Building Certifier tells all... - Owner Builder Club

Building Certifier tells all…

Meet Rhys Hood, a Building Certifier with My Building Certifier in NSW.

Rhys has generously provided great insight into the world of owner building from a Certifier’s perspective.

An ex-carpenter and builder, Rhys appreciates and understands the build process from both sides of the fence.

Rhys is a NSW based Certifier so remember that government and council rules differ by state.

Even if you’re not in NSW, it’s well worth the read! ENJOY.

Can you explain the difference between a Building Certifier, Inspector and Surveyor?

Basically, they’re the same thing.

A Building Surveyor / Certifier is qualified in assessing the construction of existing and proposed buildings, in relation to the Building Code of Australia (BCA), the Australian Standards referenced within it, and any other Building Acts or Regulations relating to the relevant jurisdiction. Building Surveyors (Certifiers) are either private or municipal (Local Government / Council).

A Building Surveyor will have a qualification achieved through University, or other tertiary institution.

In NSW, the Building Professionals Board (BPB) regulates and accredits Building Surveyors, who are also known as Accredited Certifiers, Grade A1 to A4.

Certifiers mainly determine applications for construction certificates and complying development certificates, and may be appointed as the Principal Certifier (PC) for the development. The PC issues the occupation certificate at the completion of the development.

The PC, or another accredited certifier, carries out critical stage inspections during construction to ensure the building work is in accordance with the development consent and legislative requirements.

A Building Surveyor can be accredited by the BPB as a ‘Building Inspector’ (A4 grade), allowing them to undertake critical stage inspections for the Principal Certifier. However, only an A1 – A3 grade can issue certificates, or be appointed as the Principal Certifier.

What occurs in the lead up to an Owner Builder engaging a Certifier?

Prior to an Owner Builder engaging a certifier, it would be expected that an Architect or Designer has already prepared a final design for the proposal.

In NSW, there are two ways to seek approval for building works:

+  Development Application (DA) and Construction Certificate (CC)

A Development Application is submitted to Council for the proposed works. Generally, this would be submitted on your behalf by the architect or designer, however with the right knowledge and understanding of the process, could be undertaken by an Owner Builder.

Council will assess the proposal against the relevant local governments legislation, and development control plans. A good architect or designer will generally have an understanding of these controls, and design the proposal accordingly as relevant to that specific Council area.

Processing and assessing the DA will generally take several months on average.

Council will then approve (or refuse) a DA, subject to conditions as outlined in the consent. This approval does not allow building works to commence – a Construction Certificate (CC) is now required, which can be issued by a Private or Council Certifier.

At this stage, a certifier would be engaged to assess the application and determine the conditions to be satisfied, prior to issue of a CC.

Examples of conditions that may be imposed by Council prior to issue of the certificate, could be that Stormwater Drainage details must be provided by a Civil Engineer, a design change must be made to the plans, or a contributions / fee’s must be paid to Council.

+  Complying Development Certificate (CDC)

Complying development is a combined planning and construction approval for straightforward development that can be determined through a fast track assessment by a private certifier, or by a Council certifier.

The application is assessed under the State Environmental Planning Policy (Exempt and Complying Development Codes) 2008, sometimes referred to as simply ‘the SEPP’. Strict compliance with the development standards of the SEPP is required for a CDC to be issued. If the proposal does not fit into these requirements, the design must be modified to comply, or submitted to Council for a DA.

Once the CC or CDC is issued, the Owner Builder would need to appoint a Principal Certifier (PC) to inspect works during construction, and on satisfactory completion of all works, issue the required Occupation Certificate (OC). Generally, the certifier who issued the original certificate would be appointed the PC.

Does a Certifier ever become involved during the design stage?

Generally, no.

Usually, the design would be finalised prior to a certifier assessing the plans. In the case of a DA, following DA Approval.

In some instances, in the case of a CDC, the architect or designer may get in touch with a certifier to discuss technical issues that may arise from unusual lots of land. For example, an irregular shape lot, or lots with aggressive gradients (sloping), where the applicable development standards cannot be ascertained due to interpretation of the relevant planning policy.

