An inconvenient truth

Issue 35 – February 2012

This article was published in Building Today magazine in November 2011 and was written by architect Don Bunting.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but it was nasty untreated radiata pine that caused all the leaky buildings problems wasn't it? I'm sure that's right.

It seems a bit like blaming the lamp post for a car crash, although the car left the road, the driver was drunk and he was travelling at twice the speed limit. But the lamp post was made of untreated timber so it must have been the one at fault.

Now they've decided that some of those nice chemicals are actually a bit off – and as boron is just like taking aspirin then that's alright. Just as long as you keep all that smelly LOSP stuff in the lab. LOSP Lab? Where have I heard that before?

But doesn't a bit of water have to get into the timber frame before the nasty, weak untreated timber starts to decay? So how did that happen? Let's take a look at a few of the obviously completely innocent factors:

  • In-line decks. That was a brilliant idea. Especially when you added some attractive ceramic tiles directly stuck to the roof membrane. Two great ideas in one.

  • Solid balustrades was another idea whose time clearly had come. A really effective way to trap water on to the deck surface – and add a bit of shade to slow down any drying process.

  • Parapets can look really smart too, especially if you leave off those ugly cap flashings.

  • And deleting the window flashings added a nice clean (and cheap) look to the building.

  • Using face sealed claddings was a clever way to ensure that any bit of water that managed to get in would stay right where it was and not leak out again.

  • Polystyrene covered with a bit of acrylic paint was a simple way to make the building look as if it was made of concrete, especially if you ran the poly straight down into the topsoil. Gave a nice clean line to the building.

There is one thing I can't seem to get my head around. None of these entirely innocent factors comply with the performance statements of the Building Code. And yet nobody said, 'Wait a minute, is this such a good idea? Shouldn't we question whether these new ways of building stack up? After all it is a bit windier and rainier in New Zealand than it is on the shores of the Mediterranean. And we have gone and stuffed all our wall cavities with insulation to keep us warm, so if water does get in it might just cause a bit of a problem.'

Nobody said that. Nobody. Can't understand why. I guess after it all blew up there was such an obvious 'bad guy'. Nasty, chemical-free pine was such a weak, unreliable character; he had to be to blame.

It's always good to find a scapegoat — something to reassure us that we are not the ones at fault. The Building Act 2004 is just fine. It just needs a bit of tinkering to make sure that responsibility is kept well away from those in charge.

And now we've got all those great new acceptable solutions to keep us under control. No way we can go wrong now. No way any of those clever designers can stray too far off line, even the ones who've spent 5 years at university and 25 years in practice.

Can't let them come up with any smarter way to keep water out. That would never do. It's either 'acceptable' or it's not. That makes it so much easier – and safer – for everyone.

Now what about Licensed Building Practitioners? That's another really good idea. Just as long as we keep 'joint and several liability' going in case one of them manages to slip through the cracks. We have to make sure there's always someone else left to blame.

Reproduced with permission from Building Today November 2011.

Published in building.