How Big is Big

December 14, 2013

How Big is Big?…Or I Can’t Tell How Long This Piece of String Is!
by Greg O’Sullivan
Philip and I are labeled the ‘whistle blowers’ of what is currently known as the ‘leaky building crisis’. I find this title and the name ‘leaky building crisis’ enigmas.When we first raised this issue we did so to bring about change.The New Zealand Herald’s investigative reporting which opened the issue to the general public and provided the label ‘leaky buildings‘. We became known because all paths led the Herald back to us.At the time we wanted industry change and recognition of the defective building problems existence by the government’s regulatory body the Building Industry Authority. However, no one listened or believed us. Time has proved us right. The issue around leaks and other defects existed, the problem was real, and it has affected a large group of people. Is it only ‘leaky buildings’? Water ingress through claddings and the resultant rot, particularly to untreated timber, is a major problem. However, it was not the sole issue. I prefer the phrase: ‘defective building’.

The hallmarks have been untreated timber, water and rot. It is dramatic and it impacts people’s lives. However, this rotten tale is only part of the picture.

We find structural elements missing: failing materials, hastily improvised design, protective features missing, design ignored or not supplied, cladding erected so it will not perform the task required. This is ‘defective building’ and this is the crisis we are still in.

Unfortunately the government response was patch up. It gave us the Weathertight Homes Resolution Service (WHRS) Act. It is a statute that is restrictive in application and only partially effective in its results.

A construction and technology Court would have been a better model. Britain has one and its track record is very good. The WHRS is a judicial process outside the Department of Justice. It restricts the nature of defective claim to external leaks and as such is not able to deal with the whole issue.

Ponsonby Gardens now famous as a ruling in WHRS terms, in my view, was incomplete. The showers were defective but were outside the process and excluded from the adjudication award. That simple missing element from the claim is only the tip of the iceberg. Many buildings have elements that are defective, apart from leaks. Yet these defects can never go to the specialised ‘court’ set up to deal with this ‘crisis’. In my opinion this is wrong and needs addressing. Learn from the British Construction and Technology Court – it works.

People imagine these problems are going away. Well the magnitude that Philip and I predicted of defective buildings is now greater than the $1 billion figure promoted by the government, which is undoubtedly wrong. We believe their estimates are on the light side. The Department of Building and Housing figure does not reflect the true cost of repairs across the total construction marketplace and does not accurately reflect the true cost of likely future cost. It does not even accurately reflect the cost of ‘domestic leaky buildings’.

The source was restricted to the Weathertight Homes Resolution Service data and on light ‘guesstimates’ of repair costs, rather than the higher present factual cost data or a survey taking into account all the known problems. The High Court, district court, private mediation, arbitration and private negotiation are handling a large number of these issues. The Department of Building and Housing simply ignored these other dispute groups in coming to their very low figure of $1 billion.

Remediation in New Zealand in design, administration and surveying encompasses wide ranges of construction types.

Failure involves shopping malls, commercial and industrial buildings, lifestyle villages, hospitals, Churches, school buildings, court rooms, multi-storey buildings as well as the well known multi-units and domestic buildings. Thankfully the least affected are the small scale group homes, though they too have in part been affected by the problem.

What is the roof of the problem? It is the lack of knowledge right through the industry. This encompasses every facet of New Zealand construction including design, the inspection and control processes, the construction management and on site control, the suppliers and the manufacturers or importers of material. At its root is the crying need for more building science and education and greater general understanding to underpin all of these facets.

Fortunately the problem emerges slowly rather than as a a sudden traumatic event, in the sense it can be lived with or controlled. However, it will be with us for a significant length of time. Some pundits believe that by 2011 it will be over, I doubt that! I see no reason to be that hopeful, I believe that things are improving though the improvements are very slow. The very way forward is to be a degree hindered by the demands placed on already stretched resources in dealing with the defective building. The litigation that goes with defective building is time and resource demanding. The huge statutory change is also a time and resource cost. Upskilling an entire industry from the design, through the inspection processes to the person on site will take a long time.

It takes a significant time to turn around the Titanic and from my position I can just start to see a deflection in the bow of that ship, called ‘defective building’. The slow turn toward better construction is starting to occur. However, there is no magic bullet or quick answer available.

Licensed Building Practitioners, as part of the change, is a good concept. the transition stage will take time and will be short of the intended goal. This Scheme will take until 2015 plus to become effective. The inspection base is becoming stricter but still lacks the skilled, knowledgeable personnel to be fully effective. Design is improving but the knowledge of how and what to do still has to be fed through the design community of New Zealand. Science is still emerging with answers and information so urgently required.

One day we will see the end of that piece of string I am looking at. Currently we are still rolling up the beginning ball.

Greg Greg O’Sullivan is the founding director of Prendos Limited and an expert in the area of building failure and in particular, weathertight issues and has, in the past, highlighted to the industry many of the material failures occurring with products used to clad buildings. He is a Registered Building Surveyor, Immediate Past President of the Institute of Building Surveyors and a Founding Member of that Institute, BRANZ Accredited Adviser, Fellow of the Arbitrators’ and Mediators’ Institute of New Zealand and sits on both Mediation and Arbitration Panels and is on the Advanced Panel for Mediation with LEADR.

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