Mark Mcgowan, WA Premier

News from the front desk Issue No 479: Something interesting came up in our second TFE Live event on Wednesday with Davina Rooney, chief executive of the Green Building Council of Australia, and Danni Hunter, CEO of the Urban Development Institute of Australia Victoria.

A new National Construction Code will come into effect on Friday, carrying with it the long-denied logic of better quality, demanding better building fabric and construction; and better fire safety, with sprinklers mandated for buildings over 25 metres; and in better health and comfort, with ways to deal with condensation issues. Among other things.

It’s what you’d expect with an industry and a nation that wants to go forward, not backwards.

It’s been a tough ask.

The new NCC has taken years of hard work stretching back to 2016. There’s been enormous consultation, discussion, endless committees and debates. Plus education and preparation briefings by every industry association in the industry.

To top it off, elements of the industry demanded an almost inexplicable “transition” period from the intended start date of 1 May 2019 – meaning another 12 month delay.

So, who under these generous preambles, warnings and preparations, would not be ready?

Western Australia it seems.

WA, under cover of Covid, has decided that the new NCC is just too hard. It must be delayed again, by another 12 months. Even though the state is destined to come out of the pandemic earlier and better than everyone else.

Nationally, the reaction ranges from quiet fury to shock, especially among the many professionals such as energy and building assessors who’ve skilled up, the architects who want better sustainable outcomes, and the suppliers of better building products that can enable a transition to 20 per cent energy improvements. To be clear this is not a demand that all buildings now need to be net zero energy or aim for such, which is where we actually should be. It’s basic stuff, with some basic building quality issues such as fire safety and prevention of mould.

Seriously.

On and off the record, of course, the industry association leaders are moderate and contained. They have the job of bringing the industry together to reach consensus. Remember we didn’t need consensus or systemic change to achieve safety in toasters or cars. There was simple science and evidence based research that said what was needed. Deal done.

In Australia, in buildings, the things most of us put our biggest most important investments, meh… not necessary to look at science. Important to look at business interest, vested interests, sensitive egos of people who have an ideological problem with protecting the safety and health of those who buy their products in buildings.

Wouldn’t it be great to see the company directors of these building companies be seconded for six months to make household electrical equipment instead, or kids’ playground equipment, or to run a commercial kitchen serving food to the public. They’d soon get the hang of looking after the public interest or they’d end up in jail, or broke.

But in the building industry, we just don’t care. Caveat emptor. Buyer beware. The full force of the law will be looking somewhere else at the time. Those who are trying to reform the industry, building commissioners, designers, suppliers, built environment organisations of all sorts, including the Australian Building Codes Board, need to achieve a consensus. More than that, every piece of legislation to change things and toughen up standards to what a decent citizenry in a developed rich country like Australia might rightfully expect, needs to go through an economic test.

Will it cost more? Yes folks. If you build a tin shed for person to live in it will be cheap as chips. If you build to energy efficient safe and healthy standard, it will cost more. Meriton boss/spin genius Harry Triguboff once rebuffed criticism that his product was shoddy by saying he’s giving low income people a home at an affordable price.

At least he’s honest. Or was with that comment.

In the world of advocacy, where so many wonderful and talented people are trying to achieve change amidst these herculean barriers to logic and social equity, the response to Western Australia’s decision was measured and diplomatic.

(You are free to read between the lines.)

Davina Rooney in our TFE Live session was dismayed.

Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council, same. President Professor Ken Maher in a media statement on Monday said: “Without broader consultation, the WA government has deferred the implementation of the changes by an entire year, which means delaying the economic benefit to energy consumers and businesses. Such a decision makes absolutely no sense in the current environment, where every economic lever is critical.”

In WA, where entire swathes of the industry were blindsided, the anger was palpable. Especially the product suppliers who had been planning for the introduction and stocking up on the goods and equipment that would be needed to meet the new standards.

“It took the entire industry by surprise,” said Kingspan Insulation managing director Scott Gibson, naming the insulation industry, the glazing industry, the steel industry, “hundreds, perhaps thousands of people affected”.

“We were all gearing up. The capacity was there, sustainability assessors were ready, warehouses full, ready for the changes.”

This, on top of an already Covid-stressed environment where people were relying on work progressing as planned and promised and they were prepared for.

Gibson’s staff, for example, were already pared back to working just three days a week with only eight weeks’ pay guaranteed and no prospect of taxpayer relief thanks to its international company status.

One week out from the 1 May introduction of the new NCC, he said, someone sees a LinkedIn notice.

It looks direct from the premier’s office, not the department.

“Someone, somehow, managed to convince the premier that major projects would be affected, which is ‘BS’. Covid hadn’t even registered on anyone’s radar until February.”

Ironically, Gibson pointed out, WA has had the luckiest escape from the pandemic.