During the assessment of an application for a CC or CDC, a certifier may request that changes be made to the plan to demonstrate compliance as relevant to the Consent or planning policy, and to demonstrate compliance with the BCA and relevant Australian Standards.

How should changes be handled when made during a build?

Any proposed changes should firstly be discussed with the certifier, to determine if any amendments to the certificate are required, or if modification of the development consent is required to be provided by Council.

Varying by circumstance, the certifier may be OK with minor changes without further action. For example, reduction in window sizes, changing the dimensions or style of an entry door, or internal layout changes.

BIG TIP: It’s a smart decision to run any change by your Certifier first!

How do you find dealing with OBs vs Builders?

I find that many OBs tend to bite off more than they can chew, as compared to Builders.

Sometimes the hardest part of my role is telling an OB that the work they have completed does not comply with the relevant construction standards, and needs to be rectified.

If an OB does not possess the required skillset and knowledge to complete particular building works (and licensing as relevant), they should employ a qualified tradesperson.

How does an OB with no building background interpret the BCA and standards?

Due to the varying complexities of reading and interpreting the BCA, including the Australia Standards, I would recommend that an OB employ a qualified tradesperson. That is if they do not already possess the relevant skillset and knowledge.

What role does a Building Certifier play in the build process?

Again, specific to NSW – The Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979 details what a certifier must do, and the Environmental Planning and Assessment Regulation 2000 details how they must do what the Act prescribes.

As required by the Act & Regulation, the Principal Certifier must undertake the following Critical Stage Inspections, so that an Occupation Certificate may be issued on completion of the relevant works:

a)  after excavation for, and prior to the placement of, any footings;

b)  prior to pouring any in-situ reinforced concrete building element;

c)  prior to covering of the framework for any floor, wall, roof or other building element;

d)  prior to covering waterproofing in any wet areas;

e)  prior to covering any stormwater drainage connections;

f) in the case of a swimming pool, as soon as practicable after the barrier has been erected; and

(g)  after the building work has been completed and prior to any occupation certificate being issued in relation to the building.

During construction and on completion, it's the certifier’s responsibility to verify that the development is completed in accordance with the relevant approval/certification, including any conditions that may have been imposed by Council. BCA compliance is also verified during construction and on completion of the build.

A certifier plays an independent, or a neutral role in the entire process – that is, they are not there for the benefit of the OB or builder, rather they are required to be there to ensure compliance with the relevant approvals and standards.

BIG TIP: Don’t make the mistake of assuming a Certifier will be flexible and let changes or non-compliances slip through!

Are there common issues that show up at critical inspections?

One of the most common issues I come across is incorrect installation of waterproof membrane in wet areas. The Australian Standard AS3740 details the requirements for installation of membranes.

Generally, water stops (or angles at doorways) are not installed, which prevent a wet area from being completely ‘tanked’. In the worst case scenario, water ‘could’ run out at this point due to a saturated cement screed on the floor (under tiles), into other building elements, potentially affecting the integrity of the structure.

The other issue with waterproofing is bubbling or blistering of the membrane, which can be caused by poor preparation. For example, due to the substrate not being dry at the time of application, or where coats have been applied too quickly, not allowing ample time for drying.

Another common issue is the installation of veneer ties in brick veneer construction. AS4773.2 stipulates the requirements for veneer ties, and wall ties in general (cavity brick), which must be installed to angle up when bridging the cavity to the internal frame/skin.

This is required to prevent water (generally due to brick saturation) from crossing ties and affecting the buildings structural timber frame.

I see it too many times (even from Builders!) where ties have been nailed off in the incorrect manner.

How about common issues with slabs?

I see too many instances where concrete steel (mesh, trench mesh, bars, etc) has been installed with incorrect or no cover whatsoever. Cover, or distance between the steel and the edge of concrete slab, is required to prevent moisture penetration of the slab affecting the reinforcement. Once the reinforcement is affected, overtime it will rust, causing damage to the slab through expansion of the steel. Affected concrete, otherwise known as concrete cancer, can crack, become brittle, and completely separate from the slab.

Another common issue is set-out of the formed concrete slab, and setbacks from the boundaries.

