27 Jul 2018

Building insiders warn of potential fallout from suspension of CodeMark certificates

8:43 am on 27 July 2018

Building owners and designers are struggling to deal with the suspension of key approval certificates for aluminium panels similar to those that burned on London's Grenfell Tower a year ago.

The charred remains of clading are pictured on the outer walls of the burnt out shell of the Grenfell Tower block in north Kensington, west London on June 22, 2017.

The charred remains of clading are pictured on the outer walls of the burnt out shell of the Grenfell Tower block in north Kensington, west London on June 22, 2017. Photo: AFP

They are not sure what the order by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) means for consents, liability, and insurance cover for high-rise buildings that have the panels.

The ministry has suspended six CodeMark certificates for 13 types of panel because there is not enough proof they are resistant to fire.

But it said its post-Grenfell inquiries had not unearthed any evidence the semi-combustible FR panels were dangerous.

That's disputed by fire engineer Tony Enright who did the panels audit for the ministry late last year that led to the certificates' suspension.

The FR panel had failed fire testing overseas, he said.

"The decision by MBIE to suspend these flawed certificates is a good one, but it really is only a first step," Dr Enright said.

"And if MBIE had taken a precautionary approach back in November they'd have suspended and avoided eight months' worth of questionable products being installed on New Zealand's buildings."

Owner of Auckland company Kaneba, Jan Gouws, said he supplies five types of panel systems caught up in the suspension.

He was fielding calls from architects asking if they should call a halt to projects.

"We don't have clear guidance to see if, where there has been a building consent issued, if it's going to affect those projects when code compliance time arrives," Mr Gouws said.

MBIE acting building system assurance manager Paul Hobbs said councils could no longer rely on the CodeMark certificate as a deemed-to-comply route.

That meant that where a consent had not been granted councils might want more information, such as a fire engineering report.

But where a project already had a consent, its CodeMark certificate remained in force, Mr Hobbs said.

However, the Insurance Council said it was not as simple as that.

"That may be the letter of the law from MBIE - [but] what we are saying is, you'd be well advised to ring your insurer and ask, given that you have these panels, whether that affects your insurance cover," the council's Tim Grafton said.

Insurance Council chief executive Tim Grafton

Insurance Council chief executive Tim Grafton Photo: RNZ / Jonathan Mitchell

"Regardless of the law, insurers want people to be in safe buildings."

Property Council head of advocacy Matt Paterson said the suspensions showed how badly broken the CodeMark scheme was, and building owners might well ask who should be liable for that.

"I could understand if people were feeling shortchanged if they used these in good faith thinking that they were quality certificates."

Auckland civil litigation lawyer Andrew Hough said liability would fall mainly on councils but could extend to the ministry if it had been warned about the certificates.

"I would say that the councils are probably looking at sharing most of the liability in this case because they have multiple responsibilities under the Building Act, and that liability has been set in stone through various decisions," Mr Hough said.

RNZ understands the ministry it had been warned two years ago.

A knee-jerk move?

Queensland company CertMark, which issued all the suspended certificates, called it a knee-jerk move.

It recently had come up with more detailed certificates, and CertMark's chief executive John Thorpe made this plea to the ministry: "Would you please consider the revised certificates ... that we put forward to you, that we feel contain all the information that you feel are lacking in the original certificates. And allow us to issue those certificates and let our clients get on in the marketplace with them."

But the ministry's Paul Hobbs said they had been very clear with CertMark that there was now a three-month deadline to sort out the certificates or they could be revoked permanently.

Mr Thorpe said both the CodeMark system and its certificates, though only a page long, were good enough - though his revised ones were four or five pages, like the revised ones being used in Australia.

However, Kaneba's Jan Gouws said builders were not even reading the one-page certificates, and longer ones would not help if the Auckland Council continued to fail to enforce the conditions attached to them.

"Our CodeMark certificates ... clearly state that we need to look at the work to make sure people do the right thing, but we've never been pointed to a building consent where that's a requirement."

Auckland Council said it was now working with other big-city authorities on a common approach to consenting aluminium composite panels, and awaiting more information from the ministry to do that.

The biggest change in their approach for consents yet to be approved will be that they no longer rely on CodeMark certificates as evidence of code compliance, Auckland Council general manager building consents Ian McCormick said.

"This will result, in most cases, in requests for the applicant to provide additional evidence to demonstrate the design meets the relevant performance requirements of the Building Code."

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