Building Confidence: The Shergold-Weir Report and its Implications for Architects

The Shergold-Weir Report argues for better quality documentation and improved oversight. What do the recommendations mean for architects?

In mid-2017 the Building Ministers’ Forum (BMF) asked Professor Peter Shergold and Ms. Bronwyn Weir to undertake an assessment of the effectiveness of compliance and enforcement systems for the building and construction industry across Australia. The final report ‘Building Confidence’ was recently delivered to the BMF and is available for review here.

The stated goal of the report is to “enhance public trust through effective implementation of building and construction standards that protect the interests of those who own, work, live, or conduct their business in Australian buildings.” The report has a number of recommendations about the whole process of building and maintaining safe and well-constructed buildings, and has special significance in the wake of the Lacrosse and Grenfell Tower fires. It mainly deals with “commercial” rather than domestic scale buildings.

The report also has a number of observations and recommendations, which affect architects in our roles during design, construction and ongoing maintenance of buildings. If implemented it will change many aspects of the construction process, and in doing so it also presents a number of opportunities for architects to re-occupy areas of practice we have lost to other practitioners.

Building confidence and ensuring integrity

“The quality of buildings depends heavily on the competency and integrity of builders. There are many builders that have high standards of competency and integrity. However, the rates of disputes, alleged defects and reports of high levels of illegal phoenix activity are evidence that there are shortcomings in the performance of some builders. These need to be addressed.[p13]

Shergold and Weir are clear that there is insufficient supervision, auditing and expertise in the industry, and too many practitioners willing to take short cuts to save money and time. They also note that there are many conflicts of interest in the way compliance is achieved through private certifiers employed by the client or builder, and an unwillingness for certifiers or the approving authorities to enforce standards during construction. A number of recommendations address those conflicts by better documentation, registration of building practitioners, auditing of those practitioners, and inspections and checking during and after construction.

Registration of building practitioners

While there has been little progress on a true national scheme for registration of architects, our profession is often seen as a model for other building practitioners, where registration and licensing schemes vary widely between states and there is little appetite to harmonise systems or introduce mutual recognition across state borders. It also strongly endorses CPD (not yet a feature of all Architect’s Acts) and subcategories of registration for different building types – something which may be problematic for smaller architectural firms. It recommends strict controls on who can provide performance-based solutions under the NCC and when third-party certification of those solutions is required. Registered practitioners would also be required to have their work audited – so architects’ documentation for building rules consent could be audited by a third party. Building designers would also need to be registered – something which architects have long called for. It also calls for a consistent approach to the registration of builders, specialist subcontractors (especially fire contractors) and engineers.

Quality of documentation

There have been many reports over many years calling for better quality documentation by design professionals.  Shergold and Weir note:

“The adequacy of documentation prepared and approved as part of the building approvals process is often poor. The tendency for inadequate documentation to be prepared and accepted by building surveyors at the building approvals stage has increased, in part because of owners and developers endeavouring to minimise costs on documentation. This issue needs to be addressed as a matter of priority.

… Inadequate documentation can also result in hidden costs or allow builders to cut costs without owners being aware of it.

The integrity of documentation for future use is also compromised when the approval documents do not reflect the as-built building, or when they contain insufficient detail to properly inform building risk and maintenance requirements.” [p28]

Many of the problems noted are blamed on procurement methods, and in particular Design and Construct. The report notes often architects are not retained through the whole construction period.

“…architects and engineers have indicated that they may be engaged early in a project to prepare initial documentation but that their engagement then ends. Detailed construction documentation is prepared by others who may not possess the relevant skills. When products specified are substituted, architects, engineers and building surveyors may not be consulted.” [p31]

The report notes that the process for approving changes during construction is flawed, and that as-built documentation is either non-existent or of poor quality. It recommends that comprehensive digital manuals be required and that they should be stored centrally by government to allow access in the future by owners and maintainers of buildings.

Recommendation 16 of the report states that each jurisdiction should provide for a building compliance process that incorporates clear obligations for the approval of amended documentation by the appointed building surveyor throughout a project. It notes:

“Implementation of this recommendation will be challenging. It requires designers, building surveyors and builders to work to properly document design and construction specifications. This is the lynchpin of a best practice building approvals system and considerable effort will be required to effectively bring about systemic change in this area.” [p32]

Shergold and Weir envisage a very different system to that currently in place – but one that ensures the safety and amenity of the users of our buildings.

What does it mean for architects?

Architects must firstly take responsibility for, and publicly commit to, a better quality of documentation. The skill set for producing such documentation has reduced over the past generation, and the downward pressure on fees has seen it lost as a core business of many architectural firms. It is not seen as glamorous, award-winning or valued by clients, builders or end users. Endless reports on the value of good documentation go ignored, especially when fees and scope are negotiated. Footage of the Grenfell and Lacrosse fires should have awakened a new desire by architects to argue for good documentation, procurement and construction practice.

Our profession already has registration and a relatively good system for dealing with complaints from the public – but does it actually want to fight for a role as a leader in construction industry for integrity, competence and high levels of technical skill? Will we welcome the idea of auditing of our work and accepting criticism of poor documentation without blaming clients, builders and fees? These are moral, not just business choices, and lives depend on it.

Judging by past efforts to achieve any national improvement in the construction industry, the three tiers of our wonderful federated system of government will conspire to stuff it up. As architects, we owe it to the public to advocate for a better, safer and more trustworthy industry.  We need all architects to step up alongside us. You’d better start writing to politicians today if you want that vision for the future.

This article was first published on the Association of Consulting Architects Website