After Opal Tower | NSW President asks: ‘Where is the Quality?’

After Opal Tower | NSW President asks: ‘Where is the Quality?’

Where is the Quality?  

Kathlyn Loseby NSW Chapter President, Australian Institute of Architects

The Opal Tower debacle is just the latest headline case of the construction process letting down our community. Why is this happening?

The failure of the construction process didn’t occur overnight. It has developed over a period of time and for various reasons. But it all starts with inappropriate building contracts and a lack of separation and independent assessment by properly regulated and trained professionals. It has been a train wreck waiting to happen, and there have been plenty of warning signs over time. Reports such as the Lambert Building Professionals Act Review (2015) and the Shergold Weir report (2018) are but the tip of the iceberg.

Given this the Australian Institute of Architects (the Institute) has congratulated the government on moves to implement the majority of recommendations ensuing from the Shergold-Weir report – recommendations we called on government to adopt – and we welcome the recommendatons of the NSW government’s independent Opal Tower report released today. Namely, we strongly support the creation of a government-registered engineers database, independent third-party checks of critical design elements throughout high-rise construction, and the creation of a new Building Structure Review Board to establish and publish the facts relating to major structural damage of buildings arising from structural design and construction, to investigate their causes and to recommend regulatory changes as needed.

Practitioner regulation is key to Quality

The Institute has repeatedly lobbied government, released media statements, and joined with allied groups in a bid to effect changes needed to address construction process issues, including imposing tighter regulation of building practitioners that bring them closer into line with the standards applicable to architects.

Architects spend five years at university training to improve our built environment for the whole community – for the person who will live in the house, work in the office, play sport in the hall, sit on the steps of the the town hall, walk their dog through the courtyard. We all use buildings and the spaces in between. We all need to feel safe and secure and receive value for money spent.

To become registered, an architect must complete further training and examination, and then undertake continuing professional development to maintain that status. The last thing architects want to see is the built environment we have trained hard to improve instead become diminished and ineffective. But the quality of outcomes that should result from our profession’s highly developed skill base has been undermined by a lack of regulation for other building practitioners.

The quality of constructed – as distinct from designed – outcomes has also been compromised by a culture hell bent on prioritising profit at quality’s expense.

How does that happen?

Procurement must begin prioritising Quality

Procurement predominantly involves a hierarchy of three crucial concerns: Time, Cost, and Quality. If time and cost predicate the majority of decisions, the scales will dip to their weight. Inevitably quality suffers.

For most major construction projects the design architect is lucky to get to document to 70% (60% or even 50% in some cases) before it goes to tender and the builder takes on all the risk. Only the design outline is certified by the architect and sub-contractors employed by the builder then self-certify their own work – or risk not getting paid.

An overwhelming emphasis on speed and minimising cost has driven this process.

Neither a one size fits all procurement approach or a simple ‘return to the old’ is the answer to this major issue, which impacts the entire community. We must put our collective brains together and devise a better process than we have now.

Yes, increasing quality will increase the construction costs and time. But throwing people out of an unsafe building costs substantially more and takes longer to fix – as will stakeholders’ confidence. What is the emotional cost to the residents and others directly impacted?  What is the financial cost to the financiers, to the original developer, the builder, the strata owners, and to the insurers?

Quality must become the top priority. We want a built environment where you can walk your children down the street, stop in a café for an ice cream, shop for your groceries, grab a book from the library, and return home all the while feeling safe and secure.