Inspiration comes easily to some, but for most of us there’s a touch of panic and a lot of hard work when initially confronted by a role or task.

It took me some time before I could confidently speak off the cuff on a chosen topic, or prepare an article for publication.

Designers, in particular, are divided into those who can see the final design after the first few lines on paper or screen, and those needing time for quiet reflection and more than a few hours of painful scribbling before a design solution is finally seen through a fog of uncertainty.

And that’s before we even start to think about how to make the final design meet current construction requirements.


It’s complex

Today our industry is faced with increasingly complex rules and regulations. While “the good old days” were probably not as good as some recall, pre-1991 there was greater clarity around how to meet compliance and quality standards.

Today, quality has been subsumed below the need to meet increasingly unclear and complicated compliance rules.

Was the move to a performance-based Building Act and Code the start of a decline in industry standards?

This assumes, of course, that there has been such a decline. I believe there has been a significant decline, and that the prospect of new built quality issues is greater today than in the past.

The prevailing attitude that all weathertightness issues are behind us is simply not supportable. While only a crude indicator, there is no sign of fewer plastic-wrapped buildings in our cities and towns.

There is little talk today about lifetime costs. Twenty years ago it was all about the cost of building over time. Essentially, while a building’s initial cost might be higher than the minimum needed to meet current building standards, with lower maintenance and longer life, the cost over time is lower. 

It’s better for the building owner, better for the environment, and better for the economy. Some economists would argue against the last. In a developed economy the occasional disaster or rebuilding phase can kick-start an economic revival. Sad but true.


Who is making the key decisions?

A crunch issue is who is making the decisions on building quality?

Who is deciding whether a cladding system should meet the 15-year durability requirement of our performance-based Code, versus selecting a more robust, cheaper-to-maintain cladding solution?

I still recall with some pain my first and last experience of working under a project manager, when I was asked to accept a cheaper roof because the developers had underestimated the fit-out costs.

The question of who is making key quality decisions is more about ensuring we produce a longer lasting, more appealing and sustainable built environment.

Not just a visually appealing, even inspiring result, but one that will stand the test of time in our rather damp and shaky country.

Recent events have highlighted the fact that building codes are about minimum standards of health and safety, and not about long-term resilience. Designing to code is about life safety, not avoiding the likelihood of superficial damage to a building’s fabric.

While this is an understandable approach, it begs the question as to whether, in the case of key buildings and infrastructure, we shouldn’t be aiming higher.


The code

A key weakness in our current approach to managing the quality of our built environment is that under a performance-based Code containing deemed-to-comply solutions, minimum standards soon become the only standard.

Having been involved in developing the key acceptable solution on the external building envelope, I have little faith in such documents providing clear and unequivocal answers to building quality.

For one thing, they are generic — that is, they ignore the fact that branded products are needed to build a building.

Second, most acceptable solutions, while containing myriad construction details, don’t go close to defining the many factors needing to be considered on a particular site using particular building products.

BRANZ produces guide books of compliant construction details, attempting to cover the range of different detailing approaches applying to a particular location, such as a window jamb or cill.

However, it is impossible to cover all possible permutations, and does not address the issue of branded versus generic products.


Anti-social media

Evocative phrases such as social media can reinforce the perception that the literal meaning of the phrase is true.

Sectors of society are under the impression that if you use Facebook, Twitter or any of the myriad ways to electronically connect with strangers, that this constitutes a social life.

This attitude is not new — it is just more widespread, easier and more interesting. We can all recall friends, or more often our children, spending hours on the telephone talking about nothing.

Some forms of social media have become useful, but they provide potentially dangerous paths to communicating information on construction projects.

I still recall when I sat my oral exam, after the two-year apprenticeship required by all newly-qualified architects, I was criticised for including telephone communications as part of my involvement in the construction phase.

Today I suspect many young designers would struggle to gain much involvement in the contract administration phase without the use of electronic media. More’s the pity.


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