Those who will be most affected will be the buyers and occupants of buildings who can’t afford to commission top end design and construction and must rely on the lowest possible standard mandated by law.

It’s they who will pay the cost of additional heating and cooling, and it’s they who will bear the risks of poor fire safety and health.

Gibson reckons there are around 15,000 dwellings in WA (previously 30,000) that will now be constructed under old, outdated standards, while the rest of the country moves on.

Worse, according to Gibson, is that WA already has “some of the worst performing buildings in the country,” thanks to the practice of the so-called verification method that allows builders to “value engineer” what’s effectively poor results.

All of this adds up to short term gains for builders at the cost of potential issues at the end of a project – and maybe even court action – because of poor quality that the NCC would otherwise address.

So where did the push for the roll back come from?

As always, according to our other sources in the industry, it stems from two or three major builders known for ideological climate denial. You can see here how the religious fervour of “belief” that the climate isn’t heating nicely aligns with the bank balance.

The annoying thing is that there are also big profits and a strong economic boost available in switching to a cleaner, healthier product. It just takes a bit of creative effort. One that the residential and commercial building industry has already demonstrated it can do with ease every time there is a notch up in standards, voluntary or not.

As always, these developers and builders hide behind industry organisations and apply pressure overtly and covertly.

In WA, it was the local division of the Master Builders Association that lobbied for a 12 months delay. But surprisingly, the WA chapter of the Australian Institute of Architects was in there too, asking for a six months delay, and the local Property Council of Australia, asking for a more modest four weeks, for whatever reason.

In a heartening segue, the national colleagues of the MBA and architects at least seem caught off guard. Not national policy they said. We’re told that privately architects in WA have strongly protested their institute’s stance. Hmm, the covert thing again, no doubt.

National MBA chief executive officer Denita Wawn told us on Thursday: “I’m aware that it happened. But why, we’re not sure because it’s not a national policy decision.”

All chapters were separate legal entities and made their own decisions, she said. Besides, there were more important things to think about. Including, it turned out, a huge new collaboration with former arch union enemies the CFMEU to build 30,000 new social housing dwellings in a $10 billion deal, the AFR said on Friday.

Besides, both own the Cbus superannuation fund. And with 1 million members expected to be soon out of work that’s a logical example of collaboration that this virus is forcing.

But Wawn had also authored a worrying new Covid policy, “Structural impact and responses to COVID-19”, that calls for, among other things a:

  • “Pause on regulatory reform because cost of reform cannot be carried by industry or government”

and

  • “Relaxing essential regulatory requirements such as licensing/registration and inspections.”

Wawn said this related to impending changes, not those already agreed and in place.

“In terms of what is the national policy, the Master Builders is of the view that across the board, not just in sustainability, that while we are trying to manage the Covid situation it’s very hard from a labour resourcing point of view to respond to regulatory reviews or policy  implementation of regulatory change so we’ve put out a generic policy to request extended consultation times.

“This does not detract from the view that energy efficiency in the home is important.”

The question of rolling back the NCC was not on the national agenda, she said. “To be quite honest we’ve got more important issues to deal with at the moment.”

Good to hear, and these days at days at odds with previous stands by the MBA to stall movement on these fronts because of the reason cited in the document, cost.

Again, the industry is a proven innovator, when it has to, like everybody else!

Besides there are two ways to measure cost – one is short term pain and another is more like investment because it delivers long term gain.

Despite Wawn’s assurances – and really, warnings – that only agreed better standards will be tolerated, not news ones, is it possible that other independent divisions of this powerful industry body and their very close collaborators the Housing Industry Association will try to roll back gains?

Brian Seidler, executive director of the NSW branch of the MBA, said no, but he sympathised with WA, even though poorer quality buildings could mean problems on completion.

He certainly could not speak for WA, he said, “but if you put back one thing, that’s one less thing that the builder has to think about.

“But maybe they have to think about it when the building is finished.”

“To be honest, I’ve not really thought about it,” he said. “The biggest issue for us at the moment is to get confidence back to the clients in sectors across the market and removing any impediments in the way.”

The architects were the true surprise supporters of the move; certainly their decision seemed to surprise the national office.

Australian Institute of Architects national president Helen Lochhead told us she was unaware of the WA position until Wednesday, but she believed the request for a six month delay was to deal with concerns about documentation, particularly in relation to fire sprinklers.

But the position of the institute was clear, she said, to not only promote better climate and sustainability standards but to exceed the NCC.

One other person we wanted to check in with was NSW Building Commissioner David Chandler. Had he been quietly – or overtly – approached to make sure he doesn’t go too hard on better building standards given his job is to improve quality outcomes, now that Covid has hit? And this is relevant given he’s been approached by some other jurisdictions to see if he can share his learnings and solutions.

Not for a bit, he said. A big focus for the construction sector coming up will be on reducing embedded carbon through savings on waste. This would be an important goal, and would be tackled through systemic change, he said.