A common side boundary setback is 900mm, which also aligns with the requirements of the BCA for fire separation. Basically, buildings less than 900mm from the boundary must meet minimum construction standards, to protect from a fire for a period of 60 minutes (FRL 60/60/60).

The issue arises where OBs or Builders set-out a proposed development from a boundary fence. In many cases, the fence line is ‘close’ to the true allotment boundary, however this is not always the case. I have seen cases where the fence is 400mm off the correct boundary.

Imagine that you are constructing a timber frame wall, which will be clad in a western red cedar board – exactly the look you’re chasing.

The slab steel designed by the Structural Engineer is quite intricate, and has taken the contractor several days to prepare, prior to pouring concrete.

The certifier visits site for their inspection of the slab steel prior to pouring, however requests a copy of the peg-out survey to verify that the building will be positioned correctly as per the approval.

The OB or Builder did not obtain one, requests a check survey from a Registered Surveyor, but now finds that the location of the proposed slab is actually closer to the boundary than 900mm.

Now, there is a planning issue, where Council will need to amend the Consent to approve the change, however there is also a fire separation issue in regard to the BCA.

As western red cedar is combustible, there is no way that it could meet the ‘now’ required 60 minute fire rating. So, now a different wall system will need to be proposed by the OB or Builder, which will more than likely have a higher cost associated with that particular system. Also, it probably won’t look anything like western red cedar!

To rectify the issue, and maintain the original proposed look, much of work that has gone into the slab must now be modified to correct the issue. Not only will the steel fixer be affected, but the plumber too, who will more than likely need to relocate drainage lines.

A Land Surveyor (Registered Surveyor) should have been employed prior to construction, to peg-out the boundaries. The cost to employ a Surveyor, is far cheaper than the rectification work generally required to correct the non-compliance.

Can you talk a little more about a Land Surveyor?

A Land Surveyor (or Registered Surveyor) is different to a Building Surveyor/Certifier. A Building Surveyor assesses buildings, while a Land Surveyor is assessing the allotment of land.

Registered Surveyors are utilised at many different times – they could be creating a survey plan of a lot, which provides the exact shape and size of the allotment boundaries, and levels/contours of the land. This is generally required for an architect or designer to start works on a proposed development.

During construction, a Registered Surveyor can ‘peg’ the site to indicate the location of the true boundary to allow an OB or Builder to correctly set-out proposed building works.

Additionally, they can be utilised during boundary disputes with neighbours.

BIG TIP: It’s highly recommended that anyone building close to a boundary obtain a check survey or a peg out survey by a Land Surveyor to confirm the boundary and building location are correct.

What do you look for at the timber frame stage?

This is generally the largest and lengthiest inspection. What we’re checking here is that the building as currently constructed, reflects the certified drawings, meets the requirements of the BCA, Australian Standards, including Timber Framing Code (AS1684) and/or Structural Engineering as relevant, and will comply with any relevant conditions of the approval.

Locations of openings in the building, e.g. windows and doors, layout of rooms and overall dimensions of the building are assessed at this point. Changes to windows or doors could cause major privacy concerns to neighbouring properties, so it is important that the design is followed, or the question raised with the Principal Certifier prior, to confirm if a change would be acceptable.

What are the qualities of a good Building Certifier that an Owner Builder should look for?

Find someone you are comfortable talking too. Chances are, there will be changes on site that you’ll need discuss with your certifier, or technical matters that will need to be clarified, so compliance can be achieved.

What are your parting words of wisdom?

I can’t say it enough – read ‘all’ of the documentation you receive during the process!

This includes the Development Consent & Construction Certificate (or the Complying Development Certificate & certificate conditions), the endorsed plans, construction specification, engineering details, and any other related documentation.

8/10 times I receive calls regarding a recent application, where reading only the covering letter of our certificate would answer the question.

Additionally, ensure that when undertaking the development, the ‘endorsed’ plans and documentation are used, as provided by your certifier.

How's that for fantastic detail OBs?

A huge thank you to Rhys for his time and expertise. It was hard to cut the conversation but grateful for so much juicy information!

If you’re a NSW Owner Builder, you can find Rhys at My Building Certifier. Based on our conversation, we feel extremely comfortable recommending Rhys. He's very personable and experienced (as a builder and certifier).