is this relevant to the Australian building industry?
Because it’s not the first time such a disaster has happened. Australia experienced its own with the Lacrosse building fire of 2014.
The Lacrosse building fire has startling similarities to the Grenfell disaster. The buildings were of a similar size and the fire affected hundreds of people. Furthermore, the investigation that followed pointed to the external cladding as the culprit.
Luckily, there were no recorded deaths or serious injuries. But the events in Grenfell showed just how much worse the event could have been.
In both cases, non-compliance with building codes lies at the root of the issue. The aftermath of the Lacrosse fire raised a lot of questions. Moreover, the event happened only shortly after the survey mentioned above. The events stand as proof of the scale of the issue. They also reflect the concerns of the industry at large.
An extensive review took place following the Lacrosse building fire. This reinforced many of the issues raised in the Australian Industry Group’s surveys. For example, the documents lodged to the council before construction weren’t suitable. They didn’t contain enough information about the combustibility of the walls. Moreover, they only allowed for 36 occupants per floor between floors six and 21. The wall claddings also carried no accreditation.
These oversights reinforce the opinion that regulation is not as strong as it needs to be.
The report’s recommendations also mirrored the industry’s concerns. It recommended the implementation of a stricter product approval process. It also asked for a review of the use of non-compliant materials in the building industry.
Here’s the point. The Lacrosse building fire was a warning of the hazards of non-compliant materials. The Grenfell disaster in London showed how severe the consequences can be. Australia has seen a huge rise in the rate of high-rise building construction. The industry can’t fail to take these warnings into account. Doing so could lead to even more horrific consequences in the future.
Several states have reacted to these issues. Most of these focus on improving compliance standards. As a result, they should have a direct impact on the non-compliance issue.
2017 saw several of these regulation changes come into force. New South Wales’ Building Products (Safety) Act 2017 (NSW) is a good example. It came into power in December 2018. The act is a direct response to both the Lacrosse and Grenfell fires. The key with this act is the extra power afforded to the Fair Trading Commissioner (FTC).
The FTC can now ban the use of a building material if tests show it to be unsafe. Any material that creates an unsafe environment for building tenants may end up banned. Importantly, the act considers all possible scenarios. For example, materials that may cause safety issues during a fire could get banned under the act.
The act is a step in the right direction. However, it’s only upon enforcement that we’ll see how much of an effect it has.
Queensland has also introduced similar legislation. The state’s Queensland Building and Construction Commission focuses on plumbing and drainage. Again, the new laws allow for the banning of materials that may compromise safety.
On a practical level, this means that all plumbing and drainage products must obtain accreditation. Any that don’t carry the Australian Building Codes Board’s WaterMark certificate immediately go on the scrapheap.
These are all actions that improve the regulatory oversight of the construction industry. They’re also things that those in the industry have called for since 2013. With the right enforcement, these new laws should improve building safety.
Non-compliant building products are not a small issue. They affect thousands of Australian buildings. As you can see from the Lacrosse and Grenfell fires, failure to tackle the problem has a very human cost.
New legislations aim to remove as many non-compliant products from the supply chain as possible. However, builders still need to conduct extensive checks of their own, for the time being. Only use accredited products and check the building codes if you have any uncertainty.
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