VBA Mail – September 2020

Wooden house cut-out surrounded by tools

The past nine months have brought significant change to the Victorian Building Authority (VBA) and Victoria’s building and construction industry.

VBA CEO Sue Eddy reflects on the year so far.

A message from the CEO

When I wrote to you last, I said building policy, legislation, regulation and industry had to align quickly to ensure we were ready for the challenges and opportunities that were about to come our way.

Of course, back then, I had no idea just how prophetic those words would be.

The year so far has been one of challenge, change and disruption – with devastating bushfires in East Gippsland, Towong and Alpine shires, and the coronavirus (COVID-19) public health pandemic taking its toll on many industries, including ours.

Since COVID-19 first triggered restrictions on movement back in March, we’ve been hard at work, maintaining our support for the industry, creating new initiatives and promoting health advice to help keep our industry safe and open. As part of our ongoing efforts, we ran a campaign to promote consistent and safe work practices, showing that together, we can all make a difference.

Right now, many in our industry and the community are doing it tough. The past few months have brought much change to the building and construction industry, with face masks, social distancing and the impacts of government restrictions coming into effect. There is no doubt that Victoria’s building and plumbing industries are facing significant pressure.

In metropolitan Melbourne, strict health and safety requirements have reduced movement to and from building sites, in line with expert health advice. At the same time, some parts of our industry have been instructed to work off site or close temporarily, posing challenges for mandatory inspections and on-site logistics.

While some restrictions have recently eased, I ask that you do not become complacent. It is vital that you keep wearing PPE and maintain social distancing while on site to help protect yourself, your workmates, your families and your community.

Extensive guidance to help you maintain healthy and safe worksites is available from the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Guidelines for the Building and Construction Industry and HIA’s Making space on site guidelines. We’ve also published an updated High Risk COVIDSafe Plan template on our website, as well as links to industry-specific roadmaps and frequently asked questions.

Over the past six months, our industry has pulled together in a way many never thought possible. United over one goal – to keep the industry moving – businesses, unions, industry associations and government have all come together and entered a new era of cooperation to lead the industry forward. The VBA, of course, has played our part, forging new industry partnerships, delivering education and training, supporting building practitioners and plumbers, and acting as a regulator should.

In the past financial year, 104,560 building permits worth an estimated $39.15 billion to Victoria’s economy were issued by building surveyors across the state. These figures represent a drop of 4836 building permits compared to the 2018–19 financial year, with a corresponding shortfall in dollar value of around $985.4 million. Overall, one third of all building permits were issued in regional Victoria, while across the state, 83 per cent of building permits relate to domestic building work. While much of 2020 has been focused on the economic impacts of COVID-19, early trend analysis of building permit data for July and August points to resilience in the domestic, industrial and public building sectors. This is borne out by data for the calendar year to August: the number and value of Victoria’s building permits are up by 8.4 per cent and 8 per cent respectively on the same eight months last year.

At the VBA, we have two core priorities: maintaining the safety and quality of Victoria’s built environment, and supporting the industry – through good times and bad. Following the bushfires that burnt large swathes of eastern Victoria last summer, our inspectors conducted secondary impact assessments on bushfire-affected properties throughout the region to assist local relief efforts. State Building Surveyor Andrew Cialini also led a bushfire response committee to determine community needs and direct resources where they were needed most. That work is ongoing and will likely continue for months to come.

In late March, increasing coronavirus case numbers saw us leave the office and shift our operations online. The sudden change taught us much about our own operations and efficiencies, including where and how we need to enhance our digital capacity. We are now looking at expanding our digital transformation, so we can better serve the industry whenever and wherever our support is needed. It’s all part of our long-term strategy to become more responsive for you and the industry.

In past weeks, we’ve taken many positive steps towards our digital goals, with our registration and licensing exams shifting online, and a growing number of registration and licensing forms migrating from PDF to HTML. Melbourne’s Stage 4 restrictions also saw us develop a guideline for conducting non-mandatory site inspections by remote video, with further innovations to come.

For those of you who prefer to speak with us over the phone, we know it has been hard to reach us at times. We’ve responded to 23,000 enquiries relating to Stage 3 and 4 restrictions in the past two months, putting significant strain on our frontline teams. To manage the surge, we have continually increased the capacity of our Customer Experience team, so if you need to speak with us, please call 1300 815 127 between 8:30 am and 5 pm Monday to Friday, email customerservice@vba.vic.gov.au or complete our online contact form.

Since mid-April, the VBA has also been managing the construction industry’s coronavirus hotline, providing real-time information and advice on issues such as hygiene standards, physical distancing, screening of workers and the use of personnel hoists. To speak with the team, please call 1800 675 398 and select Option 5.

The introduction of coronavirus restrictions also saw us shift our education and registration awareness seminars online for the very first time. Using Zoom, VBA experts presented on various topics, before answering questions submitted via the chat function live to camera. The online format clearly suited our geographically diverse audiences, with more than 1730 gasfitters attending this year’s Gas Heater Safety Program (run with Master Plumbers and Energy Safe Victoria) – a massive 500 per cent increase on last year. We also delivered webinars on performance solutions to building surveyors, architects, building designers and builders, with further training still to come.

In May, we surpassed 10,000 proactive inspections of building and plumbing work for the first time in a financial year. This is an important milestone for the VBA, and one that shows our determination to deploy teams of building and plumbing inspectors to scores of active building sites every day in order to maintain standards and protect consumers. When we find potential faults, we notify the building practitioner or plumber and require them to fix the issue before the build progresses – meaning owners are not left with defective work, additional costs and unnecessary stress. We only close the matter when evidence of compliance is provided and verified.