Director of the WA division of the MBA John Gelavis was asked for comment but did not respond before publication.

So what lesson does Mark McGowan and WA teach us?

For sustainability it’s a very tough and dangerous time.

As Davina Rooney and Danni Hunter discussed in TFE Live and our audience indicated in generous contributions, there are massive opportunities to rethink everything right now. And radically so.

Take a look at our prime minister.

It’s been amazing to watch this conservative, environmentally regressive government with a note of smug all over its face perform the sudden U-turns it has in the face of grave need. It’s like the PM Scott Morrison’s blunders during the bushfires have given him a clear path to follow in this round of crises.

And you have to hand it to him, credit where credit is due, he’s done well to create a sense of leadership, support and clarity that we will work our way out of this with collaboration on a grand and pretty well unprecedented scale.

But as we near the end of the urgent panicked stage of the crisis and start to look to the future there are big dangers emerging, competing interests.

Inevitably the result will be more people enabled to think radical new ways to achieve sustainability, given we’ve now proved we have the know-how, money and will power to achieve enormous goals.

But likewise the regressive coal rump will no doubt double down and call for economy first and foremost, like the regressive builders.

Under “cover of Covid”, we’re already seeing the rising call to “cut red tape” and “green tape while we’re at it”.

There may be cause for some red tape cutting and recent articles on our site from council planner Tim Sneesby, Professor Peter Newman of Curtin University and Tom Forrest from the Urban Taskforce of Australia have provided some fertile ground for thought and even the scintillating hint of common ground.

That’s the thing about a crisis, especially of this scale.

But the call to cut green tape is galloping alongside and must be watched closely especially as the next threat, austerity, looms as the reason for a U turn on kindness and equity. Those who will prosecute this line are the same as will prosecute anti-environmental stands.

Same line of thinking, short term gain; bugger the long term: “I’m okay mate (and so is my bank balance)”.

Our PM Scott Morrison is facing a really critical moment in history and how he is perceived.

He’s shown us tough as immigration minister, he’s shown us naïve and unthinking in the bushfires and now he’s shown us leadership, evidenced based decision making and strategy.

Which legacy does he want to leave?

Morrison was right about a miracle when he won the election last year. But the real miracle is this chance we’ve been given to save the planet.

3 replies on “On the “Cover of Covid” in WA and the choice of legacy for our PM in Canberra  ”

  1. This is a powerfull report. To address this deferral of the NCC 2019 until 2021 home buyers should insist on a NatHERS star rating (not an assessment by the Reference Building Method), or use the NCC Deemed-to-Satisfy energy provisions for energy efficiency design of their new home. Alternatively, insist on NCC 2019 compliant design. There should be no cost increase for this as builders should have been already geared up for it considering the transition period was to have ended today.
    Developers of all other building classes should also demand NCC 2019 compliant buildings, irrespective of this deferral. To do otherwise would be just denying the eventual occupants the added environemntal, amenity and fire safety benefits.
    We wouldn’t accept it if the WA governemnt only allowed 2019 model cars to be sold throughout 2020 while eastern states enjoyed the current model, so why acceopt sub standard buidings?

  2. Thank you. This is a sad truth, painful for WA readers who have been advocating for decades that changes benefiting us all and the planet are urgent.
    I wish the educated consumers stopped buying substandard buildings and demand better.
    Could educated builders produce exemplary buildings, showing off?
    Could we have conscious leaders we would vote for? It would then be easier to stop voting for those who continue to fail. The current leaders can still change the course, as the story is unfolding.
    I’ll forward this article to all I know.

  3. To be fair, this is not under the cover of Covid. We’ve known since last year that these new measures would not be introduced in WA this year (just like the state opted to delay the roll-out of the new Energy Efficiency measures in the BCA in 2003).

    In fact, one project home builder – BGC – wrote an opinion piece in The West Australian in December, saying that the new standards should be introduced in line with other states on 1 May, because the cost impost is negligible, and the builder can absorb it.

    https://www.bgchousinggroup.com.au/news/energy-efficient-homes-pave-the-way-for-the-future/

    So the naysayers and delayers are the incumbents, who resist change in all its forms.

    Of course, this lack of appetite for innovation is compounded in WA by the fact that the top 10% builders produce 47% of new dwellings, whereas in other states, they account for about 26-28%, so their market share and lobby power is stronger here.

    It’s also interesting to note that WA fails to reach the six-star NatHERS minimum standard (or equivalent) in 15% of new home designs (not even as built, which is not measured!) compared to a failure rate of just 1.5% in other states (according to CSIRO data).

    We have a lot of regulatory and industry ground to make up, to create healthy, comfortable and energy efficient buildings in WA, but there are a few architects / designers and builders who are swimming against the tide and creating homes that meet those criteria.

    Obviously that makes it harder for the consumer to make an informed choice, but not impossible!

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