Apartment building in a Sydney suburb, New South Wales, Australia
In April, RICS launched a panel of inspectors approved by the government of New South Wales (NSW) to survey apartment buildings for defects.
The approval was made under the state's Strata Building Bond and Inspections Scheme (SBBIS), one of the measures taken by the NSW government over the past three years to address systematic construction quality issues, in particular in new residential apartment blocks.
A University of New South Wales (UNSW) report, Cracks in the compact city, recently documented the scale of the defects problem in jointly owned buildings, which are known as strata title buildings in reference to the way that common ownership of apartment buildings is defined under Australian property law.
Published in October 2021, the UNSW report highlighted the growth in the apartment sector in Australia. More than A$30bn of new apartment developments commenced in the country in 2018–19 alone, while 26% of NSW residents surveyed by the 2016 Australian Census of Population and Housing identified as living in apartments.
However, with this explosion in residential apartment development have come significant building quality issues – including a number of high-profile evacuations of large apartment buildings. These have sparked considerable public attention.
Recent research published by the office of the NSW building commissioner showed that 39% of apartment buildings surveyed had experienced serious defects in the common areas. Waterproofing accounted for 23% of these, fire safety systems for 14%, structure for 9%, key services such as heating, ventilation and air conditioning for 5%, and non-compliant cladding for 6%.
The research concluded that lack of care, pressures to maximise profit, lack of skill or experience and lack of adequate regulatory oversight were key causes of the construction quality issues and building defects seen in recent years.
In response to this growing crisis, the NSW government decided to establish a scheme that would license panels of inspectors to check all newly constructed apartment blocks more than four storeys high.
The SBBIS requires that developers building any new strata buildings of more than four storeys must lodge a bond of 2% of the construction cost with the NSW government. This bond can then be used to rectify any defects that are not remedied following two compulsory building inspections, conducted by inspectors from an approved panel.
While appointed and paid for by the developer, the inspector must be approved by the building owners; that is, the respective strata owners corporation. That inspector must report to both the developer and owner as well as the NSW government within defined timelines.
A standard reporting format has to be followed, as well as an inspection process defined by the Australian Standard 4349.2:2018. The SBBIS also protects approved building inspectors and panel operators from liability for any defects that are not identified.
Australia has historically lacked degree-level education in building surveying, and as a result has no building surveying profession of the kind found in the UK, for example. Pre-purchase residential building reports are in the main written by poorly qualified – and in some states, unlicensed – pest and building inspectors.
However, chartered building surveyors – most of them UK expatriates – have cornered the market in inspecting for defects on commercial and larger residential developments, and in technical due diligence reporting, with RICS offering local guidance on technical due diligence and making good. Therefore, the organisation was well placed to establish an approved inspector panel comprising chartered building surveyors with relevant experience.
The RICS team in Australia identified the opportunity for chartered building surveyors to play a role in the new scheme, and applied to the NSW Office of Fair Trading for the right be one of the authorised professional associations overseeing an approved strata inspector panel.
The panel membership is underpinned by RICS building surveying competencies, ethics and regulatory standards, as well as an assessment and monitoring process overseen by the organisation's Dispute Resolution Service (DRS).
As the DRS already establishes criteria for expert witnesses, assessing, managing and promoting their work, RICS has also made the service responsible for the approved inspection panel. Given that the SBBIS aims to keep the defect remediation process out of court, it also complements the DRS's overall objective.
Alan Stewart MRICS, an associate at consultancy MBM in Sydney, is a chartered building surveyor and an inspector on the panel.
Nick Hudson: What skills do chartered building surveyors bring to the SBBIS?
Alan Stewart: They can provide a thorough understanding of building pathology, which is central to many areas of surveying. It is essential that an understanding of defects analysis, and the defects likely to result from failures in building fabric, are recognised. Chartered surveyors who train in the UK make up the majority of the profession in Australia, and develop these analytical skills from year one of their degrees and throughout the APC, using them constantly in their daily work.
These surveyors also develop professional networks that they can call on, depending on the complexity of a task. In the case of reporting on high-rise residential defects, they may seek expert help in conducting facade assessments by rope-access abseil, services engineering or vertical transportation.
Such help will ensure due diligence satisfies the highest standards for stakeholders and end users.
NH: Why is the RICS approved inspector panel important in terms of the profile of chartered building surveyors in Australia?
AS: Chartered building surveyors in Australia perform many, varied roles, including project managers, capital works managers and development managers, as well as the core role of building surveyors, or building consultants as they are more commonly known here.
The SBBIS presents an opportunity to enhance our profile in the Australian market, allowing clients to appreciate the varied skill set and versatile nature of surveyors while recognising the competency and professionalism of each RICS member or fellow.
NH: Why is being on the panel important for your business?
AS: The panel promotes the role of chartered building surveyors within MBM, and to clients nationally, as well as encouraging higher standards of residential construction.
MBM views the scheme as a potentially valuable source of business for surveyors as well. Traditionally most chartered building surveyors working for major firms have shied away from defect inspections on residential property or working for strata owner corporations, regarding them as clients that are often unwilling to pay consultancy fees.
However, as the SBBIS requires the developer to pay, RICS members can now more readily work in this asset class. The SBBIS thus means RICS and its members can promote their work among the Australian property professions.
The chartered building surveyors on the panel and those applying to join tend to focus on the larger, more established clients and their more sizeable developments.
RICS has good links with many of these national and international developers, a number of whose project teams are led by chartered building or quantity surveyors who are senior project managers or directors. The RICS team in Sydney is developing a plan to ensure the panel is visible and well understood by these major developers.
It is hoped that the panel, while initially being established to perform a statutory function in NSW, will become the go-to body in Australia for defect inspection, building pathology and technical due diligence.
The panel's establishment comes at an opportune time, as confusion in the marketplace persists – the label 'building surveyor' is still often applied to building control surveyors in Australia. Promoting the panel and raising the profile of chartered building surveyors among governments, clients, professionals and the public throughout the country is a key objective.
Nick Hudson is RICS partnership development manager, Australia, and RICS approved inspector panel manager
Contact Nick: Email
Related competencies include: Building pathology, Construction technology and environmental services, Ethics, rules of conduct and professionalism, Legal/regulatory compliance.