Working for quality

By - , Build 150

Honoured by the Building Officials of New Zealand for outstanding commitment to information, skills development and education of building officials, Hamilton City Council’s Phil Saunders is a tireless advocate for his profession.

Q. What did you do before joining Hamilton City Council?

A. I served a carpentry apprenticeship straight out of school and worked in the construction industry, running my own company. I enjoyed the technical nature of construction and the pride that came from delivering something of quality.

Q. What roles have you had with the council?

A. I joined in 1978 as a Cadet Building Inspector and both inspected buildings and processed building permit applications. I had a brief time as council Clerk of Works but as council housing complexes came to an end, so did my role. I took a position managing the inspection booking system – organising inspectors and inspections. Everything was arranged on a face-to-face basis or by phone with customers.

From there, I moved into consent processing as the Building Review Coordinator, processing commercial building consents. Roles were changing dramatically due to the introduction of the Building Act 1991 and the performance-based Building Code. Educating the architects, builders and public fell on me and my team.

I then became the Chief Building Officer, later the Building Control Manager, a position I enjoyed for over 20 years. We introduced innovations including a money-back-guaranteed turnaround time of 3 days for building consents when other councils were struggling to meet 3–4 week timeframes.

Q. What do you attribute your success to?

A. Everyone has a purpose in life, and I was blessed with good technical skills and the drive to attain leadership roles.

I joined the Building Officials Institute in 1978 and in 2010 became Board Chairman, developing the Institute from struggling financially to a respected organisation providing a range of support for members.

As a Building Control Manager, I focused on bringing younger people into our industry through a cadetship programme. I wanted to ensure succession planning so when I moved on there was someone to fill the void. Many managers retire with little thought for who comes after, taking with them critical information and experience.

Recently I decided to practise what I’ve preached. I resigned from management and took on the position of Principal Building Advisor, allowing me to support the Building Unit strategically.

Q. How has the role of building inspector changed?

A. Expectations placed on building officials have changed. The public can have unreasonable expectations if things go wrong.

This often plays out in legal battles. Through joint and several liability legislation, councils are pulled into building claims because they issue building consents, not because they have necessarily been negligent and caused the building owner a loss.

This is an unfortunate outcome where the fault often results from poor construction practices and sometimes poorly skilled tradespeople. It’s driven councils to be risk averse when processing consent applications and inspecting buildings.

We are now constructing far more complex buildings. Current inspectors have to be armed with the education and tools to deal with the products and ever increasing demands and expectations of a modern society. Building officials will always remain important – the role adds value in the industry.

Q. How have you raised the bar for building officials?

A. Building officials are the only neutral party in the construction process and protect the interests of the owner. The public does not generally know what a building official does or the importance of their role in compliance with the Building Code and the ultimate quality of buildings.

Building officials have often been considered unnecessary and an added cost in construction. But remove them from the process, and you have a recipe for disaster with no-one looking over the other person’s shoulder. Changing perceptions has been a personal journey for me.

Often, building officials have very little support for personal and professional development. This has changed over the last few years. The Building Officials Institute of New Zealand (BOINZ) is one organisation supporting building officials and most practicing buildings officials are members.

I recognised in them a conduit for lifting the profile of building officials through training specific to members needs and support for the higher-level qualification I was involved in developing.

We now have a number of building officials with the Diploma in Building Surveying qualification, which has been recognised by MBIE as meeting the Regulation 18 requirement. This requires building officials to have or be working towards a recognised qualification.

This has been critical to show that building officials are of an equal standing with other industry professionals such as engineers and architects. The BOINZ Board is now working on a degree in building surveying.

Q. Have you seen an improvement in quality during yourworking life?

A.At the recent Waikato Master Builders Home of the Yearevening, I was pleased to see the high standard of the entries.There have always been builders who produce high-quality workand the awards show off the best. However, poor quality work isalso an issue for the industry.

It comes down to the builder’s experience, the demands of the client, the cost of the building and the construction environment. The last one depends on whether the industry is quiet or under pressure. Right now, it’s under immense pressure and is not in good shape.

Poor quality buildings are being constructed in Auckland because of the demand and a lack of skilled people carrying out or overseeing work.

The Licensed Building Practitioners Scheme will eventually deliver the number of skilled builders we so desperately need, but this will take many years and the support of industry leaders and politicians. It will only happen by ensuring that only trained and qualified people hold licences and that enough skilled and experienced people hold site supervisor licences.

Q. What did winning the BOINZ award mean to you?

A.It was recognition by my peers that I had achieved somethingworthwhile and made a difference. I made it clear in accepting theaward that it was always a team effort, and there were many peopleinvolved in my successes.

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