BUILT ENVIRONMENT JOURNAL

How building surveying boomed in New Zealand

Many firms set up to remedy New Zealand's so-called leaky buildings crisis have since become established multidisciplinary consultancies – but still rely on surveyors from overseas to meet demand

Author: Gerard Ball

07 September 2021

Buildings in Auckland's central business district, New Zealand

Auckland, New Zealand © Babbage Consultants

Until the early 1990s, if you happened to mention to someone in New Zealand that you were a surveyor then the chances are they would immediately assume you went to work with a theodolite and a tripod.

It's no surprise of course, because at the time this was more or less what anyone called a surveyor did. Cadastral surveying, setting out of roads and bridges on infrastructure schemes and subdivision of land into smaller sections for housing or other development would have been your go-to projects.

Housing shortage

Then there was an explosion in immigration that led to a significant housing shortage, especially around New Zealand's largest city, Auckland. This resulted in large swathes of green space being divided up into plots, or sections as they're known here, for residential development.

A small group of New Zealand professionals who had practised as clerks of works had by the early 1990s formed the New Zealand Institute of Building Surveyors, but this body was primarily engaged in carrying out pre-purchase surveys.

No one could have possibly known what lay around the corner, though, and the momentous changes it would entail for residential and commercial property, the construction industry as a whole and the building surveying profession in particular.

New building types

In the late 1990s, designers and developers began to move away from conventional building practices, but lacked the materials, construction skills or design abilities to ensure that the transition was risk-free.

First, changes in building consent regulation under the Building Act 1991 made design standards less prescriptive, and gave architects more freedom to explore new types of building. Public tastes were moving away from traditional Kiwi weatherboard houses with corrugated tin roofs and wide eaves. Instead, they favoured the apparently sophisticated aesthetic of Mediterranean-style houses with monolithic walls, low-pitched membrane roofs, parapets and internal gutters.

The walls were typically clad with textured fibre-cement sheets fixed directly to timber framing, but with no cavity to manage the moisture that would inevitably leak through poorly detailed junctions and joinery penetrations. Similarly, the internal membrane gutters drained through parapets that were often poorly designed and constructed, directing rainwater into the wall framing where it would remain.

Second, New Zealand was – like much of the western world – experiencing a decline in trade skills and apprenticeships. Traditional construction know-how was being replaced by cheap materials, quality was being value-engineered out of the majority of construction projects in favour of lower costs and faster completion dates. The overall effect of this was the construction of tens of thousands of poorly designed and constructed houses and apartment buildings, clad with materials and systems that were ill suited to the environment.

Untreated timber

As if this wasn't enough, the Green Party was heavily lobbying the then National Party-led government for the removal of timber preservatives such as those containing arsenic, deemed bad for the environment. It was also argued that if timber were kept dry in service, then it would perform to the durability requirements of the New Zealand Building Code.

The reality was that, with the burgeoning design and construction deficiencies outlined above, much of the timber used in the new buildings of that period would not remain dry unless preserved.

From February 1998 to March 2003, timber used in house frames was untreated. To understand the enormity of this decision, it is necessary to acknowledge that around 90% of residential construction in New Zealand is timber-framed.

With the range of design, consenting and construction deficiencies already identified, combined with the absence of timber treatment, the seeds of what was to become known as New Zealand's leaky building crisis were well and truly sown.

Rotting buildings

New Zealand is a very wet country, particularly the North Island. National rainfall averages between 600mm and 1,600mm per year, and former prime minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer once referred to the country as pluvial. The period from December to April is also typically hot and humid.

By 2000, the foregoing construction-related deficiencies had collectively conspired to create a disaster, and within two or three years buildings were rotting where they stood.

The owners were often the last people to realise there was an issue. When builders began investigating what appeared to be minor leaks they soon discovered that three-year-old framing had turned – literally, in some cases – to what was fundamentally compost.

Typical leaky New Zealand building

A typical example of a building exhibiting the material and design choices often associated with weathertightness failure

Decaying timber under window frame

Untreated timber framing decaying under a poorly flashed window to a leaky building

An influx of surveyors

As the enormity of the issue became known, lawyers started preparing claims. Evidence was needed, and while some of the local building surveyors initially fulfilled the requirement for work, demand soon outstripped supply.

New Zealand consultancies formed to deal with leaky building claims therefore started advertising in the UK for chartered building surveyors, and a steady stream of professionals started to make the 19,000km trip.

While most UK building surveyors are obviously familiar with typical British construction systems, statutory and regulatory processes, New Zealand is a very different context. Making the transition to a completely new regulatory environment takes time and experience.

Nonetheless, within a relatively short period the full value of chartered building surveyors' skills and experiences – particularly their ability to investigate complex building defects and prepare detailed reports for dispute resolution – was being realised.

From remediation to maintenance

The new arrivals were soon cutting holes in buildings, removing timber samples for analysis, preparing detailed reports and briefs of evidence, drawing up remedial scopes of work, collaborating with architects to design repairs, and procuring construction contracts. Much of the remedial work also included resolving passive fire, electrical and structural safety issues that had been uncovered.

By around 2010, building surveyors were becoming more established as property professionals in New Zealand. The owners and operators of large commercial and institutional property portfolios and government agencies were beginning to identify building surveyors as the right people to talk to about managing their assets.

As part of that work, surveyors were charged with preparing commercial dilapidation reports, long-term maintenance plans, and undertaking technical due diligence surveys and condition assessments. For many, this was a welcome departure from working on rotting buildings, and allowed experienced surveyors to use their expertise on an array of work not previously considered by property owners.

Multidisciplinary consultancies

As a result of this, many of the firms that sprang up to meet early demand for leaky building investigation have now developed into well-established multidisciplinary consultancies. Some now have more than 100 full-time employees, including architects, project managers, quantity surveyors and structural engineers.

These erstwhile leaky building specialists, sometimes operating with just one or two building surveyors originally, now provide the full range of consultancy services including investigation, expert witness, remedial design, building consent, procurement and contract administration.

'Many of the firms that sprang up to meet early demand for leaky building investigation have now developed into well-established multidisciplinary consultancies'
Scanned image for Auckland City Rail Link Project

Imagery created by Babbage Consultants' 3D scanning team as part of building surveyors' pre-construction condition assessments for the Auckland City Rail Link project

Future of the profession

With the value of building surveyors as property specialists now more clearly understood in New Zealand, the future of the profession looks bright. Significant government spending on infrastructure projects is driving construction in many areas.

We have also weathered the COVID-19 pandemic far better than many other countries. Our ability to close our borders and keep the virus out has meant that life here has largely carried on as normal for most of the past 18 months.

But our geographic isolation is both a blessing and a curse. We are a country that relies heavily on the inward flow of talent to take on roles in building surveying, among other professions, and the tap of immigration has now been turned off for quite a while.

Although the worst of the leaky building crisis should be behind us, buildings are still being constructed with defects. There is also a growing need for chartered building surveyors to service the ever-expanding range of commercial property.

We currently have around 600 chartered surveyors in the country, but we will need more. With luck, we will soon be open for business again – and building surveyors from all over the world will once more be able to consider New Zealand as a working destination.

Gerard Ball FRICS is a technical director and building surveying team manager at Babbage Consultants
Contact Gerard: Email

Related competencies include: Building pathology, Housing maintenance, repair and improvements, Inspection

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