'We've reached a crisis point': Experts decry ACT building industry
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'We've reached a crisis point': Experts decry ACT building industry

The overwhelming majority of high-rise apartment buildings in Canberra are likely to have major defects, industry experts have estimated, with one warning the territory's construction industry has reached "crisis point".

Experts in engineering, waterproofing and strata law have told The Canberra Times that structural and design flaws would, in their estimations, exist in most new high-rise developments in the nation's capital, ranging from minor to more significant.

Strata law expert Chris Kerin, pictured above, has advised more than 80 owners corporations on matters relating to building defects in the past eight years.

Strata law expert Chris Kerin, pictured above, has advised more than 80 owners corporations on matters relating to building defects in the past eight years. Credit:Sitthixay Ditthavong

They said a number of factors have combined to create the problem, including a lack of regulation, the government's apparent reluctance to punish bad practice, consumer ignorance and Canberra's extreme hot and cold weather.

Their concerns echo complaints detailed in submissions to the ACT Assembly's ongoing building quality inquiry, which has exposed numerous cases of shoddy construction work in the capital.

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Canberra is experiencing its biggest housing boom since records began, including in the apartments sector, where construction began on 4927 units in the past financial year.

The ACT government said it was trying to lift building quality standards, and reforms introduced in the past 12 months were already helping to reduce the number of building-related complaints.

Mal Wilson, the director of Campbell-based structural engineering firm Advanced Structural Designs, said sweeping changes couldn't come soon enough for the sector, which he declared had reached "crisis point".

Mr Wilson said "minimal" government regulation meant engineers, builders and certifiers had to be trusted not to cut corners when working on multi-unit developments, rather than being forced to comply with strict requirements.

"This approach is the equivalent of leaving your new car unlocked with the keys in and assuming that no one will steal it," Mr Wilson said.

Mr Wilson said, worryingly, Access Canberra did not have a policy of retaining design documentation post construction, and appeared to not be following up on warnings of potential systemic building-related problems.

He said he conducted the initial structural review of the trouble-plagued Elara building in Bruce, identifying a "number of systemic design practices" which he believed had been replicated in other buildings across the ACT. He believed those concerns had not been followed up on.

A review of the Elara building, pictured above with apartment owner David Allen, revealed "systemic design practices" which had resulted in defects, according to the structural engineer who conducted it.

A review of the Elara building, pictured above with apartment owner David Allen, revealed "systemic design practices" which had resulted in defects, according to the structural engineer who conducted it.Credit:Elesa Kurtz

"I'd have thought that the government owes a duty of care to all Canberrans to ensure that any systemic design problems are identified and rectified where they occur," he said.

Access Canberra said Mr Wilson had prepared a number of reports about the Elara complex, but none that it had on file included reference to any systemic design flaws.

Waterproofing consultant Ross Taylor, who said he had inspected more than 30 high-rise buildings in Canberra in the past eight years, including the Elara complex and the Manhattan in Turner, estimated at least 80 per cent of new apartment buildings had defects. He based that figure on the buildings he had worked on.

Mr Taylor said problems with water leaks, the most common form of defect, were created, in part, by Canberra's climate.

"Canberra's temperature fluctuations from high to low is larger than most capital cities," Mr Taylor said. "There are 100 waterproofing membranes on the market, and in my view most of those membranes are unsuitable for a Canberra climate in a balcony situation."

Mr Taylor, who stressed that among the problematic buildings, Canberra also had some of the best designed and constructed buildings in the nation, said prospective buyers could help improve standards by being more informed about the track record of builders and developers.

"Consumers need to be more aware of the difference between a good and a bad builder and developer," Mr Taylor said.

Strata law expert Chris Kerin has advised more than 80 Canberra owners corporations on building-related matters in the past eight years, giving him an insight into scale of the problem, and how it has affected buyers.

"There is complete shock when people realise that they have defects," Mr Kerin said. "This is not at all what they expected. The first element is disbelief, then there is real anger about the fact that they are in this situation."

Mr Kerin said based on his experience, Canberrans could "not possibly have confidence" in new high-rise apartments being built without some form of defect.

A spokesman for building quality minister Gordon Ramsay would not be drawn on the experts' predictions about the scale of defective buildings in Canberra, but stressed the "challenges" confronting the territory's building industry were not unique to the ACT.

The spokesman said the government last year implemented measures to strengthen the regulation and integrity of the industry, including the establishment of a unit dedicated to responding to building-related complaints in July 2018.

Access Canberra received 265 building-related complaints from July 31 to December 31, down from 391 in the first six months of the year, according to the spokesman.

"Since the introduction of the team, communication with industry and complainants has increased and the time taken to resolve complaints has decreased," the spokesman said.

An Access Canberra spokeswoman said the government was also cracking down on phoenixing, making it harder to obtain an ACT building licence and expanding statutory warranties to all residential buildings, regardless of their height.

Master Builders Association of the ACT chief executive Michael Hopkins said while the vast majority of Canberra-based builders and contractors did high-quality work, low barriers for entry into the industry meant "too many instances of poor-quality building work have been allowed to occur".

Dan Jervis-Bardy is a Canberra Times reporter.

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