Now is the time to stop creating regulations and create a building industry that works, writes Victoria University of Wellington’s Dr Nigel Isaacs 

COMMENT: Buildings are often in the news, but what are the reasons for this?

Once it would have been due to some important, exciting or innovative event. Sadly, in recent years many New Zealand buildings have become newsworthy due to failure – fire, earthquake, “leaky building”, poor performance or just a failure to comply with what is expected of a comparatively new building.

Yet why should this be happening now?

The simple answer relied on by many people is that buildings are not complying with the requirements of the New Zealand Building Code (NZBC) due to a failure of someone or something in the construction process.

And the simple response to this is to tighten the requirements of the NZBC through changing either the Building Act or the implementing documents – the Acceptable Solutions and the Verification Methods.

Such incremental changes to the building control system will not, however, resolve the problems – although for the past 27 years we have behaved as if they will. The Building Act 1991, the parent of the NZBC, was revised in 2004 and since then the new Act has been subject to 10 amendments (a change in four out of every five years). The NZBC has also been subject to extensive revision, due not just to changes in the Act, but also to changes in knowledge and technology.

The answers are actually far more complex than suggested by these simplistic solutions. Buildings are probably the most complex thing we deal with in our lives. Buildings are complex interactions of people, materials, technology, design, construction, uses and legislation.

Traditionally, this complexity has been managed at all levels of the construction process – by the designers, the materials supplier, the builders, the on-site quality control, the building inspectors and the representatives of the final purchaser. These are all groups of people, because each involves many people with different skills and experiences.

When the building has been completed and handed over, the occupants start to use it. Even the simplest building will require ongoing maintenance and repairs, so the wider construction industry continues to play a critical role. Unlike the creation part of the process, once in use, changes to the building involve more than a neat pencil line (or the movement of the mouse with a computer design program). They require physical action, and, if the problem is inside a wall or other building component, demolition and rebuilding. If the problem has resulted in the destruction of part of the building, major investment may be required.

Once the building has stopped being fit for purpose, further complex interactions are required to decide whether to refurbish or demolish.

The Weathertightness Overview Group appointed by the Building Industry Authority to inquire into the weathertightness of New Zealand buildings (“leaky homes”) reported in 2002.  It advocated for changes to the Building Act and:

– a building licensing regime

– an effective product certification system

– more relevant and pro-active building research

– improving the standards and content of professional and trade education, including the training of building inspectors

– ‘occupation certificates’ and/or house warranties or guarantees

While some of these have been partially addressed, often by the use of tick boxes, the complete suite of issues has not.

In particular, a key aspect that has been missing is education and training. Over the past 30 years, the construction industry has replaced education, training, specialist site construction management and the concept of good practice with minimum performance legislation and finance. Both are very poor at the creation of complex physical constructions.

Legislation does not stop timber rotting, nor does a complex mortgage derivative stop a fire.

To create a viable building requires a complex combination of design, materials, construction and management, as well as ensuring at all stages the provision of flexibility to ensure the building is fit for purpose not only when first occupied but also over its lifetime. These can be achieved only by a resilient, flexible building control regime supported by high quality training and education.

The solution since 1991 when the first Building Act was passed has been to rely on ever increasing regulation. Where is the solution that responds to the issues that have time and time again been identified as lacking in the building industry? Now is the time to stop creating regulations and start to create a building industry that works.

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