The potential dangers in high-rise apartment living have come under the spotlight recently: the Opal Tower in Sydney with its “construction issues” and the fire in the Spencer Street block in Melbourne – both requiring evacuation of residents. These events follow on the Lacrosse Apartments fire in Melbourne of some years ago, and the Grenfell Tower fire in London in 2017 which caused the deaths of over 70 people.
Governments in Australia and internationally have responded with inquiries, taskforces, audits, reports, and legislative changes. In Victoria, thousands of buildings have been inspected by the authorities, looking in particular into the use of combustible cladding. High levels of non-compliance have been found with the use of combustible cladding over decades. In NSW, the Building Products (Safety) Act 2017 (NSW), enacted in response to the combustible cladding issue, gave the Commissioner of Fair Trading power to prohibit use of “unsafe” building products.
In the current issue of the Building and Construction Law Journal (Vol 34 Pt 5), Jeanette Barbaro and Dr Giorgio Marfella in their article “Back to the Past – Future Challenges for Better, Safer, Building Design and Construction” consider how we have come to this point, and suggest regulatory reform.
As to the how, they identify a matrix of interconnected factors, including the prevalent construction technology, population growth, government policies promoting high-density living, and privatised building certification/approval regimes.
Underlying these factors are the market imperatives of the present housing development model. “The prevailing model is high-rise and high-density development, often speculative residential apartments purchased ‘off-the-plan’ for investment purposes,” write Barbaro and Marfella.
“The market drivers in the present market are not necessarily linked with the production of quality or space. There is hardly any market-driven incentive for developers of tall apartment towers to provide long-term built quality as a condition of economic success for their projects.”
It may be contended that the counterpoint to such a model of housing – “a commodity to be bought and sold” – is a people-centred approach: housing for all which is decent, affordable, safe.
Barbaro and Marfella suggest reform to the regulatory approach, to achieve national consistency (in contrast to the present “fragmented” building regulatory systems) and to resolve the “contradiction” inherent in the prescriptive versus performance outcomes approaches at the core of the National Construction Code, thereby balancing public and private interests. They propose introduction of a two-tiered “system-based” approach to building regulation premised on the redefinition of “ ‘acceptable risk’ in light of the new world we live in” – requiring that higher standards be met in “the methods and materials used for construction”.
“The test ought to be innovation that ensures public safety and compliance, not merely speedy construction and the reduction of building costs,” argue Barbaro and Marfella.
A “system-based” approach may help resolve building regulation dissonance, but does dealing with the problem of unsafe high-rise apartment buildings also perhaps require addressing the fundamentals? The answer to this question would seem critical. Lives are at stake.
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