How to End Australia’s Building Infrastructure Crisis

Engineers, Not Politicians, Will Solve Australia’s Sustainable Building Problem


Last month, City of Sydney council staff discovered that a third apartment building, in the suburb of Zetland, had been sufficiently damaged to trigger resident evacuation due to fears of  fire danger or risk of collapse of the property. In late 2018, occupants of the 30 loft-style apartments in Zetland were quietly evacuated. The council did not discover this incident until February of 2019. Water damage and severe defects are believed to be to blame. Publicity of this third incident follows the evacuations from Sydney’s Opal Tower on Christmas Eve and the Mascot Towers in June. 

“One building is an accident, two is a coincidence, three is systemic failure. It’s not a NSW-centric problem.  It’s a problem that’s occurring in all our cities where we’ve had a building boom,” said Stephen Goddard from the Owners Corporation Network of Australia to Sky News Australia. 

In light of recent building disasters, several investigations into root causes have identified deep problems in the whole industry that develops, designs, builds and maintains residential property.  Despite the dramatic Lacrosse fire in Melbourne in 2014 when plastic-filled aluminium clad panels ignited and rapidly transferred flames up the apartment block, one building practitioner said at a building inspectors conference in Sydney on August 1, that the 2017 Grenfell London fire tragedy was completely unexpected.  Yet, the truth is that professional engineers and regulators failed to take notice of previous “near misses” that clearly showed an industry in crisis and significant dangers that were being ignored. The UK’s Hackitt Review and ongoing Grenfell Tower Inquiry highlight critical problems and foretell the need for cultural change. The Shergold-Weir Report recommends a wholescale upgrade of professionalisation for engineers and allied building practitioners, and the COAG Building Ministers Forum (finally!) has responded with a communique calling for a national approach across states and territories that includes strengthening the Australian Building Codes Board. The NSW Government has just concluded a “Building Stronger Foundations” consultationRead the Warren Centre’s submission here, reflecting our ongoing research into Fire Safety Engineering reform. The foundation of this work is the Professional Performance, Innovation and Risk initiative and the Protocol for Performance, an engineering-authored professional standard of care.

Investigators conclude definitively that various building failures have been caused by specification of inappropriate building materials, lack of regulatory oversight, competitive commercial dynamics in the property development market, and under-qualified professionals. 

Many contributing factors create the environment for structural integrity failures and residential fire danger. Fundamentally, major changes are required in industry culture to raise the performance of the sector.  This starts with a recognition of the elements of professional competence. Engineers must be educated to a high standard and receive ongoing continuing professional education to keep pace with the world’s ever-changing scope of technology and innovation. Professional experience plus initial education and ongoing education yield professional competence.  Engineers, architects, and council or private building inspectors must be governed by ethical frameworks and professional independence to do the right thing. Clear standards of professional performance, not just education and ethics, yield prospective and retrospective clarity on the expectations of engineers and expectations of society to deliver high quality buildings and public infrastructure. 

Change is never easy, but engineers are the key professionals leading the way for better building practices.

So, what can you do?

Here’s How Engineers Can Solve These Problems…


Become an Advocate for the Value of Engineering Professionalism

Quality buildings begin with high quality designs and high-quality materials selections.  Although the construction process always introduces minor variations at the time of site fabrication and installation, qualified engineers must review significant changes, or else the risk exists that the original design intent is destroyed.  It is impossible to “inspect in” quality at the end of the process. A sound design is the foundation of safe, cost-effective and beautiful built environment. There is no substitute for a competent design that is faithfully constructed. 


Support Registration Systems

The first recommendation of the Shergold-Weir Building Confidence report is professional registration of all qualified engineers and other professionals involved with the construction of buildings. 

“All registration systems have the same basic characteristics in that standards must be set, courses accredited, candidates examined or assessed, and a register maintained. Performance must be monitored, and failures disciplined. A register has greater effect if supported by licensing arms of government.” —Engineers Australia

Join the national registry here.


Support Reforms in Appropriate Regulatory Oversight

The Shergold-Weir Building Confidence report advocates for professional registration and also an overhaul of current building codes, practices, and accountability. Engineers will play a defining role in this process. Although the National Construction Code has recently been updated, many still assert the NCC still is not sufficiently comprehensive. Engage with the Australian Building Codes Board and the NCC on the ABCB website.  


Acknowledge the Role of Peer Review

Peer Review is an important part of professions. Even when it is not a requirement, get in the habit of performing, participating in, and submitting work to peers for input and review.

“The challenge with peer reviews is to develop a scheme that adds value without becoming overly burdensome. There would need to be strict protocols around when a peer review would be required. Some issues that will require greater investigation are: who could conduct peer reviews, how the reviews would be conducted, the frequency and timing of reviews, and commercial in confidence arrangements.” –Engineers Australia


Maintain Credentials and Continue Your Education

The environmental, political, and technological factors of the modern age make engineering and building challenges increasingly complex. To remain competitive and competent, continuing education is a requirement for all professions based on expertise.  Medical doctors, lawyers and accountants regularly refresh their technical knowledge. Engineers may think that they are too busy for the admin of maintaining credentials or continuing education, but keeping up-to-date on the latest codes, trends, and technology is part of a sustainable career practice.  The alternative is an awkward realisation late in career that professional skills are irrevocably out of date. Failure to stay abreast of innovation trends is career death. Formal courses, seminars, professional associations, and regular review of publications are all resources for today’s engineer. Engage in industry discourse by participating in knowledge sharing discussions. To join a weekly discussion on the future of engineering, subscribe to The Prototype


Acknowledge How Engineers Deliver the Community’s Aspirations

For far too long, some engineers have ignored the very clear science that the planet is living beyond its limits of sustainable development.  Climate change denial is professional malfeasance, and tolerance of anti-science in professional discourse undermines the credibility of engineers as trusted experts who design the future that society aspires to build. 

The ecological sustainability of current and new developments is a major issue facing policymakers, developers, city and urban planners, and designers in Australia and across the globe. The immediate financial impact of faulty structures is devastating enough. However, each new construction project uses natural resources and consumes energy. 

Typically, the short-term impact of structures (such as economic and temporal) is placed in higher regard to the long-term impacts of environmental sustainability and life-cycle costs. When building materials deteriorate the year after a statutory defects warranty period expires, repairing structures contributes to economic, social, and environmental problems with full consequences that only become apparent to future generations. The demand for more, faster, and cheaper has delivered a structural integrity crisis amongst buildings in Australia. By shifting engineering practices to focus on the value of the engineering design, professionals ensure that the needs of the present to not compromise the future needs of our children and grandchildren.


Contribute to Discourse 

Giving back to the engineering community is an important step towards the broader profession’s accountability. In the wake of the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire in the UK that caused 72 deaths, and the similar fire at the Lacrosse building in Melbourne’s Docklands in November 2014, the Warren Centre responded with its Fire Safety Engineering project. That conversation and the ongoing exploration of technology, innovation, and engineering requires voices like yours. Write articles, contribute to discussion boards, attend industry events, and raise your voice. 


The Future

Engineering is all about possibilities. Engineers will deliver ongoing and striking advances in new waves of sustainable building innovation. The recent devastating building failures are wake-up calls to address major gaps within Australia’s building practices. Regulatory action will assist in remediation, but the true source of change is the brilliant engineering minds working to create new and sustainable solutions for Australia’s future. 

So, now you politicians who’ve read along this far, get back to work and pull your share of the load….


This story is featured in the 2 August 2019 edition of The Warren Centre’s Prototype newsletter. Sign up for the Prototype here.

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