The story is one any homebuyer dreads, and in May of this year, it played out at the Skyview apartment complex in the Sydney suburb of Castle Hill.
Inspectors from New South Wales Fair Trading identified “structural issues that would require specialist engineering advice” in two of the five towers that make up the Skyview complex, one of Sydney’s biggest residential property developments. This resulted in a prohibition order on the towers, which has since been lifted.
The Castle Hill project is far from the only example of construction gone potentially wrong.
Flammable cladding on the Lacrosse tower in Melbourne led to a blaze in 2014. Cracks found in Sydney’s Opal Towers led to the evacuation of residents in 2018, while residents were evacuated from the city’s Mascot Towers in 2019. University of New South Wales researchers found that 26 per cent of a sample of 635 buildings in Sydney had documented evidence of defects.
It’s no surprise that public confidence in the construction industry is being tested.
“I think there is a real concern about building and construction quality in New South Wales and across the country at the moment,” said Engineers Australia Chief Engineer Jane MacMaster FIEAust CPEng.
“But it’s not a problem that one piece of the construction puzzle can fix alone, and so the wider building reform agenda is incredibly important for getting that whole system to work such that it is producing high quality buildings as an outcome.”
Engineers will have a critical role to play in any reforms, MacMaster said, but they aren’t the only people involved.
“We wholeheartedly support the New South Wales building reform agenda,” she said. “Engineers need to understand their role, what they’re accountable for, and also how their work interacts with other actors’ work in that system and ensure that they are performing their work to a very high standard.”
Building reform required
Baoying Tong, Engineers Australia’s Senior Manager, Building Reform and Projects, said Engineers Australia sees building reform as a “must”, and that engineers should have a big role to play.
“Engineers Australia has played a really important role — a pivotal role, I would say — in advising recent regulation changes, such as the [NSW] Design and Building Practitioners Regulation 2021,” Tong said.
“We actively provide feedback we hear from members to [the government]. Based on industry inputs, changes are made, and further guidelines are provided to help industry cope with the impact of regulations.”
Engineers Australia supports and advocates for mandatory inspections by engineers during construction and independent third-party review of projects.
“It’s quite important,” Tong said. “Imagine if you have a high risk-profile building. Automatically, you want to have major oversight on this building, and one way to do this is to have an independent body of engineers to do peer reviews, for example, on the structural design of the building.”
Engineers should also have a way to maintain engagement with projects after they have been completed, Tong suggested.
“Design engineers may not, because they finish the engagement at that point, have a chance to know what happens once a building gets handed over. What happens in one year, three years, 10 years?,” he said.
“I feel there has been a gap; and that is for engineers to go back to a building after the building’s been built and verify some of the assumptions they made during design. That way, they can learn and improve their practice.”
Maintaining professional standards
Both Tong and MacMaster emphasised the importance of professional standards.
“Our professional standards framework underpins our Chartered and NER credentials and is the vehicle through which we support our members with what they need to uphold high standards of engineering practice,” MacMaster said.
“That includes everything from the Code of Ethics through to practice protocols, through to the competency standards, which are undergoing a major review to ensure that they’re aligned with the International Engineering Alliance.”
Beyond NSW, as the national peak body of engineers, Engineers Australia is engaging in conversations about building reform with key stakeholders in other jurisdictions, including Victoria and the Northern Territory, and is supporting the national Australian Building Codes Board (ABCB).
Neil Savery, CEO of the ABCB, said the body is grateful for the input it receives from engineers. Responding to recommendations outlined in the 2018 Shergold and Weir Building Confidence Report (BCR), the ABCB established a dedicated BCR Implementation team and published a series of consultation papers.
“The really important thing that engineers provide us is often an evidence base,” he said. “We can talk about things, but what’s critical for us to be able to move on something is having an evidence base, and it’s often Engineers Australia who are able to do that.”
Savery believes that issues in the construction industry are not the results of the standards themselves, but the way they’re applied.
“Most people accept that Australia has a first rate code and a first rate set of construction standards for the purpose of building buildings,” he said.
“The work that has been undertaken over the last five years — pretty much since the Lacrosse building fire at the end of 2014 — has pointed to issues around the application of codes and standards, the culture of industry, the ability in some cases of people to understand and access those codes and standards.”
What will really help improve confidence in the industry is improved governance, practice, education and training.
“We need engineers who are at the leading edge of practice to engage in this process so that we at the ABCB in particular can benefit from the latest knowledge that people have when they are practising in the field,” Savery said.
Tong said that collaboration is the key to positive change. As an example, Engineers Australia aims to facilitate better communications between engineers and building certifiers by developing a joint guide with the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors, which would allow for deeper understanding between the roles.
“We are also developing another joint guideline for owners and for strata managers, to think about when they are worried about the quality of their buildings, and they want to engage someone like an engineer to help them get on top of the risk and find ways to remediate those risks,” he said.
MacMaster said she sees her primary responsibility as Chief Engineer as to ensure and uphold high standards of engineering practice within Australia.
“We have a large team dedicated to this,” she said.
“It is our highest priority, and we have a large body of work underway to strengthen our existing systems but also to make them future-proof. And we continue to work extensively across and collaboratively with various New South Wales building sector stakeholders to ensure that the systems that we have in place and those checks and balances will improve the quality of buildings that are built.”