Myth busting: The building certifier is not the archetypal villain.

Myth busting: The building certifier is not the archetypal villain.

After the litany of defective buildings discovered over the past two years with life threatening consequences, the building certifier has been blamed initially for just about everything. Although there are a small number of dodgy certifiers who have enabled the problem, most are professional and wrongly blamed for all the woes of the industry. Dr Drane of Expert Triage busts the myth of the shady building certifier and brings the real causes to life and a way ahead.

My regulatory jargon here is based on my predominant involvement in the NSW and Queensland systems, however many of the principles are the same with different names. I have re-formulated one of my former articles to bring this to life today (see below). I have ignored the current name versions of this role in the form of ‘Building Surveyors’ and ‘Building Certifiers’ and ‘Principal Certifying Authorities’ to keep it to the basic principles.

The building certifier has been around for decades and used to be implemented by the local council through the Development Approval ( DA) and Building Approval (BA) process. This all changed in the early 2000s with the advent of private certifiers who were ironically often previous council certifiers who jumped ship into the world of private consulting.

Although designed to deal with the rising volume of projects and the obvious logistical restraints of councils, the system placed the certification in the control of private certifiers who were in turn commissioned by the client or property developer. Thus the vulnerability to corruption which definitely happened and still does.

Chronology of Apartment Tower Tragedies: 2019 Dr Jonathan Drane: Expert Triage

Chronology of Apartment Tower Tragedies: 2019 Dr Jonathan Drane: Expert Triage

Prior to private certification another key quality control was in place. A client, through the architect would appoint a ’Clerk of Works’ who was qualified to overview the works and the Clerk would liaise with the council inspector. The architect had a direct interest in this relationship as did the other consulting engineers. This small team in unison would ensure that the building was constructed to code and to the quality required by the architect and council’s architects. When the project was completed there was a completion certificate for the construction contract and this included a ‘certificate of occupancy’ issued by the Council that the project was fit for occupancy and its intended purpose. These certifications in turn allowed for the building to be ‘registered for title’ and change from a construction site to a titled property ready for sale and occupancy.

Such a certification would not allow a building to be registered for title if it leaked like a sieve, was not ‘fit for purpose’ or had not been built to code standards. With the advent of private certification the BA process was able to be outsourced by private certifiers who in the earlier days had set up shop after working in the same role at council. The actual ability to choose between a council process or a private certifier was left in the hands of the developing party or ‘applicant’. All this was exacerbated by the rise and rise of the private property developer.

So is the private certifier a villain?

The great majority of private certifiers are hard working, diligent, stressed individuals who bear the load of overviewing the numerous certifications required from the myriad subcontractors and suppliers that make up a project. As was noted on an ABC documentary who interviewed a building certifier soon after the Opal Tower misadventure in 2018, he declared that it is actually impossible to be across the inspection of every element within a high rise apartment tower and so the actual physical certification and inspection of certain key elements was done on a sample basis.

Return to the Clerk of Works?

The two key drivers of a successful high quality building project is self professionalism and self regulation. Prior to private certification and the advent of the dodgy developer and the D&C builder, the industry was implicitly self-regulated by these two principals.

The return of the Clerk of Works is sometimes derided by recent commentators as costly but it appears the absence of such a role has led partly to the horror that is the multi-apartment tower industry of today.

Dr Jonathan Drane

5 August 2021