At the VBA, our inspectors visit more than 900 sites every month, with the goal of inspecting 10 per cent of new building permits every year. Between April and June this year, our Proactive Inspections Program (PIP) completed 3048 inspections (comprising 2156 building and 892 plumbing inspections) in 58 municipalities, targeting 1265 builders and 241 building surveyors in total. Almost one third of the inspections found some matters of non-compliant work with the potential to have an adverse effect on occupant safety and structural integrity. Of these, around 30 sites had issues that posed a serious risk.

By identifying unreinforced masonry, insufficient waterproofing and non-compliant gas installations, amongst other problems, our inspection work is vital for consumer confidence and industry compliance. Not only do we now have far greater presence on building sites across Victoria, but we also have far greater oversight of building and plumbing work in general. All of this means we can identify potential faults earlier, when they are easier to fix, and that the burden of fixing them sits with the builder or plumber, rather than the owner. It’s a targeted and methodical approach to protect consumers, educate practitioners and maintain standards in the industry.

Over the past few months, our inspectors have continued inspecting new building and plumbing work to keep Victorians safe. As the regulator, our role is to enforce compliance, protect consumers and safeguard the reputation of the industry. Given current restrictions, we’re taking all precautions to prevent the spread of coronavirus – and making sure everyone on the sites we visit is too. By wearing PPE, practising social distancing and following our COVIDSafe plans, we will get through this together.

In June, our Investigations team caught 12 people working as unregistered and unlicensed plumbers on building sites in and around Sale and Bairnsdale. They were found during a week-long blitz in which more than 40 plumbers were questioned and two were issued with warning letters. The unregistered persons are now facing charges for breaching the Building Act.

Our regulatory oversight of the building industry is also expanding, with the launch of Victoria’s first Code of Conduct for Building Surveyors. Commencing on 1 January 2021, the code is designed to lift standards of conduct, boost competency and drive behavioural change that puts the safety of Victorians first. We developed the code in response to industry demand and a need to provide certainty to building surveyors on acceptable behaviour and practices.

In keeping with our core priorities, the VBA has recently stepped up scrutiny of building practitioners who engage in illegal phoenix activity by implementing extra credit history and background checks before granting registration or renewal. This additional scrutiny protects consumers from practitioners who deliberately structure their company’s finances to avoid paying creditors, or those who have a history of ethical misconduct.

In August, we welcomed Dr Weng Poh to the VBA as our first Principal Fire Safety Engineer. Dr Poh works closely with State Building Surveyor Andrew Cialini, the Statewide Cladding Audit and other operational areas of the VBA on matters related to fire safety. His extensive experience greatly enhances our regulatory oversight of fire safety engineering and its critical relationship with the design and construction of complex buildings.

Throughout 2020, the VBA has entered into many major research partnerships to help us better understand major regulatory harms or problems, consumer needs and how regulatory intervention can be used to improve public safety and amenity in the industry. One such partnership is the Building 4.0 Cooperative Research Centre, which will address long-standing systemic problems in the construction industry, including stagnating productivity, limited digitisation or adoption of advances in manufacturing technology, and poor knowledge transfer. The initiative is a collaboration between 30 university, government and industry partners. The VBA is the only regulator participating, which makes our input even more important.

Another major project to launch this year is the Cairnlea Digital Twin initiative, which aims to develop a protocol or platform allowing for an end-to-end digital development process that spans every stage from planning through to building retirement. The project is a collaboration between several government agencies, the VBA and Brimbank City Council. Findings from the project will help the VBA accelerate our own journey towards the digitisation of building information and documentation.

Finally, if you haven’t read it already, State Building Surveyor Andrew Cialini has recently released his first Technical Update, in which he outlines the use of remote video technology for non-mandatory site inspections and gives us an early glimpse into an industry program to enhance fire safety. Stay tuned for his next update in October.

With Melbourne now at the Second Step in Victoria’s roadmap for reopening, and regional Victoria at the Third Step, there is much for the industry to look forward to in the weeks and months ahead. Your adherence to health and safety advice – and the collaborative efforts that have so successfully pulled the industry together – have led to a unique opportunity: being one of a limited number of industries leading the reopening of Victoria’s economy.

We cannot lose momentum, and we cannot be complacent. We have all done much to keep our industry safe and open – and it is up to us to see that it stays that way. Please follow the industry’s health advice. By doing so, we will get through this.

Take care.

Sue Eddy
Chief Executive Officer
Victorian Building Authority

In this edition...

Building practitioners to face greater scrutiny as VBA gets new powers to stop phoenixing

Stronger powers now in force give the VBA greater scope to scrutinise a building practitioner’s corporate ties for evidence of illegal phoenixing.

New Code to lift the standards of Victorian building surveyors

Victoria’s first Code of Conduct will lift the standards of conduct for building surveyors, boost competency in the industry and drive behavioural changes that puts the safety of Victorians first.

Have you checked if the products you are buying or installing are certified for use in Australia?

In Australia, most plumbing and drainage products must be WaterMark-certified. But what does this mean?

Geelong builders and plumbers put on notice

The VBA is warning Geelong’s builders and plumbers to make sure their work is compliant or risk further action.

Work on Preston construction site halted over safety concerns

The VBA has taken swift action to have work on a construction site halted to prevent a tragedy taking place.

Remote video guideline to complement on-site inspections

Building surveyors, inspectors and others who provide technical services can now use remote video technology to complement on-site inspections.

Servicing gas appliances? Check your registration or licence before you start

If you service or test household gas appliances, you must be registered or licensed in Type A Appliance Servicing work.

Enhancement program to drive ESM maintenance

New initiatives to boost the compliance and performance of essential safety measures (ESMs) will be released later this year.

Have your say on the Professional Engineers Registration Scheme

The first round of consultation on Victoria’s Professional Engineers Registration Scheme is now open for public comment. Help us shape the future of the industry.