By Alex Tarrant
Council building inspectors are interpreting the Building Act differently from each other, even when consenting identical houses, making this a part of the local government regulatory framework that needs to be urgently dealt with, the head of a major New Zealand house building firm says.
The managing director of Lockwood Homes, Bryce Heard, has welcomed the Productivity Commission's review of council regulatory responsibilities, but is sceptical of the outcomes as the review might just see the current regulations tightened, rather than allowing for inspectors to use a bit of nous when it came to their work.
Lockwood was highlighted by Productivity Commission chair Murray Sherwin in an interview with interest.co.nz last month, when he raised the issue of councils interpreting nationwide regulations differently, meaning construction companies were having to build the same houses differently, depending on where they were built.
“A company like Lockwood, which has been building good solid houses for 60 years, will tell you that, depending on which council they’re about to sell a house in to, they might be told ‘you need another brace there’ because that doesn’t comply with the building regulations," Sherwin said.
“It’s just different interpretations of the building codes. That gets pretty frustrating for some people," he said.
'We're different, but have the same requirements'
Speaking to interest.co.nz, Heard said inspectors had been scared into being sticklers for the rules, due to the liability and onus placed on them like that seen in the leaky homes fiasco, where councils are footing 25% of the bill for consenting homes built with untreated timber. More of an onus needed to be placed on home owners and their builders when it came to liability for poorly built homes.
Lockwood's building design was completely different to the way conventional houses were built, but its houses were still subjected to regular Building Act requirements such as bracing requirements which weren't needed, but imposed, on Lockwood.
Well, only sometimes imposed on Lockwood to be exact, as different council building inspectors interpreted the Building Act differently, meaning identical houses built in two different locations often had different requirements placed on them.
Heard told interest.co.nz of one instance at the same council where two different building inspectors required different bracing standards on buildings with the same design.
“[Their boss said], ‘on the one hand you could say that as an approved alternative system, with 60 years of history, we should authorise the Lockwood home, that’s quite right. But on the other hand we could say a strict interpretation of the law says that you can’t do it this way – you’ve got to have these extra bracing standards, and that’s right too,’” Heard said.
“Some councils have enough nous to know that Lockwood’s been around for 60 years, they’ve never had a single claim for leaky houses; they’ve never had a house fall over in an earthquake, including Canterbury; never had a house blow away in a storm," he said.
And yet conventional building systems were riddled with those problems.
"We haven’t had any of that, so some inspectors have the nous to say, it’s an approved system, give it a tick. Others say, ‘well it doesn’t meet the standards,’ which are patently not written to suit this system of building, ‘so I’m going to make it meet the standards. They make us put in bracing, they make us put in waterproofing, they make us put in whatever," he said.
'We've never had a house rot'
“While everybody else didn’t treat their timber frames, we did. We continued to treat our houses right through [the 90s and 00s], so we’ve never had a house go rotten. Everybody else has had homes that went rotten and fell down, and now we get caught up in the standards that apply to fix their cock-ups," he said.
There was too much latitude for inspectors to interpret the Building Act requirements.
"Of course, those who want to be sticklers for the rules give us a hell of a time. Whereas there are those who say, this is a practical solution, it’s been around for 60 years and never been a problem," Heard said.
Heard said his fear was that the review of regulations would just result in further tightening, without recognising the differences in building design.
“All these people in the standards authorities and standards committees, and BRANZ, and Department of Building and Housing, they’re protecting their jobs in a downturn by reviewing the regulations. Every time the review them, and tighten them, we get caught up in it," he said.
"But compared to the rest of the industry, we’re squeaky clean.”
Leaky buildings have scared councils
The leaky building fiasco was a story of the government allowing for untreated timber to be used in frames, not the way local councils approved building consents. Yet because councils were being targeted in the leaky building clean-up bill, they were scared into applying regulations tightly.
In his previous role as the head of the Crown research institute Forestry Research Institute between 1997 and 2005, “we said to the industry, don’t even think about going to untreated timber frames. Because you’re going to have another debacle. We said that in 1996, 97, 98 – right back to 1992 actually," Heard said.
“They said, ‘they do it in Australia, and we can save a lot of money’. It was Carter Holt Harvey that led it, capably supported by Fletcher Challenge Forests, and so they went to untreated timber frames. Then by the year 2003, the houses were going rotten. As we told them they would be," he said.
“We told the industry not to do it, don’t even think about it.”
Look at our record
Councils needed to give more credit to track records, rather than relying on the theoretical experts and bureaucrats “protecting their roles and their jobs by making things overly complicated.”
“It wasn’t so much the bureaucrats who led this, it was the witch-hunting that went on to hang the bureaucrats out to dry, that made them move to protect themselves. The over-reaction to interpretation of the rules results directly from what went on under the last government," Heard said.
“And councils are still scared. Because councils have somehow been put in to the vanguard of accountability for houses rotting and falling over, and not meeting the standards. That’s wrong. If you build a house, and you get a cheap builder, and he does a cheap job and your house goes rotten, that’s your fault. You took the cheap option," he said.
“There must be more onus put back on the owner, to ensure that he or she is getting the right advice and building a house that’s going to service their needs, and less put on the local authority."