Concern as 50,000 unit blocks reach use-by dates

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Between Mascot Towers and the Opal building, and more recently Vicinity in inner-West Sydney, the high-profile problems at various Sydney apartment blocks has drawn our attention to the quality of (or lack thereof) in new buildings.

However, it seems that in the meantime tens of thousands of older buildings have been crumbling away, held together by patch-up jobs much of which has been unsupervised and unregulated.

It’s a picture of sub-standard repairs keeping buildings functioning while the essential structures and services of the blocks break down, according to NSW Building Commissioner David Chandler.

And while he’s predominantly concerned with NSW, other states with older unit blocks may well be on the same road to ruins.

Mr Chandler is best known for his shake-up of apartment block developers by  shutting down building sites and refusing occupancy certificates for sub-standard new buildings.

But on the question of older blocks, raised at a recent seminar by the Owners Corporation Network (OCN), the focus shifts back to the apartment owners, individually and collectively.

“We can now see an increasing number of buildings that are over 25 years of age,” Mr Chandler told the Flat Chat Wrap podcast, making it clear that this is his personal opinion, based on his initial thoughts on the matter, and not an official state government position.

“While it’s okay to say that nearly 40 per cent of strata apartment buildings were completed in the six years prior to the survey conducted by us last year, that still means that 60 per cent were constructed prior to that,” he added. “That’s nearly 50,000 [buildings] over 25 years old.”

As buildings age, while individual elements can be patched up, the entire block can break down to the point where it is technically uninhabitable, he says.

“Until recently; until the Design and Building Practitioners Act, quite significant works on strata buildings were conducted without any regulatory oversight at all,” Mr Chandler said.

“My concern with that is that those works typically take the building back to a quasi-construction state, and well away from a status that would be considered to be equal to an occupation certificate state.

“They’re also mostly occupied, so we’re having buildings that are accepting significant works during their lifetime, where those works have not been regulated, nor made to comply with the Building Code of Australia.”

Mr Chandler said he had described the remediation sector as “potentially being a bit of a wild west”, because the people doing the work range from handyperson fixers to professionally competent licensed builders.

“Most Owners Corporations want to spend as little as possible to fix the problem,” he said. “So what we’re looking at is these over-25-year buildings, that have probably had several ‘sorties’ at them by various owner’s committees, just trying to deal with the issues of the day.”

However, he said, a backlog of essential maintenance would still be building up as strata schemes tried to minimise whatever they spent on whatever they had to fix.

As for the collective sale of entire blocks to developers – only requiring a 75 percent vote in NSW, but unanimous approval elsewhere – he said that while owners can potentially sell their apartments at a premium, they might be unable to buy into a better building in that area.

So what can be done as older apartment blocks deteriorate and their owners have little incentive to spend the large sums required to make them compliant with current building standards?

One solution, he says, may be the involvement of an agency like Landcom, which has a proven record in developing “fringe” schemes that commercial developers were too cautious to touch.

You can hear (or read) the extended version of Mr Chandler’s contribution to the podcast here.

A version of this post also appears in the Australian Financial Review.

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