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Why construction standards need to be free

UPDATED: 7 September 2019: Standards for Australia’s construction industry should be free to access to help combat poor building quality, many people think. Right now it’s like getting a licence and they having to pay heaps to find out the road rules. Wait… is this unconstitutional? One comment since we first posted suggests it’s worth checking out.


For years, experts have said that cost and lack of access to the hundreds of standards contained in Australia’s National Construction Code has been a problem.

Many of those standards refer to many other standards, and each one costs hundreds of dollars to access, says executive director of the Australian Construction Industry Forum (ACIF) James Cameron.

It would “definitely be helpful” for compliance if standards were more freely available, he told The Fifth Estate.

For example, the Design for Access and Mobility (AS1428) set of standards is referenced by the NCC but is also widely referenced by the wider community. But it costs $628, far beyond the reach of someone wanting to ensure their premises provide compliant access to people with a disability,” said Mr Cameron.

Small- and medium-sized companies are particularly disadvantaged. Some industry associations, such as ACIF member Master Electricians Australia, license key standards to provide them to their members.  But many tradespeople and professionals working for small- and medium-sized businesses don’t access all of the referenced standards because of the cumulative cost, he said.

He said a different funding model could reduce the costs. Preferably, accessing the standards would be free.

When the National Construction Code was made free, he said, the take up increased ten-fold.

“This is a win for practitioners in the industry, and the well-being of the Australian public.”

The time is right to rethink the issue. The monopoly held by SAI Global on the publication and distribution of Australian Standards ended earlier this year, and stakeholders have been asked how they would like to access the standards.

To date, standards have only been available as paper documents or non-searchable PDFs purchased from SAI Global but in May, Standards Australia announced a new distribution agreement with digital firm Techstreet.

Techstreet will become an additional distributor of Standards Australia’s content, and users will be able to access it along with other material, including ISO and IEC manuals, through a webstore and subscription service to Techstreet Enterprise, Techstreet’s standards management platform.

Whether this will make standards more affordable remains to be seen.

Jeroen Prinsen, VP and head of Australasia and South East Asia for Clarivate Analytics, which owns Techstreet, declined to name a ballpark price for the products. But he said customers would be able to purchase single standard documents and that there would be discounts on the retail price for large-volume orders.

“There are also different models for subscription, taking into account locations and concurrent users,” he said.

“People want to have choices and now have an opportunity which was not available to them before.”

The partnership is likely to grow the company’s Australian business.

“For our Techstreet business in particular, before the agreement with Standards Australia, we were only able to support International Standards needs for customers in Australia. The agreement now allows organisations in Australia access to alternate solutions for their Australian standards and compliance needs.”

The case for providing access to standards at the lowest cost possible is clear: it will improve compliance.

For example, members of the Australian Institute of Architects (AIA) can access the 250-odd standards most relevant for project design as part of their membership subscription to the organisation.

However, for smaller studios or solo architects, the cost of AIA membership and of purchasing access to standards is prohibitive, according to Warwick Mihaly, director of ArchiTeam, a collective supporting small practices and solo practitioners.

He told The Fifth Estate that his organisation tried to negotiate with SAI Global to obtain a subscription for its members, but said SAI Global would not quote on the cost.

Mr Mihaly said the costs are a “very large hurdle” for small practices.

Some people rely on their building surveyor to confirm compliance with the relevant standards, but that comes with risks if the surveyor doesn’t know about changes or updates to standards.

Practitioners who can’t easily access standards are more likely to follow a Deemed To Satisfy pathway, rather than a Performance pathway. The latter requires extensive access to standards to develop and validate innovative design solutions.

Following a Deemed To Satisfy path inhibits innovation, Mr Mihaly explained. For example, in the case of residential projects, that pathway will likely result in buildings that comply with the lowest legal level of performance – one that fails to take into account thermal comfort, energy efficiency and the building’s carbon footprint.

Fundamentally, having to pay to access mandatory standards is like being given a driver’s licence but having to pay to access the details of each road rule

“If you can’t have access to the standards, you can’t disrupt them … the standards themselves were [the result of] a disruption, such as having a renewable energy storage battery in a house.”

Fundamentally, having to pay to access mandatory standards is like being given a driver’s licence but having to pay to access the details of each road rule.

The government should not be forcing people to pay to get access to the law, said Mr Mihaly.

An industry source in the construction space reiterated the barrier posed by the high price of standards for many small builders, trades and consultants.

Many people in the industry say the ideal situation would be to make the standards freely available but don’t feel confident it will happen any time soon.

Instead, we could see a marketplace where the various standards distributors still keep the cost of individual standards high to maintain their bottom-line.

