Missing report raises questions about NSW approval process

Missing report raises questions about NSW approval process

A private certifier says a missing report for Sydney’s cracked Opal Tower has exposed “sloppy, inconsistent and even careless” practices that are leaving residents unsafe.

In the aftermath of the cracks discovered at the apartment building, many authorities and experts involved in its approval and construction have tried to distance themselves from the development.

The NSW Planning Department says it’s not responsible for overseeing any of the building works but one certifier, who did not wish to be named, believes the department has been “sloppy, inconsistent and even careless” in its role.

The certifier says the Planning Department did in fact ask for a structural report as part of the planning assessment for Opal Tower — and it wasn’t provided.

As part of the Secretary’s Environmental Assessment Requirements, a “geotechnical and structural report” was requested but no separate structural report was provided. The geotechnical report by Douglas Partners recommended a certain type of footing be used to support the building but mostly analysed rock and soil samples.

A Planning Department spokesman has denied there is a missing structural report and said the geotechnical report was “sufficient information for the department to be satisfied the development could proceed, subject to conditions”.

But the certifier has questioned why a structural report was asked for if it wasn’t necessary. He also pointed out that other similar developments in the Sydney Olympic Park area had provided structural reports.

“The purpose of such a report is to verify that the proposed development is at least feasible from a structural perspective prior to granting development approval,” he said.

At a minimum, the report would have shown that a structural engineer had been consulted with and the proposed development could comply with the Building Code of Australia (BCA) and other standards.

While a BCA report was done, the certifier says this was not prepared by a structural engineer and could not have been relied on for structural assessment.

“The Department of Planning’s claim that a geotechnical report and BCA report from a building code consultant was in some way a substitute for a structural engineer’s assessment is incorrect,” he said.

RELATED: Interim report reveals design and construction issues

The certifier said the geotechnical report looked at the below-ground substructure and the BCA report provided a general overview against the Building Code of Australia. Neither analysed the building’s structural feasibility.

The Planning Department has pointed out that it is up to the building certifier to sign off on structural drawings.

It doesn’t control the “building process”, just the “planning process”, which looks at things like traffic flow, impact on neighbours and height.

“What we don’t actually do as part of the planning process is get into the detail of the engineering of the structure,” NSW Planning Department Secretary Carolyn McNally told reporters on Tuesday.

But the certifier believes a structural report should be done for developments more than 25m in height, such as Opal.

“Such buildings should have regard to structural feasibility in the early stages of design,” he said.

The department’s stance also raises the question, who does look at the structural integrity of the building?


In the case of the Opal Tower, one of the conditions of the development approval was that structural drawings needed to be signed off by a qualified structural engineer before a construction certificate could be issued.

Yet the Planning Department has never seen these drawings and only knows that they have been signed off because a construction certificate was issued by the certifier on December 22, 2015.

Attempts to contact certifier McKenzie Group to verify these structural drawings existed and were signed off, were unsuccessful.

When news.com.au asked to speak to a media representative at McKenzie, the woman who answered the call said “absolutely not” before hanging up. In a follow-up call she said: “Sorry but we’re not interested.”

Calls to builder Icon Co have not been returned.

It is up to structural engineers to produce a detailed design of the building but there is essentially no oversight of their work.

Technically, private certifiers should be checking over the engineer’s designs but most certifiers are not experts in this field. They generally rely on engineers’ assurances that they’ve done their job.

RELATED: Report exposed big problems in building industry before Opal

“Building surveyors (also known as private certifiers) are not structural engineers,” the certifier said.

“They are not required to have any education in design or review of structures.

“It is a completely unrealistic expectation that they could offer any kind of critical review of a structural design or carry out inspections of structural elements to certify compliance with structural standards.”

There is also no requirement for structural engineers to be accredited and insured.

“The system is all care and no responsibility,” the certifier said. “The system in NSW is well short of that in other states.”


Bronwyn Weir, a lawyer and former member of Victoria’s Building Regulations Advisory Committee, raised issues in the building industry in the Shergold and Weir report Building Confidence released last year.

She told news.com.au that back in the 1970s and ’80s when high-rises were first starting to pop up, governments had multidisciplinary boards to look at and sign off on all developments.

While she doesn’t think the same system would work now as there are too many projects to assess, she believes changes must be made to the current process.

Ms Weir agrees certifiers don’t have the skills to properly review things like structural engineering.

Due to cost-cutting, other checks and balances have also fallen away.

Often the same engineer is designing the project and also signing it off as compliant. The laws in NSW don’t require any other engineer or statutory body to assess the design and decide whether they agree with its principles.

“A single engineer is making a decision without review,” Ms Weir said.

RELATED: Flawed process that approved Opal Tower

During her investigation of building practices Ms Weir also found final designs were often not finished before construction started. In some cases, the design of the building was even being adjusted while it was being constructed to accommodate changes that had already been made, to “justify” what had happened.

Although Ms Weir is not part of the investigation into the Opal Tower, she said the interim report released on Tuesday found there was a mismatch between the designs and what was actually built, and this could be a sign the original design documents were not detailed enough.

“It does raise questions about the approval process and whether it was done well enough,” she said.

When detailed designs are not done, builders are at the risk of making the wrong decisions.

She believes design and construct models, such as the one used to build the Opal Tower, should be slowed down to make sure designs were being finalised before construction began.

“The Government needs to mandate independent review in certain circumstances and to make sure this is independent,” she said.

Certain components of the design should be subjected to mandatory checking, she said.

Identifying the right person or body to do checking would need to consider issues such as whether an engineer could be considered independent if they worked in the same firm.

“It’s a matter for debate and requires expert input into how we could do it without crippling the process,” Ms Weir said.

The certifier believes structural engineers should be accredited by the government and agrees that some areas must be checked.

“There needs to be mandatory inspections of structural elements by engineers.”

Continue the conversation @charischang2 | charis.chang@news.com.au

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