David Kernohan: Industry yet to nail down its flaws

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Ten years after the Hunn Report on the leaky-building crisis, one of its authors checks what became of its recommendations. His verdict? The building industry's systemic failures are still there.

The Hunn Report found the principal causes of the weathertightness problem were systemic - societal and technical. Photo / Paul Estcourt
The Hunn Report found the principal causes of the weathertightness problem were systemic - societal and technical. Photo / Paul Estcourt

On the face of it there were some positive responses to the 25 recommendations of the Hunn Report on the leaky-building crisis.

These included the Weathertightness Homes Resolution Act 2002 and the Building Act 2004, revisions to the building code and the establishment of the Department of Building and Housing.

However, lawyers became the primary beneficiaries of the resolution service. The act and the code added further complexity to operating in the industry and the department became a bureaucratic and risk-averse bastion now subsumed - or lost? - within the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.

One of the Hunn Report's recommendations was for a public inquiry into the state of the building industry. Some witnesses at the Royal Commission into the Canterbury earthquakes have suggested similar. The Royal Commission's findings will prove interesting.

The Hunn Report found the principal causes of the weathertightness problem were systemic - societal and technical.

Societal issues related to the economy and the marketplace. In the 1990s, the desire for low-price inner city multi-unit housing; a de-skilling of building management and the labour force, a proliferation of narrowly focused sub-contractors and a laissez faire attitude to regulation all combined to contribute to a systemic failure.

Technical changes related to new and potentially cheaper forms of building construction, notably monolithic panel systems and kiln-dried timber.

Both were foisted together on a housing industry more used to one-off traditional weatherboard and corrugated iron construction. Sadly, the failure of such panel systems overseas was well known to their advocates yet little was done to educate the industry to the new systems.

In addition to changes to the Building Act and its enactment, the Hunn Report advocated for:

•A building licensing regime.

•An effective product certification system.

•More relevant and pro-active building research.

•"Occupation certificates" and/or house warranties or guarantees.

•Improving the standards and content of professional and trade education including the training of building inspectors.

Today, there is a building licensing regime but it is more a system of "ticking boxes" than a means to upskill the industry. There is still no effective product certification scheme and importantly no building system certification schemes.

Branz still produces appraisal certificates but their usefulness remains questionable. Branz is our major building research organisation and remains largely funded and directed by the industry. Independent researchers find it hard to get funds. Public sources give little or no support to an industry that contributes about 10 per cent of GDP.

The leaky-building phenomenon has taught us, as have the events in Canterbury, that one thing we are good at is running for cover.

Ironically, getting "cover" in terms of insurance, warranty or guarantee in relation to buildings leaky or earthquake prone is, if not impossible, then potentially and probably hugely unaffordable.

So what is the status of the code compliance certificate, or a possible "occupancy certificate" or a home warranty as advocated in the Hunn Report? What of "joint and several" liability? Clearly, there remains a disinclination to consider, far less pursue, any of these.

Education levels in the building industry range from no qualification to postgraduate qualification. At the trade level, qualifications are attained through Industry Training Organisations. Some of the ground lost through the abandonment of apprenticeships and polytechnic trade training in the 1990s is being redressed. However, there remains more than a perception that skill levels on site continue to decline and that good trades people are in short supply.

At professional levels, qualifications are attained through the University and Polytechnic systems. There remains no specific qualification for building inspectors.

On site, the property developer's interest remains financial - maximum return for minimum outlay. Project management is about programming and co-ordination and keeping costs down. The demise of the clerk of works in the 1980s has seen a significant loss of independent quality assurance on-site. Architects and engineers have long abrogated their on-site supervisory roles. In addition over the past 20 years architectural education has moved to the art end of its educational spectrum to the detriment of science, technical and applied aspects of the construction of buildings.

Much responsibility has been passed to the building inspectorate - overworked, underpaid and undereducated.

This all manifested itself in the comment that "no one takes overall responsibility for the project anymore" (a quote from the 2002 Hunn report).

The respective roles and responsibilities of developers, project managers, designers, main contractors, sub-contractors, product suppliers and building owners are unclear.

The industry remains highly competitive, disparate in structure, and lacking in formal accountability. This, above all, needs to be fixed.

To say nothing has happened in the past 10 years would be unfair to many who have strived to make changes and improvements. However, sadly, overall, the systemic failures identified in the Hunn Report in 2002 are still evident - 10 years on.

David Kernohan is an architect and co-author of the Hunn Report 2002, with Don Hunn and Ian Bond.

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