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Non-compliance – why near enough must never be good enough

In May of this year a raft of new buildings found to have non-compliant, potentially combustible external cladding were added to the Victorian Building Authority’s list as part of its ongoing audit in and around the Melbourne CBD.

In many cases, the audit findings on these buildings read as follows:

“Non-compliant use of cladding material identified and referred to MBS (Municipal Building Surveyor). MBS determined building safe for occupation and no further action required.”

As often happens, our Association was approached by news media to provide our thoughts on the new findings and the ever-growing list of buildings identified as non-compliant.

We raised two issues in response to these questions.

First, that there is a need to promote a culture of compliance within the industry, and second, that we must take a holistic look at non-compliance within our new and existing building stock.

Near enough must never be good enough

FPA Australia does not believe that a building being deemed safe to occupy is the same thing as it being compliant.

When asked my opinion on allowing non-compliant buildings to go unrectified, even if deemed safe by a building surveyor, this was my response:

“Allowing non-compliance to remain, even if the building has been declared to be safe, doesn’t send the right message to the industry about appropriate professional behaviour.”

I also noted that the widespread non-compliance regarding cladding highlighted a basic failure to understand the requirements of the Building Code of Australia (BCA) regarding external walls.

I was surprised by the reaction to this from some stakeholders, including some of our own members.

It is clear that some individuals and businesses believe they should not be held accountable for misinterpreting the BCA, because it was being widely and routinely misinterpreted at the time.

I remain both shocked and alarmed by this.

Certainly our regulations, codes and standards could be clearer and our Association is constantly working to see these improved. However this does not mean industry can ignore minimum statutory responsibilities.

That we have allowed such an open culture of non-compliance to flourish in this industry is not just disappointing; it is dangerous and potentially deadly.

To suggest that because many practitioners interpreted the Code incorrectly somehow constitutes acceptable practice is logical fallacy.

In philosophy this is known as the Argumentum Ad Populum, (The Appeal to the Popular). A classic example is that even if the vast majority of people believe that 1+1=3, it is nonetheless false.

Philosophers have understood the absurdity of this argument for thousands of years. In 2016 its about time we faced up to it.

Time for a holistic look at building compliance

In the same Fairfax article I commented that the notably high levels of improperly installed cladding beg the question of what other elements of our buildings might be non-compliant.

If we were so convinced that our interpretation of the Code regarding external walls was correct (when it was in fact fundamentally flawed), what else might we have misinterpreted for decades?

It’s time for all of us, both in the fire protection industry and in the building, and construction sectors, to work together in determining what other non-compliances exist in our new and existing buildings and then rectify them.

If issues of regulatory confusion are identified, we must lobby for their clarification, rather than accepting misinterpretation, if we are to ensure the objectives of health, safety and amenity in the built environment are delivered.

Admitting that misinterpretation of the rules has occurred is the first step towards addressing non-compliance, not just in cladding, but across all building components. We must do this and the community expects that we will.

And rest assured, should a catastrophic and deadly fire event occur due to non-compliance, the “appeal to the popular” argument will not protect at-fault industry practitioners from the inevitable consequences.

For more information, go to www.fpaa.com.au

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FPA Australia CEO