Some sectors of the industry have been lobbying for Standards Australia to maintain a centralised hub for purchasing of standards and for dealing with user complaints and other issues, which is supplier neutral, the source said.

They would also like to see Standards Australia establish a process for dealing with matters around distributor pricing and changes to pricing, as well as fail-safes to prevent distributors from carving up or dominating the market.

Expensive standards are also a problem for consumers, according to another industry source.

“Consider the legal liability around purchasing a strata apartment for example. A consumer is legally expected to have done due diligence ahead of purchase, which includes accessing any relevant and available standards.

“With literally hundreds of standards applicable to a typical building construction, how can a purchaser possibly afford to check? Yet if they don’t check … [a later] dispute may not be resolved in their favour.”

Standards Australia has said it will submit feedback from its consultation process around standards distribution to its members and councillors in November, and is aiming to implement them in January, next year.

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Comments

19 Responses to “Why construction standards need to be free”

  • Garreth Morris says:

    This is fantastic news.
    As a building designer with a few hard and digital copies, I only have part of the solution available because there is always one area or item that you need to confirm but arises only intermittently.
    You have to make a judgement “call” to only refer the AS standard with a whiff of research done on google.
    Not really the best, very second rate.
    Charging to access standards will produce low value outcomes, increase costs for those who pay for access, it appears also there is a double dipping if councils have the access and the designers have access- why not make standards freely available if paid for by the public purse anyway.
    I think what has happened here,is AS Standards and global SAI have been in collusion, the federal government has not helped by its inaction.
    It appears profits ahead of best practice.
    What is also interesting,is why this wasnt picked up by the ACCC?

  • Everyone paid once already for standards to be produced.
    Having an organisation to make everyone pay again is idiotisk, counterproductive and innefficient with respect to the ultimate goal of having standards.

  • Thank you for bringing this issue to the attention of many beyond those immediately affected. It goes beyond an issue for designers and builders to the many people who are put at risk through the life of the building because a standard was not affordable.

  • Jane Bringolf says:

    Pleased to see this topic gaining so much attention – it is much needed. Having had some small experience of Standards meetings I have two comments. It relies on the writing skills of a committee, which is why they are hard to understand and wordy, and only certain people can afford the time and cost of being on one of these committees. It seems to me they are very select groups. Little thought is given to basing standards on research either. And where there isn’t any, they “make their own arrangements”. Yes, Standards Australia and SAI Global need to be taken to account.

  • John Finnegan says:

    The New Zealand government through MBIE has just done this for the building standards in New Zealand. They are free on line now. It’s a good initiative.

  • Graeme Doreian says:

    The free Standards has been an issue for years right back to the 1995 Keane Inquiry into Standards Australia.

    Now, still ongoing, and only stakeholders have input as per Standards Australia bulletin I received just the other day, not the public it appears, that is why this comment is long, but justified I believe.

    I was not aware that Standards Australia had a consultation process to discuss this issue of free Standards, if that is what has happened.
    Standards Australia have always had minimal part funding from the Federal Government which means Standards Australia are not at “arms length” to the Government.

    Irrespective of the statement I heard from head of the Standards Board, Mr Brooks at a workshop last year, who was asked the question by myself, and responded publicly at that workshop positively stating, “that Standards Australia are nor part of Government”.
    “Any blind Freddy could see” that any organisation who takes a grant and, has for years and years which is noted in Treasury papers probably obscurely somewhere, is connected to Government the pattern is established.
    I believe the Government and Standards Australia were to fund free Standards.

    However, let us designate a free Standard

    An electronic copy could be free. I viewed at one Standards workshop a presentation on electronic Standards and distribution, Why hasn’t these ideas been considered, as we were told they could be?
    Printed versions would require payment for handling and postage costs, which would have to be assessed, no consultant needed here, thankyou. Maybe have Amazon, distribute Standards, they employ local people, are very competitive, have a complete service?

    Standards Australia it seems are not better of in respect to the public purchasing Standards, as they have in replacing SAI Global, with another electronic distributor who it appears from article has issues. Who runs this “show” ? Standards Australia?
    Therefore, all the issues mentioned in the article are still ongoing, nothing’s changed the Federal Government has obviously let Standards Australia stumble on with business as usual. Nothing’s changed.
    The problem really is Standards Australia who:
    o rely on big business for advisors and experts to reside on Standards Committees which do not want to write Standards,
    o further committees don’t want outsiders seeing what really happens at meetings, maybe issue become “heated” therefore this ensures interests are met under questionable decisions. How do I know because a colleague and myself have experienced these events.
    o public comment is just a pathetic cover process to keep the general public “happy” who never comment to Standards most of the time, which gives “the big boys, the big end of town, what they want”
    o then the secretive consensus vote that guarantees Standards are written to seemingly nurture the public interest
    o off course there is a member of the Consumers federations who hardly engages on behalf of the public, and members of this association come from big business, meaning no genuine independent public advocate.

