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Flawed inspections in Zetland flats

19 Gadigal Avenue apartments, Zetland, after their evacuation. Photo: Vanessa Lim

By VANESSA LIM

The Zetland apartments evacuation over the building’s serious defects has raised concerns on the lack of inspection laws for building developments in Australia. At the moment in NSW, state government laws only require developers to get their work certified during construction and there is no requirement for inspections.

Geoff Hanmer, the Adjunct Lecturer in Architectural Construction at UNSW and Managing Director of ARINA, said inspections were necessary during the development process to minimise potential defects.

“We’ve got a certification regime with but no inspection regime and that’s very concerning. Now there no one is really looking over the builder’s shoulder. They’ll get certifications for various components of the building but it basically means somebody has filled out the form and signed it.

“That doesn’t mean to say that any inspection has gone on and, in many cases, people certify their own work.”

City of Sydney council is now monitoring the Zetland apartments at 19 Gadigal Avenue and has done a few inspections. “We became aware that a residential apartment building at 19 Gadigal Avenue, Zetland was evacuated by the building owners in late 2018,” a Council spokesperson said. “A City of Sydney officer inspected the building in February, 2019 and found the building to be vacant with extensive and severe water damage.”

While the City of Sydney conducted inspections, Geoff Hanmer explained that inspections were most effective during the building process used to be common practice when sites were built, but since the Building Code of Australia, a progressive movement that moved away from traditional patents in the mid-80s, inspections were no longer required.

“We now often have situations where the building is designed by an architect to get development approval and then the builder becomes responsible for construction and delivery of the building.”

Globalisation contributes to building defects

Growing demand for high rise apartments, which are more challenging to build, and the globalisation of building material supplies, also contributed to the increase in building defects.

“You could get tiles from all over the world effectively,” Hanmer said. “We don’t know anything about the ingredients in the tiles. The government has made no effort to respond to globalisation.”

Hanmer explained: “All governments in Australia were told 18 months ago that there was a serious problem and they were given a series of recommendations in the Shergold Weir report. In the 18 months, the governments around Australia have done basically nothing to implement the recommendations for this report so as a start they should all get on with doing that. They should do it in a nationally consistent way.

“Each of the states is making things up on their own and basically, they are avoiding doing anything.”

The total damage costs of 5 million dollars will not be able to be paid by Zetland apartment owners who only have an insurance pay-out of 1.7 million dollars.

“It’s a tragedy for the owners of those apartments and the problem is that as we’re finding that the owners have no effective recourse because the company that built the building has been wound up,” Hanmer revealed.

“There’s no-one really left to sue; the problem occurs when we build buildings incorrect in the first place. Once we’ve built the building it’s very difficult to recover from that. Fixing up something that might have cost a few dollars in construction, might cost hundreds of thousands of dollars if it goes unchecked.”

Wound-up builders = noone left to sue

A City of Sydney spokesperson further explained the reason behind the evacuation: “The water damage caused the failure of the internal fire-rated construction throughout several apartments. The fire-rated construction is required to separate individual apartments and common areas during a fire.”

Fire-rated plasterboards also known as Fyrchek, which were used between apartments, were wet due to water ingress, causing structural damage. While there is no inherent issue with fire-rated plasterboards in buildings, water ingress seeped into the plasterboards, causing them to break down.

“Construction with Fyrchek is fine as long as it doesn’t get wet,” Hanmer said. “If it is a brick wall between apartments, and it got wet, it would retain its integrity. If it was a reinforced concrete wall between apartments and it got wet, it would maintain its integrity.”

Even though water ingress issues catalysed structural damage for the Zetland Apartments, it still can cause mouldy walls, furniture and clothes. Hanmer explained that poor detailing and cutting costs were often the cause of water ingress.

“The common failure in Sydney is the balconies and terraces where they rely on a waterproof membrane underneath the tiles to keep the water out from the floor below. People often economise on the membrane and the details around the edges of it, which result in leaks.”