Identifying and addressing the risks or simply risk-averse?

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The joint response to the overcladding article by Michael Fox from Philip O’Sullivan and William Hursthouse was a useful contribution to the debate. While highlighting the issues from their point of view it was disappointing in not going further and offering solutions to the impediments to overcladding it identified.

The response offered some concerns as to why overcladding was unsatisfactory, but these were largely management, legal and risk issues rather than a clear technical argument against overcladding per se.

Clearly, stripping the cladding to expose all its frailties and then rebuilding a dwelling and upgrading the exterior envelope with all the bells and whistles that current knowledge and the latest E2AS1 offers is desirable, but is it essential?

The reality for many owners is that this is an unaffordable option and not cost-effective unless they have help from others or access to the Government’s FAP scheme to make the approach financially viable. Otherwise this reclad option is simply out of the reach of thousands of owners.

Mike Fox’s alternative suggestion to enhance the existing cladding and improve the potential performance deserves greater consideration as a way for these people to mitigate the risks in their homes and, at the same time, it attempts to address market concerns and perceptions.

Messrs O’Sullivan and Hursthouse suggest that the reputational damage suffered by all monolithic dwellings built from 1993 to 2005 is due, in part, to the likely reality that ingress issues may not be properly identified and quantified. This is true, but the high cost of that stigma at present is the cost assessment of the reclad.

This is seen as the only inevitable outcome for all monolithic-clad houses, whether they are “leakies” or not. At least Mike Fox’s approach offered a different financial alternative to the mix.

If this and other robust solutions could be developed then surely the affect of stigma can also be mitigated if concerns can be appropriately addressed by more than one means.

The reasons offered against this limited approach by the writers are valid, but need to be addressed independently of whatever repair scope is decided on, be it the reclad or over-clad options, and they are simply prudent considerations anyway.

It is unfortunate that the one size (or one option) fits all approach is only put forward. In an ideal world we would all have the new and safest cars, but the reality is that people need to drive and for many this means accepting a lesser or affordable alternative solution.

This entails some risk, but choosing to not objectively put options to owners and allow them to choose and accept risk (similar to the informed consent approach for medical remediation) has risk for the industry in itself.

Recladding certainly drives a very high expectation from owners of performance. One wonders how many owners have opted for the full reclad option and then found themselves with an overcapitalised property.

The argument was put that certain issues such as ground levels may not be addressed, but whatever scope is preferred, these issues must and can be addressed. There is no reason, for example, that concrete nibs cannot still be done or ground levels lowered as part of an over-clad scope, and this work is quite independent of a reclad.

Care is also needed with any high-risk elements such as complex junctions, decks and cantilevered structures. These can and must be addressed with the over-clad option.

Likewise, treatment issues and uncertainty about construction need to be considered but a proper risk analysis should be done on a case by case basis that considers the consequences of failure, rather than discounting an option out of hand.

It was suggested that until better investigative assessment technology is readily available, then reclad is the only option. Technological advances in recent years in assessment have advanced, but in our view uptake is patchy. In such cases, recladding does become the only option, but for all the wrong reasons.

Addressing all the issues is desirable, but mitigating risk with greater understanding and commitment to monitoring, inspection and maintenance must be acceptable, and lessens the reliance on industry stakeholders.

Innovative methods need to be encouraged to address particular concerns such as timber treatment, moulds and decay, and the real risks to the building appreciated, including the risk of doing nothing.

The Building Act at s4 (2) still contains the principles of (g) allowing for innovation in methods and (e) considering the costs of a building (including maintenance) over the whole of its life, to achieve its purposes.

Recent determinations under s178 of the Building Act such as 2010-80 and 2013-011 have provided some clarification on scope of work and what a council can require when issuing a building consent, and what an owner’s obligations are under the Building Act have provided some clarity.

Properly documenting the scope and expectations from the building work is essential, and must be clear to present (and future) owners.

Designers and builders must be equally clear as to what undertakings they are entering into, but the law is clear that the owner can decide the level of building work they wish to undertake — and the “building work” is what has to comply with the Building Code, and not necessarily the “existing building”.

Having said that, a brief to make the existing building “code compliant” (as perhaps a full reclad presupposes) would have to be dealt with quite differently to satisfy that expectation.

It is likely true that overclads have become part of litigation, but it is also true that recent reclads have as well. Indeed, all building work has the same potential for unsatisfied owners to take court action in the future.

The goal must be to provide a transparent and robust process that is resilient to challenge rather than being risk-averse and simply refusing to be involved in any remediation work that is less than a full upgrade and a rebuild in all respects to the current code requirements.

The objective, of course, must be building work that is fit for purpose, and providing for safe and sanitary dwellings, with protection of the owner’s economic investment. This must mean not forcing owners into a one size fits all dilemma that is financially untenable and, worse, stops owners doing something to prudently enhance the performance of their dwelling even if, in some expert’s eyes, the work falls short of their preferred recommendations.

Finally, the obligations of the owner and builders under the Building Act in regard to what work can be done on an existing building, what level of performance and possible damage needs to be addressed, and what performance must be attained by building work also needs to be made clear.

An industry-wide discussion and collaboration is required to provide the support for alternative approaches which has been sadly lacking in the past 12 years while we have grappled with leaky homes.

However, it is now essential for the tens of thousands of dwellings outside the 10-year period for and not qualified for help through FAP (and the courts) but which still need to be managed and maintained and, at the same time, for owners to be supported to address the issues as best they can.

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