    Which really means big business interests, which ultimately means Standards Australia are “captured” by big business.
    The last Standards Australia CEO stated this fact at a number of private and public meetings, then months on was no longer the CEO. I know, I was present at these meetings on two occasions. How interesting?

    Enough on the pathetic facts no one wants to hear or address.
    Fixing the free Standards issue:
    o have paid people on committees with very extremely enforceable independency agreements.
    o attempt to employee independent advisors, have members of the public, organisations, and individuals to reside on committees.
    o have all meetings live streamed on the NET with a bulletin board that people can post comments during the meeting that can be discussed at certain periods, to be determined at the meeting.
    o all minutes etc. posted on bulletin board, everything transparent.
    o Most of these issues have been addressed by 1995 Keane Inquiry, 2006 Productivity Commission and a Governance Report 2018, and again business as usual only selected issues addressed and implemented, not the hard core recommendations. Free Standards are part of this problem.

    WHO PAYS COSTS FOR FREE STANDARDS?
    o Anyone affected by a Standards, that Is manufacturing, marketing or importing products pays, to a be determined formula.
    o Federal Government via a COAG agreement matches 2 to 1 in dollars of contributions for free Standards.
    o Of course, there will have to be an independent consultant who will ultimately be influenced by Government and big business, paid probably $35,000.00 upwards to give an opinion that is supposedly at ”arms length” Good luck.

    The Federal Government and Standards Australia have negotiated an IT supplier contracted to Standards Australia to distribute Standards, some free Standards, but still not all are free.
    Standard Australias issues have similarities to the questioning of Auditors see link below
    https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-08-06/audit-firm-failures-could-spark-enron-style-collapse-medcraft/11388164

  • Wei says:

    @Chris Flynn

    Chris, totally agree with your comments on ‘inhibit innovation’. As an architect myself, I do firmly believe in understanding the deemed to satisfy requirements and working with it to deliver high quality solutions. Innovation isn’t just limited to inventing a completely new performance solution.

    Although I’ve rarely met an architect that doesn’t want to develop their designs and build it to their own details and specifications.

    What I often find is the difficulty in convincing the builder or client to accept the cost involved with preparing the proper drawings, standards and documentation required for construction. Instead there’s is an epidemic of D&C where many big name architects are essentially employed to get planning approval and no more.

    Technical designs are then broken down into bite sized pieces and passed down the line to other architects, designers, sub contractors, suppliers etc etc and the design costs absorbed into their respective overheads.

    So in this context, of course the architect will try to charge as much as possible for the initial design, knowing that they won’t see their design come to fruition. It’s like telling Apple to design the iPhone while knowing that it will be manufactured and sold by Samsung.

  • Sean Richardson says:

    I agree fully, as an Engineer with 25 years experience I can’t count the number of times I’ve had to update Standards. SAI have a cosy little business going off the back of the Construction Industry which has ever increasing cost pressures from a myriad of interest groups/beneficiaries.
    Removing the financial benefits a new Standard brings might actually make the Standard that is written last longer. Addendum’s work and are far cheaper than writing new documents.

  • Chris Flynn says:

    Re: Mr Warwick Mihaly’s comments

    “Following a Deemed To Satisfy path inhibits innovation, Mr Mihaly explained. For example, in the case of residential projects, that pathway will likely result in buildings that comply with the lowest legal level of performance – one that fails to take into account thermal comfort, energy efficiency and the building’s carbon footprint.”

    This is incorrect. Deemed to satisfy solutions are only the lowest level of tested compliance at the highest level of application. They also cover all applications below the requirements (e.g if a wall system is tested to 90/90/90 FRL then it applies to all systems so long as no element requires longer than 90 min resistance.

    Also, the suggestion that they “inhibit innovation” is an insult to the work that goes into providing a ready made solution for the majority of the industry.

    If the Architecture fraternity focused more on technical drawing and providing high quality details with their drawing sets then everyone down the line wouldn’t need to wonder what is required.

    Too many Architects take people’s money for planning and design stage, but walk away when it’s time for construction drawings, and in many cases because they aren’t suitably qualified or experienced to produce drawings to obtain a permit.

    I agree that access to the standards should be easier and more cost effective, but using the current system as an excuse (rather than a contributing reason) for the poor quality is a cop out.

    Allowing the construction industry to back the government and public into a corner with ridiculous pricing on public projects, Private surveyors being let off for doing the least work possible, Developers and Builders twisting the arms of consultants to stretch the bounds of suitable designs & solutions are all far bigger issues than(& a contributing factor to the complacency) of frontline trades who don’t scope costs required to perform and deliver their trade at a high level.

