Peter Lynn Himself
January  2019

It used to be that if you had access to land, materials, and the necessary skills- or goods to barter with someone who did have, you just went ahead and built a house or barn whenever you needed one.

In some communities you helped your neighbours when they were building- and they helped you in return.

To an extent, this is still how it works in Amish communities.

Any inadequacies in the building were your own concern. Or like boundary and nuisance disputes, were sorted out between the parties- and in the last resort, submitted to higher ups for adjudication.

In most developed countries, by the 19th century, convention was to employ a builder who took overall responsibility, supplied all materials, and employed subcontractors for specialised tasks as required.

At its best, this system worked because the builder needed to maintain a good reputation to keep work coming in- and likewise, customers needed to be honest and reasonable in their dealings or else tradespeople would be reluctant to work for them- or charge a premium.

But from early in the 20th century, this partnership progressively (ha ha) became a menage a trois as the State took an ever more dominant role by way of rules and regulations. In New Zealand, at first every local council had its own rules but from 1934, a standard building bylaw was developed. And from these quite recent beginnings, the regulation of building activities has grown inexorably.

There are many mechanisms driving this, one of which is population growth:

When people live in small communities, reputation and social pressure are moderators of behaviour, but in cities, laws are necessary because many dealings are between strangers. And as population densities increase, planning laws become necessary to prevent people impinging on others property rights.

Another is "health and safety": often as an emotional response to some specific event and inadequately thought through as to wider consequences.

But the most pernicious source of new regulations is when government bosses are "held to account" for something. People imagine that this is "justice being done", but the consequence is inevitably more laws, more enforcement, higher costs and reducing productivity as authorities cover their backsides.

New Zealand experienced a classic example of this with its 'leaky homes crisis': By the 1980's, the traditional owner/builder relationship as a guarantee of quality had largely disappeared here, replaced by increasingly prescriptive laws defining everything from materials to room and window sizes. Growing consumer resistance to this resulted in a change to the Building Act in 1984, allowing performance criteria by which traditional building styles and methods could be put aside, provided some expert would state, for example, that no overhangs and polystyrene sprayed with a thin layer of concrete, met these newly established criteria. An immediate consequence was that Mediterranean style become de-rigueur, especially in Auckland (our largest city) where style matters more than substance. Within 10 years we had a $20billion dollar leaky homes crisis. The architects, builders, and materials suppliers who were implicated soon either disappeared or went broke, leaving local government (the building permit issuers) as last man standing. Central government provided some compensation via legislation but also (big surprise) retrospectively limited claimants rights-else some local councils would have gone broke too. As a further consequence, building controls were tightened to an extent that can only be compared to strangulation.

There are many ways by which, once established, regulations then increase inexorably:

A major one is that every new regulation soon gets a 'constituency'; those who's status and income depend on its existence. In representative democracies, it's difficult to repeal laws that cause more problems than they solve because the clamour from the few whose jobs will be squeezed are much louder than the murmurs of the much large number who are disadvantaged, but only to a small extent.

Planning laws also acquire their own special constituency; those who already have their beach house, ski lodge or whatever - who naturally want to keep their locality exclusive.

And 'Health and Safety' is often used to disguise other agendas- mandating practices that make things more expensive while not actually improving safety- which are then difficult to roll back.

The net result of all this is that New Zealand houses are now nearly the most expensive in the known universe on a purchasing power parity basis.

The irony (tragedy more like) is that buildings here do not appear to have become less likely to break or leak- or at least not to an extent in any way commensurate with the extra cost and regulatory burdens.

Ashburton's new Art Gallery/Museum (2005) leaks badly and requires extensive repairs, and it's only one example of problems with weathertightness in new public buildings. Statistics House (2004), a Wellington medium rise office block is now being demolished, having failed in the 2016 Kaikoura earthquake, (150km south). There may have been wave patterns in that earthquake to which Statistics House was peculiarly susceptible- and it was built on reclaimed land. But the fact remains that medium rise Wellington office blocks, built to the latest code, seemed to have performed worse than older buildings there- many also on reclaimed land. Nor are things better in Australia:

Why is this? That more regulation causes costs to rise is no mystery, but why are buildings (including houses) continuing to fail- and seemingly at a similar rate to when there were no building regulations at all?

It may be not dissimilar to car safety:

In New Zealand, cars are checked every 6 months (longer for new cars) and issued with 'warrants of fitness'. This is expensive- more than $100million/year before the cost of any required repairs. But there is no compelling evidence that our cars are safer than in countries with no (or less frequent) testing. The reason seems to be that car owners here duck responsibility for car safety with the excuse that "it's not my fault, I had a valid warrant of fitness" - which ours courts largely accept.

For buildings, builders, owners, occupiers and regulatory authorities have also substituted box ticking for genuine accountability. This behaviour makes perfect sense; if they do things 'according to the book', no blame is attached to them in cases of failure. But written standards are a poor proxy for the real world. To cover every possible contingency, they must be either so detailed and hedged with exceptions as to be impractical, or so conservative as to impose costs and delays without benefit. That the failure rate for new building seems not to have improved with the layering on of stifling regulations (while costs have sky-rocketed), suggests that owners with clear accountability and experienced builders protecting their reputations, do a better job than an army of bureaucrats.

Local councils should be substantially removed from their quality assurance role (as building consent issuers and inspectors), with responsibility returned to owners. Owners would no longer have legal redress against councils when buildings leak or break, so would take very good care that they never did. Owners (and builders) would still have to comply with the building act of course, but enforcement would be by the courts in civil law rather than by an army of box tickers.

We might still get a few houses and other buildings that break or leak, but at least they'd be affordable.

Peter Lynn, Ashburton, 1 January 2019