A review of the New Zealand Building Industry: Is it really that bad? An honest building industry review from a humble, British surveying bloke.

Ben Whitehouse

Ben Whitehouse

I have been in New Zealand for nearly two years during which a lot of my time has been spent working within a team evaluating, redesigning, remediating or supporting a claim for defective workmanship or design predominantly focussing on so-called ‘leaky buildings’. It has been a baptism of fire, something I read about before relocating but had not perhaps fully understood until I was here and I began to see things with my own eyes. Whilst I don’t want to add myself to the long lists of so-called experts sharing my technical and professional opinions, I did want to share my thoughts on the legacy of this phenomenon and how it has had a wider impact on the property and construction environment we work within.

But first I need to go back 27 years or so.. When I was considering what I wanted to do for a living I spent a lot of time speaking with an experienced and very talented carpenter who was instrumental in influencing my choice of career path. With no discernible hands-on skill, at that time, he encouraged me to consider becoming a Surveyor supporting me through my degree and sharing the benefit of his 40+ years of experience from a ‘trades’ perspective. As one would expect there was the usual ‘tradesman’ criticism of the design and the designers, but, in an unusually balanced way, criticism of the management and labour forces doing the building part too. He told me of designs that couldn’t be built because they were practically impossible, materials specified that were not appropriate or understood on-site by the tradesmen, supervisors turning a blind eye to the workmanship in order to ‘get the job done’. This was based on a 40+ year period in the UK building industry… sound familiar?

Whilst most Kiwis seem very critical of the quality of the design and execution of work on-site, this is not an issue experienced in Aotearoa alone. I spent my last years in a UK consultancy dealing with all manner of horrors relating to design, specification of materials and execution on site. Since I have got here I have found myself working alongside armies of ‘Ex-Pats’ sucking air in through their teeth and shaking their head at what they see. In the same way that a Doctor only see’s ‘ill’ people and Police only see criminals, is it fair to be so hard on the building stock you have here in New Zealand by assuming it is all terrible? I would tend to say, from my experience at least, it is not.

As a property owner, whether corporate, public or private owner, you may have a need and possibly even a strategy for your asset. Similarly, you may or may not know you have a defective building, some may not want to know or choose not to find out. If you are unfortunate enough to discover you have a problem what are the consequences of the overly litigious approach? Does it help to finding the person or persons responsible for the defect? Who is it that benefits from this approach? Is it the property owner or public body, the builder, the materials manufacturer or the industry as a whole? In truth, we are all indirectly paying for the legal actions taken in the past because the industry pays and when the industry pays then we, as individuals, ultimately pay. The medium to long term costs may not be immediately apparent.

Liability Knocks

In my opinion, from the outside looking in, there is a real game of ‘pass the parcel’ going on in New Zealand. To win at this game you must not be holding the ‘liability’ parcel when the music stops, rather than concentrating on the client’s needs and designing or constructing a suitable building for them.  Liability is handed around between designer, supplier, contractor, building inspector, surveyor, the property owner (and anyone else in the mix) with the same energy and enthusiasm as you would it if the parcel contained a time bomb. It seems that the potential danger of being in the ‘hot seat’ actually discourages anyone using their professional judgement and experience to make a decision or a suggestion. Both here in NZ and, to a degree, in the UK I have seen people openly not making a decision that they are more than capable of doing because they fear the consequences. Is this really what people paid to use their knowledge and experience to make a professional decision should do? My guess is that this is extremely frustrating when you are a client and you just want someone to resolve the problem/need you have at that time.

Bland Designs

New Zealand has a diverse and rich architectural streetscape which is very pleasant, but, with innovative design comes the risk of failure. From my perspective this has surely got to be more appealing than the mock Georgian buildings I have left behind in the UK which, incidentally, also fail. I would not want to see design development and innovation be stunted by the potential for being ‘sued’ in 20 years – we know the agents of failure, now let’s just apply that knowledge and some common sense to our designs.

Tomorrow's World

The evolution of materials science within our sector is also an important thing to nurture. My experience here is that commercialisation and opportunity can sometimes be put ahead of scientific knowledge and research. In truth, no training or education can prepare someone to know everything, especially given the sheer pace of change, quantity, and diversity of new materials. However, as a professional, you are trained to return to first principles - if you encounter something new. My mantra is to follow the science, not the salesman.

At the beginning, focus on the end

Construction projects are a mixture of art, science, craft, but most importantly, out and out collaboration. They involve several disparate people, companies and organisations often working in isolation from each other to make something of significant importance to someone. What is most important is that each and every person remains focused on their part in delivering a functional, fit for purpose, and durable building for their client.

If we all keep sight of this and stop pointing the finger of blame at each other then we may, as a sector, begin to heal the wounds of the past and begin to deliver some fantastic buildings.


Written By Ben Whitehouse | view his profile here.

Ben Whitehouse
BSc, Hons
MRICS (Member of the Royal Instititue of Chartered Surveyors)