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What the Industry can Learn from the Opal Tower

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Compliance and quality issues are back in the headlines following the failure in concrete components of the Opal Tower in Sydney’s Olympic Park. The faulty structure forced the Christmas Eve evacuation of some residents of the new apartment building.

The interim report into the causes of the building’s faults identifies a number of design and construction issues. These include hob beams not matching the design specifications; grouting not being completed according to the detailed design; and issues with reinforcing within precast panels.

The authors of the report, Professors Hoffman, Carter and Foster, have recommended that independent and qualified structural engineers check any rectification plans before repairs commence.

There is also further investigation taking place to examine other parts of the building where damage has occurred, including level 4. 

The NSW Government commissioned the investigation. However, it initially responded to the Opal incident by stating it would “throw the book” at building certifiers in the state. The certifiers have responded by highlighting broader issues, compromising both building quality and industry reputations.

According to President of the Australian Institute of Building Surveyors, Troy Olds, the government’s immediate blame of certifiers shows the ignorance of systemic issues—issues that can result in other occurrences. Among them, the use of flammable Aluminium Composite Panels on facades around the world, asbestos-contaminated glazing panels at Perth Children’s Hospital, and the concrete failures at Opal.  

He points out that building certifiers are only in a position to undertake the inspections required by state-based legislation and additional inspections commissioned by the building owner, developer, builder or other stakeholders. Mandated inspections include wet areas, firewalls and the final inspection.

Structural engineering design is only inspected by a registered engineer so that they can be certified. The engineer may be the same one that completed the design or an engineer from the same company. 

Mr Olds says the certifier’s role is a “short-term auditing role” under current practices and regulations. They are not on-site 24/7, nor are certifiers expected to undertake the traditional Clerk of Works function.

Another factor beyond a certifier’s control is that contemporary buildings and the industry itself are both getting increasingly complicated and are constantly changing—and the regulators have not kept up with the changes.

He says reinstating the Clerk of Works role on projects could be a sound way to address many of the issues that lie behind an Opal-type building failure. It would go “some way” towards having someone to review all relevant documentation and processes while providing integration and a point of oversight.

Another change AIBS advocates for is for all responsible parties in the building supply chain to be properly trained and accredited.

There needs to be a “level of accountability all the way down the supply chain."

There needs to be a “level of accountability all the way down the supply chain,” he says. “Lack of certification [of a practitioner or subcontractor] increases risk.”

Currently, the building surveyors are one of the “most regulated” professions. In every state, regulations require them to be registered, undertake compulsory ongoing professional development, and carry appropriate professional insurances.

Mr Olds says AIBS wants to see these requirements apply across the board for all construction practitioners and in every state as part of a genuine movement towards industry improvement.

Marc Colella, Industry Director and Building Structures Practice Lead Australia/New Zealand at AECOM, says there is an inconsistency between the level of review required for infrastructure engineering design and building structural engineering design. In some states, an engineer can self-certify a structural engineering design for a building, he says. By contrast, any infrastructure project will have a mandatory requirement for independent review of the engineering designs.

He says there needs to be a mandate for independent review of building structural designs as a minimum requirement across all states. Otherwise, any major building might have a thousand people or more at risk in case of a building failure.

Colella identifies another issue—Design and Construct contracts require a builder to carry “more and more risk.”

Under a D&C contract, a builder is required to manage the design. Colella points out that historically, builders didn’t have to develop the required design management capability.

The construction element they are well-qualified to do, he says, but the design management part is a different skill. Thus, such contracts require builders to acquire new capability.

Colella says best practice in terms of implementing better checks and balances on engineering design would see independent review and design certification happen as early as possible in the detailed design process.

In states like Victoria where independent certification of the design often takes place, it generally takes place at the end of the design process. This is also a point when the builder will be under significant time pressure to get construction underway.

The importance of the certifier needs to also be “elevated,” Mr Colella says.

In the absence of a mandated third-party review of engineering design, a builder can reduce their risks by commissioning one independently. According to Colella, builders “do get a value-add out of that process.”

It also provides protection against the kinds of reputational damage and legal liabilities a non-compliant building or major building failure can result in.

An awareness of these risks is actually seeing many developers in New South Wales taking the proactive step of engaging an independent reviewer and verifier at a “very early stage” of a project before they novate a builder, Colella says.

“We have got to learn from [Opal],” he says. “We need to improve the minimum standard in terms of the review and certification of very complex structures.”

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