A recent investigation by Newshub has put a much-needed spotlight on suicide rates in the construction industry. Research back in 2019 identified construction as the worst sector for suicides both per capita and by the total number, with over 300 between 2007 and 2017. The Newshub report reveals the rate has increased significantly since then to more than one per week.

This is a tragedy that needs serious action. The first step needs to be understanding the cause. The increased rate is a pointer.

We are in a building boom. There is no shortage of work for the foreseeable future. Rising property prices has brought increased investment and ‘square-metre’ rates have shot up. There is no shortage of money. Wages and profit margins are rising. Income and uncertainty pressures are easing. So what is wrong?

Talk to any builder about what has changed for the worse over this timeframe and the answer will be regulation and compliance problems.

The Building Code was designed as a ‘performance’ standard, not a ‘prescriptive’ standard. This means a builder or designer is allowed to come up with alternative solutions to suit a particular situation, such as waterproofing a curved wall, which performs the purpose of stopping leaks. This is different to following a code that prescribes a particular way it must be done and an alternative is essential because the code has only one detail for each situation, based on a simple rectangular box building.

Building inspectors are under instructions from council management to refuse anything that is not explicitly shown in the prescriptive part of the code. This is illegal, and many building inspectors are unhappy with the pressure they are under to do this. The reason for it is that management thinks it will reduce council liability if a building failure is caused by an alternative solution. Unfortunately, managers are not builders and don’t understand building.

The result is that builders are stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to areas that are not covered by a specific detail in the code. They can do a good job to fix the curve that might get refused, or they can do a bad job by fixing a rectangular flashing (waterproofing material) to the curve, knowing it will fail to stop leaks but is more likely to get passed by the inspector. Management’s approach is actually putting far more liability on the council (and therefore the bottomless pockets of ratepayers).

Too often, good builders and tradies are getting into trouble for the wrong reasons, and the flow-on effects are serious. That failed inspection not only holds up all the other work, it holds up bank mortgage payments which are linked to milestones such as getting the roof on. The plumber who has an argument with the junior inspector over a installing a 50mm roof vent pipe when the plans showed a 40mm pipe (real example, bigger pipe is always better, 40mm is just a minimum), knows a failed inspection means the roofer isn’t going to get paid that month because the milestone isn’t reached. The cost of ‘fixing’ something that isn’t even broken is several times the profit margin for the plumber, let alone the cost to his mates and his client in the delay.

It used to be possible to call a senior inspector and get it sorted over the phone. Now council staff double-down on mistakes, and everyone knows an argument means the next inspection is going to be worse.

The lack of common sense and respect of expertise means there are problems with no solution. The financial pressure that results from this is literally killing people.

There are plenty of people in the system who are supposed to take this issue seriously. Councils are big on health & safety, yet don’t care about the deaths they are causing. MBIE runs the Department of Building and Housing but does nothing. Jacinda cares about anyone who can make her look good in the news, but the statistics show this issue has gotten way worse under her watch.

We need to talk openly about this. Please comment with your views and experiences. The more people who know and care, the more likely it is that something will be done.

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Andrew B

Professional problem solver, designer, and small business owner. I was raised on the civil rights principle that you should always choose the best person for the job, regardless of sex, race, or religion....