The case for cleaning up the building industry

New Zealand’s building industry is in crisis. One might seem surprised to hear this, so let me get the nature of this issue straight now. This is not a crisis caused by a lack of work, for the Christchurch rebuild is well underway with a number of anchor projects being constructed or are about to be built. Nor is it caused by a national lack of work, with high demand for both government and private residential projects.

So, what is the crisis you rightfully ask? The crisis is a failure of integrity across the sector, caused by a number of factors:

  1. The building inspectorate is weak, and needs stronger enforcement powers
  2. Questionable steel that does not meet New Zealand construction standards is being used in a number of projects, bringing into question the structural integrity of those buildings
  3. A poor on site culture exists in many building projects, such as poor disposal of waste material, shoddy workmanship
  4. Unqualified and/or opportunistic tradespeople
  5. Difficulty getting qualified tradespeople who have integrity

When one adds these factors together the outcome is ugly. The potential consequences of not addressing it – which I will get to shortly – even uglier. And it adds to New Zealand’s reputation of being a sort of wild west frontier when it comes occupational safety and health.

New Zealand has already had the leaky homes crisis caused by houses whose building materials and construction caused internal leaking that rotted them from the inside out. It cost hundreds of millions of dollars and despite an inquiry, I have the impression not all of the recommendations were fully implemented, and that there is still a problem in the background.

And we have had the Canterbury/Christchurch earthquakes. On one hand this was a resounding endorsement of the strict nature of the building code, which arguably had its worst and finest hours both at once – unsecured brickwork with old mortar not up to 21st Century standards killed numerous people in central Christchurch. But the two modern buildings whose failure was responsible for most of the 185 people who died on or as an immediate consequence of the 22 February 2011 aftershock were going to fail anyway because their design and construction did not meet the 1986 building code. Had they met it, most – if not all – of those people would have survived.

When one looks at the current crisis with the background of the leaky homes problem and how the building code performed in the Canterbury/Christchurch earthquakes, we should be asking why are we letting this happen again. We should be asking ourselves what standards we would accept if we as individuals had a building project in progress, and if our standards are high, then why should we as a society permit this sloppiness. It is simply not good enough.

This affects everyone thinking of building something. This affects everyone currently building something and it affects anyone who owns – state or private – a recently completed building/house/piece of infrastructure. Is what you own up to scratch? When it was being built were there signs of anything amiss -shonky practices, building materials or sloppy onsite behaviour? If there was, you could be affected.

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