After last week’s Opal Tower press conference, there were lots of discussions about the solutions offered by the ministerial team.

Anthony Roberts, NSW minister for planning and housing, and Matt Kean, NSW minister for innovation and better regulation both spoke at the press conference, where Professor Mark Hoffman presented the report compiled by experts. The report was carried out following the safe terms of reference established by the government.

When the media asked how many apartments are not occupied, both ministers failed to provide the answer, even though they claimed that the residents of the Opal Tower are their primary interest. In the end, someone shared that there are some 150 empty apartments. According to attendees, the press conference looked more like a comedy show.

The ministers and the bureaucracy will not be exposed by the safe terms of reference.

Professor Hoffman provided a clear and professional overview of the current situation. In this case, the problem is purely related to structural engineering. The idea to register all engineers who are practising in NSW is widely accepted. The good thing about bringing all engineers into the registry is to make sure that qualified engineers only do the engineering work. However, it is important to remember that making a building requires complex work, needing multi-disciplinary teams to work together. The report didn’t consider other key players and their responsibilities.

Experts like consultants, academics and lawyers don’t tend to criticise their colleagues, especially not in public. Professor Hoffman didn’t blame anyone, which was expected, but the report itself has some clues to who might be guilty for the defect.

On the other hand, the priority is pretty clear – the building must be rectified and recertified.

The report also shared valuable insight into the state of the construction in NSW and Australia in general. The report also contains an in-depth description of the problems found at the Opal Tower and as well the ways these problems could be fixed. It was a good idea to avoid placing blame on anyone since the Opal Tower will most certainly be the subject of many future hearings.

Bronwyn Weir, construction lawyer (one of the co-authors of the Building Ministers’ Building Confidence report), don’t think that the actions recently announced by Minister Kean will have any impact and she also doesn’t believe in the recommendations mentioned in the independent report.

The problems at the Opal Tower just the tip of the iceberg

According to Weir, the Opal Tower represents a signal that the whole system is in trouble and the problems found are just the tip of the iceberg. She asks for more changes to be made, starting with improving the design compliance and documentation and increasing the registration of the practitioners. If this doesn’t happen, she feels that more and more people who buy apartments will encounter problems with buildings that they can’t fix.

The ministers found recommendations in report reasonable and supported the proposed registration of engineering practitioners in NSW. When it comes to checkers, it’s still unclear who would assume responsibility for that part of the work.

Furthermore, it is not yet known how will the database affect the way the apartments are purchased. The problem might be that the database might serve to shift accountability.

Another essential piece of the puzzle is the fact that certain parts of the buildings are not covered by insurance. It seems that the insurance industry doesn’t trust in how the buildings are designed, constructed and maintained.

The problem here is that these partially insured buildings have lower value and are generally harder to sell, all because of the fact that they can’t be insured 100 per cent. The issues found at the Opal Tower will most likely impact the value of the property.

The inquiry of NSW in the state of construction industry is needed, thanks to the many problems that started surfacing recently. These problems are the main reason why there is a need for a change in the system and more accountability of the regulators. Furthermore, starting from July 2020, all residential buildings that have more than three storeys will feature 10-year warranty insurance.

Unfortunately, reports suggest that there are thousands of existing apartments with similar problems and many more in the construction phase. One of the reporters at the press conference asked what the government plans to do for the owners of these apartments, but the ministers didn’t provide a direct answer. Instead, they stated that a lot had been achieved to date thanks to the announced regulatory reform package for the construction industry.

The problems with buildings like Opal Tower do not happen only in Australia, according to Minister Kean. He mentioned the “Hackit Review” (2018 Dame Judith Hackit Review of UK construction laws). The review was carried out on the request of the UK government, and it found that there’s a lot of non-compliance in the construction industry in the UK, which shows that this is a global problem.

According to Dame Judith Hackitt, in the UK the arrangements for the multi-storey projects can be different, but usually, the developers find a builder to do both the design and the construction. What this means is that the builder is responsible for both the design and the construction. The builder will, after the contract has started, try to find ways to cut costs during the design and construction phases. This situation is the same for residential buildings, commercial buildings, sports facilities and school buildings.

What Dame Judith Hackitt forgot to mention is that clients who make buildings this way should share the blame.

What is going to be interesting is to see what the developer had in the procurement, superintendence and acceptance of the Opal Tower project. At the moment, both the engineers and the developers are placing all the blame on the builder. Guy Templeton, chief executive of WSP Australia and New Zealand, claims that the hob-panel assembly wasn’t built by WSP’s designs at the points of failure.

One reporter concluded that the reports state that the developer Ecove is not responsible for the problems, blaming construction for everything.

Bassam Aflak, chief executive officer of Ecove, agrees with the report. He stated that the Opal Tower is a case of structural defect, that has provided valuable insights.

On the other side, the situation between the developer, builder and designer worsens, as each of them is now being advised by insurers and lawyers. The Opal Tower residents will have to fight in the court for their rights since no one wants to accept the blame for the defect.

Since NSW is now all focused on upcoming elections, the government wants Opal Tower case to be forgotten. The report failed to provide whether the non-compliance to the design or the actual design are to blame. NSW Department of Planning didn’t offer any further explanation.

What can we learn about the NSW construction industry thanks to the Opal Tower story?

At the moment, the documents about the Opal Tower issues are yet to be made public. Until then, local newspapers continue to push for this case to be remembered when talking about the state of construction.

It seems that the issues discussed after this case got the attention of the public, point out that the whole system has many problems, much bigger than what we have seen in the engineering report about the Opal Tower defects.

The documents that could provide an insight into the decision-making while building the Opal Tower are the following:

  • All developer’s tender documents (designs, design and construction contract and approvals)
  • All builder’s tender documents shared with engineers (contract, certification services and the proposed scope of design)
  • All the relevant agreements with sub-contractors and suppliers
  • All the progress claims that were performed and paid
  • Progress payment certification of the superintendent for the elements in question
  • Claim for practical completion of the builder
  • The CVs of all the managerial staff and the superintendent

The above documents could help provide an insight into the actual state of the construction industry in NSW. What the government can learn from the Opal Tower project is that it is just one of the many in Australia, like Bronwyn Weir claims. Experts believe that at least 20 other case study projects will be needed to show that there are problems in the construction industry in NSW. Furthermore, the projects that will be part of this case study should be both private and public, with different complexity and project types.

All these issues will have to be dealt with by the next NSW building minister. Minister Kean didn’t provide his opinion since elections are next month. The construction industry carries problems that apparently no minister wants to fix.

The NSW government must inspect the state of construction, otherwise, the same issues will be here even for the next elections in four years.