Time to change the thinking on the procurement of building materials

The building and construction industry is a vital part of the New Zealand economy, employing over 280,000 people. With the current housing crisis, it is essential that we have a framework that allows for innovation to increase capacity. But we are currently inhibiting our ability to innovate quickly.

New Zealand has found itself in the situation where our building regulations restrict competition for building products, especially from overseas markets, because we require most products to go through an expensive and time-consuming testing regime. This is an absolute barrier to entry for new and innovative products, and one of the principal causes of the unnecessary delays that are occurring in the industry.

Most of the current research and development of new products and processes for building and construction is driven by offshore manufacturers. New Zealand needs to welcome and allow these new innovations to be used much more readily here.

Unfortunately we have a regulatory regime that is inflexible and consenting authorities that are slow to adapt. The current Government has shown no interest in reforming a system that stifles the innovative process.

Of course we have to be mindful of cutting corners, but we should acknowledge that not all products that are used in building and construction create a risk.

There are international standards that are world-leading, such as the International Building Code, British Standards and ISO, which have led to products that have a proven history of successful use overseas.

But rather than adopting international standards, New Zealand has created its own specific arrangements. For example, 10mm plasterboard is specified for residential builds in New Zealand and has also been approved as a structural element. More commonly overseas, the standard size for plasterboard is 9 mm and 11 mm for residential projects. And this isn’t a situation unique to plasterboard. Other building products such as steel, timber, cement, insulation and window joinery are in a similar situation.

We need to turn our thinking upside-down and it starts with an attitude: let’s be open to new innovation. That could mean making greater use of new proven products or new methods of construction – such as modular construction – that have been demonstrated as both safe and efficient in other jurisdictions similar to ours.

With regards to appropriately accredited and proven products from offshore, one idea that I believe has some merit is to adopt a graduated system. This would involve an increasing level of scrutiny being applied to products that affect structural integrity, weather tightness or energy performance, with lesser requirements for materials that don’t.

In practice, that might mean components which are structural or affect seismic performance, or involve building safety such as cladding, HVAC, water/wastewater, and fire protection, a gating process could be applied where they would be assessed for their use in NZ.

But for products that are low-risk, importers might only be asked to supply technical datasheets and product in-service reports to be cleared for use in New Zealand.

For many products where they have the necessary certification and history of use, no further requirement would be necessary. However, if there were concerns, then they may be required by exception to undergo a full appraisal or get product certification (such as CodeMark).

The review process could be overseen by a committee of experienced building practitioners who would evaluate and decide all applications for importation.

We should also be exploring the use of new technologies to reduce the time for consenting, undertaking building inspections and issuing codes of compliance – another issue that is currently causing massive and costly delays for builders, with territorial authorities taking up to 70 days to process and approve building consent applications. Great use of technology can play its part in reducing unnecessary delays.

Fresh thinking is essential if New Zealand is to continue to build new and better homes – and build them quickly.