  • Kylan D Low says:

    Could not agree more, it’s a tragedy that the standards we are expected to meet are kept behind lock and key. I’m extremely excited that others feels the same way, and will keenly watch this space. Great article!

  • Ole says:

    Great article, I am a builder and I can’t believe we still have to purchase the rules by which we are required to follow!
    Please keep pushing for the standards to be free.
    Thank you.
    Ole

  • Cheralynne Morrison-Evans says:

    A fantastic article of significant importance! How on earth can you expect builders, tradies, designers to be compliant when they don’t know the information (as things often change over time) and also don’t have access to finding any answers. The cost of the standards is an absolute disgrace and how on earth did SAI Global end up with all of the control.
    This needs to change and change soon.
    keep up with the push for change.
    Cheers, Chez

  • Simon says:

    I tried to access relevant Australia standards to undertake some work on safe engineering practices in regard to rigging for a community theatre group and discovered how aggressively standards access has been removed from the public by SAI Global. At the time I enquired even the NSW state library had lost their access to the standards. They were once available in hard copy in public and TAFE / University libraries. These have all been removed. SAI Global said the account was being abused at the state library and it was closed.

    The only way I found to in theory being able to read the relevant standards was ordering hard copies from the national library which would be delivered to my local library physically. Then I could read them for a short time in the library and then they would be sent back to Canberra.

    Physically sending printed documents from Canberra – in 2019…

    I gave up in the end… It just became too difficult. I would have needed to refer back to the standards to complete the work – and I was not prepared to get the documents couriered from Canberra every time I need to check a clause…

    The purchase costs are ridiculously high (and 90% of this has historically gone to SAI global – only 10% has gone to Standards Australia) and the wealth of wisdom in the standards is effectively lost to the community as a whole. It would have cost thousands to buy the standards required and was out of the question for me or the community group in question to afford them.

    I was talking to a friend who had a long career in the law and he said it may be unconstitutional to remove public access to standards as if they are by referenced as obligatory by statute effectively forming part of a law then it is a basic tenet of law that you must be able to read it to comply with it – You cannot be charged for this.

    Of course to test this would likely take a fair bit of legal outlay… And fighting an aggressive private equity firm who ultimately hold the copyright of Australian Standards … How did we get here?

    But there is no doubt in my mind restricting access to the wisdom embodied in standards is a poor outcome for all of us. I really think they should be considered a public good. With committees funded by govt and publicly published. What value does a publishing firm add in the age of technically trivial online distribution? Why does the publishing firm receive almost all the monies for having some documents on a web server? I would be interested to see the split in the new agreement.

    Their employment across all spheres of human life could bring many, many benefits in so many ways.

  • Steven Horn says:

    As a building designer I get tradies asking what to do with certain issues. I try to put the codes on the plans for most things like access for the disabled or other problems like waterproofing, Fire prevention anything in relation to the building. I can’t afford to have all the codes, so I can’t show everything. I don’t know any tradie with a code book, some may have the AS. 1684 or even the old Tradac book the older guys. If they were free or even $10 a lot more guys or girls would have them with codes being updated from time to time we can’t be buying the updated codes either. The BCA is free online why not the codes it talks about. Thanks for the article well done. Steve

  • Liz G says:

    From designing my residence and driveway, to Quality Control onsite … I’ve had no end of trouble finding the standards. Only a few libraries have access to them. The draftsman, and tradies, had little familiarity. The apprentices were clueless. Of course the standards should all be free, and easily accessible online. Including forecast changes. (One standard changed after my build was underway; luckiky it was certufied just before the change occurred.) The forecast change should have been known at the detailing of specs, and signing of the contract. The cost increase could have been significant.

  • Daniel Wurm says:

    Yes! I would estimate that less than 5% of tradies have access to the standards relevant to their trade. No wonder there is a complete lack of knowledge of building standards, and our buildings are falling apart!

  • Lynda says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful and timely article. I have long believed that all Australian Standards should be free and that the taxpayer revenue benefit of selling standards is annulled by the fact that taxpayers have to pay for the standards – so it’s a case of cutting off the bottom of the blanket and sewing it on the top. Where I work in Local Government we have to pay for many Australian Standards and ratepayers ultimately pay for these. Or worse, we try to do without them and assume we know what we’re doing.

  • Terrific article; thank you.

    A citizen is presumed to know the law.

    But if the citizen must pay high fees to buy a copy of the law at an unaffordable price then non-compliance with the law is encouraged.

    To give a monopoly over the sale of the law is to create an environment ripe for market abuse; and so that’s what’s happened with construction laws.

    Thank you again for this, Michael

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