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Trajectory on track, but focus is on fire

The Building Ministers’ Forum (BMF) met in Hobart on February 8 to discuss issues ranging from safety to energy efficiency.

The BMF oversees policy and regulatory issues affecting Australia’s building and construction industries. It is made up of federal and state and territory government ministers who have responsibility for building and construction.

It was thought that the meeting would be an opportunity to discuss the lifting of energy requirements in the National Construction Code (NCC) of 2022, as detailed in the Trajectory for low-energy buildings. This trajectory was agreed by energy ministers on February 1, with the intention of informing the activities of the BMF and the Australian Building Codes Board (ABCB).

But in the end the meeting focused more on two specific high-profile incidents: the cladding fire at the Neo200 building in Melbourne and the structural failures at Opal Tower in Sydney.

Cladding ban agreed ‘in principal’

After the cladding fire at the Neo200 building on February 4, and with the memory of the Grenfell Tower disaster still fresh in people’s minds, mainstream media attention has once again focused on the use of combustible cladding on buildings.

At the meeting, ministers discussed the incident, and agreed in principle to a national ban on the unsafe use of combustible Aluminium Composite Panels (ACPs) in new construction. This is subject to a cost/benefit analysis being undertaken on the proposed ban, including impacts on the supply chain, potential impacts on the building industry, any unintended consequences, and a proposed timeline for implementation. Ministers will further consider this at their next meeting in July.

Ministers also supported in principle that building practitioners should owe a duty of care to building owners (and subsequent building owners) for residential construction work and certain commercial construction for small business. If required this should be provided for in legislation. This will be considered again at a future BMF meeting.

An Australian Standard is being developed for ACPs, but it was agreed that a technical specification will be put in place first. This only requires peer review rather than nine weeks’ compulsory public consultation needed for a standard.

Compliance the key

While discussing the use of ACPs, industry and ministers noted that the NCC already restricts the use of ACPs, and they agreed the focus should remain on enforcing the code. States and territories are already working on this in response to the recommendations in Shergold Weir report, Building Confidence.

Ministers reaffirmed their commitment to developing a joint response to these recommendations. The BMF is planning to release a joint implementation plan for the proposed reforms by the end of the month. The focus will be on ensuring these reforms are – as far as possible – consistent across jurisdictions.

Industry representatives discussed initiatives they are leading to to improve education and lift the competency of building practitioners. The Australian Institute of Refrigeration, Air Conditioning and Heating (AIRAH) was there, and reported on the progress of the Registered Professional Engineers Program. Currently there is no national mandated registration program for engineers in Australia.

Progress on trajectory

The ABCB presented the 2019 edition of the NCC released on February 1.

To support the COAG Energy Council’s commitment to a trajectory for low-energy buildings, the BMF asked the ABCB to provide further advice on:

  • Any changes to the trajectory to ensure delivery is in collaboration with industry
  • A holistic review of the energy efficiency provisions in the NCC
  • A regulatory impact process that can take account of regional differences.

A review of the NCC volume 2 residential energy-efficiency measures are already under way. Industry is engaged in this process and will have a say in any proposed changes.

Meanwhile, the Commercial Building Disclosure (CBD) review by the Department of the Environment and Energy continues to look at other sectors to drive energy-efficiency changes.

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