Monday, January 31, 2011

On leaky buildings

On Friday the newspapers were reporting the estimated $150 billion repair bill for leaky school buildings (see here and here). I am an employee of the Ministry of Education, but only tangentially involved with any of the leaky building stuff, and don’t want to talk about schools specifically. What surprises me is how accepting everyone is about the whole situation. Perhaps ‘resigned’ is a better word for it.

First it was leaky homes, then leaky apartments, and now everything in New Zealand constructed between 1994 and 2004 is high risk for ‘weather-tightness defects’. In hindsight it’s easy to say the deregulation of the building industry was a boo-boo (“look at Canada!” etc), that of course if you permit the use of untanalised timber you’re gonna encounter problems — but what about the human factor? For every leaky building, state- or privately-funded, someone had design it, someone had to sign-off on the designs and materials used and someone had to build it. The design flaws such as roofs with stuff-all gradient, parapets to trap the water in, and insufficient flashing are both the fault of designers and their clients who let themselves be duped by the fashions of the day (it is quite easy to recognise a leaky building by sight: like this one) and who were happy to pay bottom dollar. But I struggle to understand how the builders could have done such a bad job for such a long time. Even today, with Building Act changes and leaky home tribunals, I get the sense the building profession is a long way from being a ‘profession’. Where’s the duty of care, the pride in one’s work, the common sense?

When our landlords recently paid for double glazing to be installed in our flat (they plan to move here in a year or two when they retire, so it was not a selfless act), the workmen had to cut a larger hole in the bathroom to fit the new window. This meant our toilet roll holder had to be removed from the wall and repositioned once the new frame was in place. The problem was that it was screwed into the wall at least an arm’s length from the toilet. It seems like the sort of prank they’d play on candid camera, or something a handyman neighbour would do when a feud escalates to humorous home invasion territory. But seriously, what were they thinking? I suspect they were not thinking at all. Same as when they took gouges out of the walls in two bedrooms and the living room. I’m not so fussed about the walls (it ain’t my place after all), and these window men may not work on new builds, but it does seem symptomatic of the industry they are very much a part of.

I suspect part of it stretches way back before the changes to the Building Act in the 1990s. Anyone who has hosted exchange students or visitors from overseas will have heard how cold and draughty our homes are. It seems our climate is just mild enough not to warrant central heating (and until recently: decent insulation). But foreign visitors also remark on New Zealanders’ (and Australians’, to be fair) relationship with their homes. Whereas in most places in Europe, houses or even apartments, are thought of as multi-generational investments, here in New Zealand it is not uncommon for us to buy and sell a new house every decade, many times opting to build new only to need something bigger, smaller, grander or lower maintenance in a few years. In contrast, when we visited M’s family in Italy, the house was four hundred years old and inhabited by a mother, father and two children, a grandfather and his sister. It was still thought of as the grandfather’s house, though it was slowly becoming more and more the daughter’s. As the needs of the occupants changed, the internal layout of the house had changed, and will continue to change, but its firm foundation and cool-in-summer, warm-in-winter make-up will endure.

New Zealand is very much the land of disposable buildings. In accounting terms we talk of building lives in the range of forty years, rather than four hundred. We are a nation of property investors: our go-to move is to buy an old house on a large section, knock it down and subdivide. What do we build on these picnic-blanket sized sections? Townhouses. How much do we spend on them? As little as possible in order to sell them and make our return as large and a fast as possible. Why do we buy these shoddy townhouses with no section? Because there’s a decent rental market for something with fresh paint and no lawns. Why do we live in such cynical, soul-destroying abodes? Because it’s only for a year or two, until or needs change.

This is all to say that we asked for leaky buildings and we got them, and we will continue to get them (in different forms: subsiding buildings, toxic paint buildings, sticky door-jamb buildings) until we stop viewing property as a disposable commodity and think about it in multi-generational terms from the moment the designer puts mouse-point to CAD plan.

It makes sense to think about how much a building will cost to maintain over its life (be that 40 years or 400), rather than just the up-front costs of construction. Buyers of property should these days be waking up to the costliness of poor design and materials and factor this into their offering price. Something solid and well constructed with a nice sloping roof of whatever material experts agree will last for donkeys years should fetch you a premium on the resale market. But then, why would you ever want to sell your warm, dry home with enough space and a flexible layout to cater for the changing needs of your family? Oh, you’ve been transferred to Auckland. Fine.

And one wrinkle on a personal level: how’s a mid-level public servant supposed to afford a mortgage for a sustainable, multi-generational home? With M and my salaries combined, we’re mired in the market for a crappy three bedroom house that needs: a new kitchen, new bathroom, new hot water cylinder, insulation, window frames replaced and some bushwhacking to get any semblance of a garden. And if I were to revert to writing full time? It’s difficult to see us ever getting a foot on the property ladder.

So for now it seems I’ll write my grumpy, finger-pointing blog posts from the comfort of my double-glazed rental accommodations with great views and a well appointed, modern kitchen.

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