new auckland

Construction blighted by bogus building products

Building inspection pass rates are improving, but the substitution of inferior building products is still blighting the construction industry

Cheap, inferior alternatives being used in housing projects as substitutes for code-compliant products are the number one bugbear of Auckland Council's inspectors. The inspectors say they are picking up most of the problems, but the work required to remedy such situations is holding up the city's much needed home-building programme. Tradesmen, on the other hand, believe a lot is being missed and they're sick of seeing products that have potentially disastrous repercussions further down the line, entering the country. 

A highly successful recruiting drive in Canada by the council will help the situation. There are now has 12 new, fully-trained building inspectors on the job after a trip on which Auckland Council Building Control General-Manager Ian McCormick sheepishly admits selling the country as a package by showing them lots of pretty pictures. 

The current building boom means the council's facing a situation where it invests heavily in staff training, only to see those people lost to desperately-needed project managing jobs in the industry.

McCormick says without a doubt the biggest problem for him at the moment is site supervision - having competent people guide and support increasingly complex builds, and engage and manage a host of subcontractors and specialists. "We are finding in the industry that too often project managers are having to run many jobs concurrently, racing from job to job," he says. "Project managers are going into jobs more complex than in the past, and in some cases are struggling." 

While pass rates are improving, a quarter of Auckland's building inspections still fail. That is down from around 40 percent a couple of years ago, but issues such as product substitution are still dogging the industry. 

"We've been talking to the industry for some time about this," says McCormick. 

The industry is very aware of the problems. They've led to situations such as the downfall of Lyon Electrical, a west Auckland firm now in liquidation which imported its own - faulty - electrical cabling. Other stories are rife, including glass shower doors that shatter two years down the track, leaky pipes, tapware that fails, material that's not fire resistant and should be, or bracing made of inferior steel that is not up to code. Some of it is sold on TradeMe, and some builders who have lines of supply overseas import their own materials from countries where building codes are not as tough as they are in New Zealand. McCormick admits some inferior products will get through - but if a building inspector sees material that differs from the plans, there can be big trouble. 

As an example McCormick cites a $130,000 mistake made by a home-owner who imported their own aluminium doors and windows. "We picked up during a building inspection that it wasn't a product we were familiar with," he says. "When something like that happens there must be evidence provided that the product can perform to building code standards. They can provide the appropriate certification from an approved laboratory; they can provide proof the product complies by certification from a facade engineer; or they can get it tested to the relevant Australia/New Zealand standards. In this case the last option was the only option they had. They had to seal off the side of the house, get a massive pump in there to create negative pressure, then get a 2x4 metre rig in the outside of the house and blast the windows with high pressure water. 

"It failed miserably."  

He says the message is, if you are thinking of substituting an unapproved product, do your homework first. If everyone did that, "There's no two ways about it," says McCormick, that 25 percent fail rate would change dramatically and Auckland's home building programme would be moving along faster.  

One common issue is safety glass. It should have its certification etched onto the glass, but McCormick's team has caught imported glass where stickers are used. That's not acceptable - especially after a Customs officer told him a couple of years ago he caught a person bringing in 300-400 such stickers into the country. 

The industry is not convinced all product substitutions are being picked up in inspections, however. New Zealand Certified Builders operations manager Jason McClintock says in some cases the council must take at face value that due diligence has been done in terms of manufacturer guarantees - but "you can pretty much make documents up. And it's hard to tell if a product is code-compliant if it's not written in English".

Then there are situations where, he says, "That’s not what the inspector saw, that’s not on the plans … it isn’t even close". McClintock echoes builders operating in Auckland and spoken to by Newsroom when he says there are cases where you get "this old switcheroo when the inspectors have passed the work. If someone has underpriced a job they may look to re-purpose materials. I'm sure it does happen." 

Builders in Auckland have all heard the same stories about that - usually involving the removal of insulation material after inspection, or taking out steel beams or concrete reinforcing. Usually the stories involve new builds in new housing areas where the same insulation can be put into the next identical house to go up - and taken out again. 

McCormick doesn't think that's happening. "I haven't seen any evidence of it but I'd be very interested," he says. Inspectors can turn up without an invitation and would drop in unannounced if they had suspicions in that direction. He has heard the rumours but "we did some work trying to investigate a couple of rumours and couldn't find any incident at all". He says quite a bit of work goes into insulating a house and it doesn't make much sense to pull it all out again.

Mopping up the mess

McClintock says often building failures start with materials imported by the builder, substituted on site in changes the council can't see. "If the council inspector gets wind that there’s been a change he will then demand to see the invoice (for the materials used) and would want to know what the product is. But hundreds of products go into a building. You can’t ask the question of everything that goes in." McClintock says if something is just slightly astray they will ask the question, and inspection services are pulling tradies up for materials substitution, in some cases making builders pull material off walls, right down to the screws if they're the wrong type. But - "they are asked to be policemen in so many ways - in a 10- 5 minute inspection they can't start ticking 100 boxes .. they're under pressure to cover a lot of ground. It's just not doable. 

"Some of these groups [building firms] have been working in different situations [overseas] and they don’t understand the regulatory environment that sits behind the industry," McClintock says. And the combination of a building boom and tradesman shortage will produce lowest common denominator building. 

McClintock was at an industry conference giving a presentation on exactly this issue when, he says, he was confronted by a classic example of the issues they're facing. 

"An importer bailed me up, saying 'It’s people like you that drive up prices. We should be able to substitute all the time without people blinking an eye'. What he was saying was that no balances and checks should be put in place.

"Ian [McCormick] and his team are mopping this mess up. They do a pretty good job of enforcement. There's pretty good work within council identifying rogue builders ... they do a very good job within their resources. At the end of the day, if something goes wrong, they're the last man standing." 

McClintock says DIY television shows have a lot to answer for, where people think they can get a job done under budget; can project manage without the skills and can supply their own materials. "Ten years down the track, subsequent homeowners will be carrying the can." 

Builder Dan Sothern from Built Rite Construction on the North Shore does a lot of bathroom renovations - but steers clear of labour-only work. Where customers supply materials, "We say upfront, if you're not going to supply reputable products, tapware etc, we are not interested. You can go into (new) bathroom shops in industrial areas where the products look flash ... then the glass explodes when you're having a shower. When you go back to claim the warranty they will have gone and there's no recourse." 

He says a lot of copycat plumbing material is coming in from China, including hot and cold water pipes and PVC waste pipes. "It usually looks the same but it's not the same quality. It's sold on TradeMe undercutting people like Chesters. It's not a case of if it will fail, but when it will fail. If it's not up to building code and doesn't stand the test of time and you put it in, guess who's liable? You put it in and it craps itself in a year or two and guess who gets hung out to dry? People throw you under the bus, they say 'we're not plumbers, you should have warned us'." 

Sothern is an NZCB member and says he hears in various forums about "too many" dodgy practices going on. "It's dangerous and unacceptable - it's getting into a pretty serious stage. It's the same old story of supply and demand. There are literally not enough of all the various trades to cope with the work load. New builds are lower paid and like attracts like - good builders know there is much better money with renovations and architectural work. 

"Building inspectors are doing the best they can trying to monitor what's going on, but they can't be there 24/7." 

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