11-13 May 2021
Darling Harbour, ICC SYDNEY

Shergold-Weir report calls for design detail to make a comeback

Design detail may be the key to improving building standards and outcomes in Australia’s built environment, according to Bronwyn Weir, co-author of the Shergold-Weir report.

The Building Ministers’ Forum, the national group responsible for overseeing rules for the construction industry, released a document consolidating the various state and territory responses to the Shergold-Weir report, Building Confidence.

In the wake of scandals such as the Grenfell Tower tragedy in London, the Lacrosse fire in Melbourne and structural deficiencies with Opal Tower in Sydney, better outcomes are on the horizon for Australia’s built environment.
Weir, a lawyer who has over 20 years’ experience with regulatory issues will be speaking at DesignBUILD in May, exploring the role of designers in a reformed building regulatory model.

Released last year, the Building Confidence report issued a comprehensive assessment of what needs to be done for Australia’s building industry to make sure that new buildings are safe and comply with the National Construction Code.

Weir believes that much of what is currently wrong in the construction industry can be traced to the devaluing of design and documentation. This, she says, presents a clear opportunity for those involved with design.

“There’s been an erosion of design detail in favour of cutting costs and maximising speed. There’s a need for the design professionals, and the certifiers who are the ultimate gatekeepers for a design, to push back and be stricter,” Weir says.

“While this certainly requires regulation, as detailed in the report, there also has to be a cultural shift. I think that design professionals and the industry bodies that represent them need to use this opportunity to reassert their importance in the process and reassert the need for good quality design that is properly detailed and documented before construction.”

The report’s first recommendation includes the registration of all design professionals responsible for preparing design documentation, that goes beyond the architects who must currently be registered but also designers/draftspersons, engineers and other experts involved.

There is also a recommendation that design professionals be required to have a statutory duty to produce outcomes which comply with the code.

“This puts an obligation on designers to better understand the code and make sure their designs meet its standards, and not to rely on building surveyors or other professionals,” Weir says.

“Unfortunately this is easier said than done, given the design and procurement methods that prevail in the sector today. So it’s quite a tricky recommendation; it puts a lot of responsibility on architects and designers.”

However, Weir says this statutory obligation for designers would be consistent with the landmark Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal decision that found the architects of the Lacrosse apartments to be proportionally liable for damages after they failed to reject a non-compliant cladding material submitted for inspection by the builder.

“The report’s recommendations are certainly consistent with the responsibilities that the courts are likely to give architects and designers, and with the obligations that they are committing themselves to in consultancy agreements,” says Weir.

“Designers may well need other building professionals to help them interpret the code but they have to take responsibility for ensuring that their design, when it is submitted for approval, is compliant and that it has sufficient detail to demonstrate that.”

The Shergold-Weir report is particularly important because it is the first nationwide look at regulatory issues in the construction industry since the Building Code of Australia (BCA) was adopted in 1996.

Weir says that, so far, she is encouraged by the commitment from the various states and territories to adopting the report’s recommendations for a national framework, something she will expand upon at DesignBUILD.

“It’s encouraging. I don’t think there are any recommendations that any state or territory has rejected, although there are a handful of cases where they have identified them as ‘under consideration’, so not necessarily accepted,” Weir says.

“As you would expect, each state and territory has a different suggested implementation program for each recommendation but they have identified the most significant gaps against our recommendations and appear to be working towards filling those.”
Builders, too, need to play their part in ensuring public safety, especially on large-scale commercial projects, a category which under the code includes high-rise residential buildings.

“Sometimes builders are confronted with a lack of detail in the plan but there is also, in my experience, a real issue with builders potentially not following plans and becoming part of the design process themselves. And they’re not necessarily being held to account when they don’t meet requirements,” says Weir.

“This could be because there’s a cheaper way of doing it, or they want to do it a different way. And if this is not being picked up in inspections and they’re not being made to follow the plans you get this other level of inadequacy and non-compliance even though you may have good drawings.”

Weir believes that public outcry around Lacrosse and Opal Tower is a wake-up call to the entire industry.

“I think there are some pretty serious systemic issues. Unfortunately, the practitioners involved in Opal Tower and Lacrosse are supposedly our first-tier designers, certifiers and builders and yet we’ve had compliance issues which are unacceptable to the public,” she says.

“There’s a strong view from the public that it’s unacceptable to have these issues in buildings where they are paying hundreds of thousands of dollars for a very small space of property.”

All designers and builders will want to understand the Shergold-Weir report’s implications for them, especially as its recommendations begin to be implemented at a national level.

Bronwyn Weir is a headline speaker at DesignBUILD, Australia’s largest design and construction trade exhibition, 14-16 May 2019 at ICC Sydney. For more information and to book tickets please visit www.designbuildexpo.com.au/speaker-series

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