A couple of weeks ago, Sydney Morning Herald and Domain contributor Sue Williams accepted an invitation to see Building Commissioner David Chandler in action on a development site. How do hardened tradies and building professionals respond when a man with a growing reputation for taking no prisoners drops in for an inspection? Think of a cross between Superman and a wrecking ball, says Sue.
The group of developers, builders and tradies are waiting nervously for the arrival of the man with the unprecedented superpowers to overhaul Sydney’s construction industry.
“I think he’s just pulled up,” a forward runner warns. “Yes, it’s him. He’s here.”
A murmur shivers through the assembled horde, and then Building Commissioner David Chandler strides into the courtyard of the apartment complex being built in the city’s north west. To a person, everyone rises to their feet to greet him, as if in the presence of royalty.
“Good morning!” he booms, as they all jostle to shake his hand. “I’m interested to see what we have happening here.”
“Yes, good to see you, David,” someone lies.
When the NSW Government decided to appoint a building commissioner after a run of scandalous building fails, including cracking in Opal Tower, the leaning of Mascot Towers and combustible cladding slathered over so many apartment building facades, no one really believed much would change.
The scepticism increased with the appointment of an adjunct fellow of the Western Sydney University to the role. An academic? What would he do? Even though he was granted incredible powers six months ago to shut down sites where he wasn’t happy with standards, and have work stopped, everyone expected a mild-mannered Clark Kent. Instead, they got Superman.
To date, Mr Chandler has issued orders on nearly 1,000 apartments in 10 developments to either fix them up or stop work, and deny them occupation certificates. Problems range from inadequate waterproofing, structural problems with facades, too-small lift wells and shoddy workmanship, all the way to the serious defects in what he says is the worst building in Sydney, a 16-storey tower in Auburn.
“I think it’s great that he’s weeded out a lot of the bottom end of the market,” says George Tadrosse, CEO of developer Aland which is building 1,400 apartments across 10 stages at this Schofields site today, and which passed their audit three weeks before.
“The development market is pretty small with around 30 players – 10 tier one developers, 10 middle-range and 10 we might call ‘fly-by-nighters’. He’s putting a lot of pressure on that bottom end which is good as it’s the only way to lift standards and bring confidence back into the market.”
Indeed, there are now calls for similar commissioners with the same powers to be appointed in other states too. In her former role as the president of the NSW chapter of the Australian Institute of Architects, Kathlyn Loseby said, “Sydney and Melbourne have had the major disasters but it would be good to have a consistency of construction standards across all states.”
Chris Duggan, president at strata managers’ body Strata Community Association (NSW), agrees. “The Government could have brought in a bureaucrat but he’s someone who’s making meaningful, no-nonsense reforms that will benefit all consumers,” he says. “I believe he’s leading transformational change in the sector and introducing initiatives that we’d like to see rolled out in all states.”
Mr Chandler himself isn’t shy about calling out any wrong-doing he sees, as he sets out on his goal of 100 audits a year. “But I’m happy with you guys!” he says reassuringly to the men standing anxiously around him. “I go to so many jobs where I can’t believe they have the people they do running their projects. It’s a real worry.
“And ones where there’s no relationship between the developer and the manufacturer of the products they’re using on their buildings, so I’ve seen so many problems with how they’re using the products as they don’t understand them. It’s a disgrace. Now … can I see your bathrooms?”
There’s a flurry of activity and he’s escorted upstairs into one of the buildings proper. He halts at one of the doorways to an apartment, takes out a coin and taps all the way around. The atmosphere is tense. It looks as if no one is drawing breath until he finally smiles, apparently liking what he hears.
“It’s important there’s enough mortar in these,” he explains. “It’s a simple tap test.”
He then advances to the bathroom, coin out again to check how securely the tiles are fixed to the walls. A hollow sound would indicate that they’re not well enough stuck. The constant tapping seems to be his theme tune.
“I’ve had around 1,000 bathrooms pull their tiles off as they weren’t done well enough in the first place,” he says, turning to the crowd of onlookers. “But these are fine.”
Bathrooms and facades are Mr Chandler’s main concerns as he says they often have the most critical problems. Jerome Harb, director of Aquastop Waterproofing Australia, which is the subcontractor looking after the waterproofing on this site, is relieved that it’s been given the all-clear.
Other companies aren’t going so well, he says. “There’s a lot of panic out there in the industry at the moment with David Chandler doing inspections,” says Mr Harb. “I think in the last six months, since he was given his powers, a lot has changed as a result.
“But it really shouldn’t have taken that long. There’ve been problems for a long time, but no one had addressed them before.”
Happy with the bathrooms, Mr Chandler then inspects the façade, with its CSR lightweight fibre cement cladding system, and gives it the thumbs up. Harry Fine, CSR’s innovation & technical manager, says he’s happy to have someone lifting standards. “He’s been really good for the industry,” says Mr Fine.
Mr Chandler checks his watch and is now ready to go to his next appointment, another building site in another suburb. He shakes all the hands proffered and says his farewells.
“Everyone senses that the winds of change are coming,” he says. “That’s good as we’re looking for a better outcome for consumers and it’s reinforcing the level of management that’s being done to projects And I’m hoping for more and more improvements.
“When I see things are a bit ordinary, I don’t mind doing a dummy spit.”
He did one just the other day, when he inspected the women’s toilets on a site. He even took a photo of a dirty toilet bowl and showed it to the head of the site. “These small things are important,” he says. “We need more women in the industry, but how can we attract them if they have to put up with these conditions?”
As he marches away towards the exit of the site, Mr Tadrosse looks pleased.
“He has fairly awesome powers and he’s ready to use them,” he says. “You needed someone tough as the builders and developers he takes on are tough, and have a lot of money. You need a guy who’ll take no prisoners. Everyone needs a tune-up and he keeps everyone on their toes. As a result, everyone has lifted their game. There’s always something you can do better.”
At that very moment, there’s a roar of displeasure, and everyone stops in their tracks. It’s Mr Chandler standing stock still, pointing to a drain hole in the ground, without a cover. “Come on guys!” he bellows. “Don’t disappoint me now!”
To a person, everyone looks crushed. If anyone could magic up some Kryptonite, they surely would.
This feature first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald and online in Domain.