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Investigation into major Sydney building defects after Opal Tower

An interim report on the findings of the investigation of Sydney’s Opal Tower Apartment building has found the building is structurally sound and not in danger of collapse.

UNSW Sydney’s City Futures Research Centre will undertake a two-year project to address concerns about building quality issues in multi-unit housing following the Opal Tower incident.

Almost $275,000 was awarded to the centre, which will use it to tackle major defects in strata housing in NSW.

The project aims to identify the prevalence in significant building defects and understand what causes them. It also seeks to provide solutions that will improve housing quality and potentially bring sweeping changes to the sector.

It is being led by UNSW City Futures Director Professor Bill Randolph and will build on previous research to identify the scale of major defects within the multi-unit housing sector. The project team also includes UNSW Built Environment Professor Martin Loosemore, UNSW Scientia Fellow Hazel Easthope and UNSW City Futures Research Fellow Laura Crommelin.

The multi-unit housing industry is estimated to be worth more than $1 trillion and is more than half of new Australian housing.

A previous study conducted by the City Futures Research Centre found that 72 to 85 per cent of owner’s corporations had identified at least one significant defect in their building.

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“It is generally recognised that developments in residential buildings have a high proportion of defects when they’re built,” Randolph says.

“Despite these problems, there is no comprehensive data available on defective apartment buildings … what kinds of defects exist, or why they’ve occurred.

“We have now put together a team of industry partners to support a new research project to address this knowledge gap,” he said.

The study will focus on three of Sydney’s biggest high-density housing markets, the City of Sydney, Parramatta and Canterbury Bankstown.

Randolph said the project methodology is one of the most ambitious undertaken by the research centre and will engage stakeholders across industries, including strata, insurance and law.

“We’re actually going to do an in-depth data gathering exercise on about 600 of these blocks in these three areas, with a view to trying to work out what’s going on – which ones have defects, what are the defects if they have them and, importantly, how much it is going to cost to fix and by whom.

“It hasn’t been done before – nobody’s ever done it before because it’s a tough job.”

He also anticipated the project will have international implications in the US and the UK markets.

“There are lots of high-density towers going up in cities like London and Toronto, let alone Singapore and Hong Kong, and with very similar processes and conditions in the investor market which is driving the development,” he said.

“It’s happening everywhere, and it’s a generic issue worldwide.”

Professor Bill Randolph Director, UNSW City Futures Research Centre
Professor Bill Randolph
Director, UNSW City Futures Research Centre

Randolph believes the project will further uncover fundamental issues the housing sector – being undermined by cascading risks, blame shifting and lack of oversight.

“There’s a whole chain of risk which is pushed further and further down the chain from the developers right down to the sub-contractors, where people can cut corners, as they did in the Opal Tower, and nobody really checks up on them, because there is no proper oversight,” he said.

“They basically self-certify themselves, and that’s a real problem.

“Quality control methods need to change, and our project will give some pointers as to how that might happen,” Randolph said.

He adds that the project comes at a pivotal time following growing concern about the safety and quality of buildings after the infamous Opal Tower saga.

“This is not a minor problem, as the recent Opal Tower incident has made clear – the majority of new dwellings in Sydney are multi-unit,” Randolph said.

“Cities by and large are growing rapidly and are being reformed with multi-units in a way and in a scale that has never been done before.

“Therefore, if we’re building sub-par quality, then we’ve got a real problem on our hands now, and in the future.”