The tragic fire in the Grenfell Tower in London in June highlights the question: “who is really in charge of our industry?”

I struggle to believe that a similar tragedy could happen here, although the apparent lack of quality of the blocks of apartments now blighting our inner cities is a cause of some concern.

And not just the quality of the design and the materials being employed, but also the often thoughtless, even dangerous, town planning.

I refuse to use that new meaningless phrase/title of resource management. If visiting Auckland, drive along Beach Road, or walk around the end of Union and Albert Streets to see the disparate and overlapping apartment blocks dumped on our fair city.

I thought we had an urban design panel, but perhaps they were asleep at the time.

The Grenfell Tower fire, as well as highlighting social issues around the quality of buildings provided for the less able and less wealthy, shows what happens when some key safety requirements are non-mandatory.

It seems possible that the building complied with current building codes, while still falling well short of any reasonable interpretation of what were appropriate standards to meet.

In the 1980s I designed (and administered) a six-storey building refurbishment project in Vanuatu. There were no local building codes and no requirement for a building consent.

The answer? I followed what were known as Lloyd’s Rules — standards based on Australian codes.

I was able to do this because I had complete administrative and quality control over the project on behalf of my Bank clients.

I worry whether today’s design consultants have that same ability to say “this is the standard to follow”.


Who’s the boss?

I recall a post-tender meeting with a building contractor during that same period.

He said something that has stuck with me: “Don, once the contract is signed my sole responsibility is to achieve the highest legal profit possible.”

Incidentally, the project went very smoothly, probably because there was no misunderstanding of our separate and joint responsibilities to the project, the building code and the building owner.

It also helped that I had the final say — as long as my decisions were based on the contract documents and on the code.

The building industry is mainly about making money. And whoever controls the project’s finances determines the quality of the finished result.

You can talk all day about professionalism and the human desire to do the best we can. Today, most building decisions are made on the basis of what is the cheapest way to meet the code.

This means that our Building Code and the administration of that code is of supreme importance in ensuring the quality of our built environment.

Yes, there are projects based on a higher standard of aesthetic and material quality, but such projects are becoming scarce in today’s cost-based environment.


Hands off

The current approach of the Ministry is to administer the Building Act, produce a few guidance documents and a bunch of non-mandatory deemed-to-comply solutions and then let the industry — and the controlling bodies, the Building Consent Authorities (BCAs) — to run the industry by themselves.

Every now and then a new idea pops up out of some bureaucrat’s brain, such as the LBP scheme, but government generally expects us all to be good little boys and girls and do the right thing. It doesn’t work.


Keep off

A key issue our industry is failing to address is design changes and material substitutions occurring during the construction phase, especially when, as is increasingly common, the design team plays no part in the construction process.

In theory, this should not happen. In theory, BCAs should manage and approve all such changes that occur after consent and before project completion.

In addition is the issue of non-compliant materials being substituted during construction, either by intent (to save money) or through ignorance (including no professional overview by the designer). Whatever the reason, the current controls are inadequate.

The design professions have put this in the too-hard basket, saying that if a consultant is not commissioned to carry out contract observation then he or she enters the building site, or even talks on the phone about the project, at his or her peril.

Their insurers support this stance, even though it is leading to significant negative quality issues in our industry.

To our professional organisations I say sit down with your insurers and sort this out.

You are abrogating your responsibility of ensuring that your members can perform their intended, in fact, sanctioned role — ensuring that the buildings they design comply with the code.


Let’s face it

Yet another bit of useless research has recently been carried out, this time by Otago University scientists. Apparently they have discovered that people are more likely to trust someone whose name matches their facial appearance.

So Tom, Don or Joan are more likely to be trusted if their facial shape is as well rounded as their name.

So a Richard or Jill who have a long, thin or angular face don’t stand a chance.

To complete these rather farcical conclusions, the report concludes: “Face shape produces expectations about a person’s name.” 

Although Donald Trump does have a nicely rounded appearance.

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