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‘Perhaps the worst in Australia’: Owners of defect-riddled apartments call for stronger regulations

Related Story: How a Canberra developer dodged a $20 million defect bill

Serious questions have been raised about the ACT's building regulatory system by apartment owners facing tens of millions of dollars in repair works.

An ABC investigation revealed an estimated $20 million repair bill for a string of defects at the Elara Apartments in Bruce.

That complex was completed in 2007, but its executive committee chairman, David Allen, said little had been achieved in the intervening decade.

"We've tried to engage as many people in the process as we can, directly through the negotiation process [and] the regulator," he said.

"We've tried to engage various consultants to no real end."

At one point the ACT Government issued an emergency order on the property's builder to fix some pressing issues, and later started the process of handing down a broader order for rectification work.

But with the builder now in liquidation, Mr Allen said the Government's efforts amounted to too little, too late.

Portrait of David Allen.

"There is little will for them to do the things that they actually can do, that they actually have the power to do," he said.

"It's been really difficult to get someone to say 'I'll stand up, I'll take responsibility and I'll do something for you'."

Canberra apartment defects 'perhaps the worst in Australia'

Waterproofing expert Ross Taylor, who has worked with the Elara owners' corporation, said Canberra was especially bad for defective construction.

"The building defects in Canberra high-rise construction are perhaps the worst in Australia," he said.

A wall in an interior corridor that has turned green and brown with mould and water damage.

"There are elements of exceptionally good construction and design, but … the average apartment building in Canberra leaks within the first few years."

But Mr Taylor said too much of the blame was often laid at the feet of builders.

"They seem to be in the front line for this, and some might say they're the soft starting target because they're the most visible," he said.

"We find about 80 per cent of defects lie in design … and we see that one of the primary influencers of design is the original developer."

The privatisation of building certifiers, who sign off on a complex's compliance with codes and regulation, was a particularly pressing issue according to Mr Taylor.

"It's akin to the highway patrol being outsourced and all the highway patrolman are sacked, and private patrollers come in," he said.

"They don't actually go into the field and measure speed, what they do is … everybody sends in a form that says 'I haven't sped this month'."

'We don't need those kind of people in our industry'

The ACT Construction Occupations Registrar, Craig Simmons, conceded the process with Elara had not been ideal.

"It could have been better handled in terms of what we know now, but having gone through the process … we've made changes in the way we approach these sort of matters," he said.

"I don't think we would go down the same process or take as long if it was to happen today."

One key change has been to licensing, with a post-qualification exam for prospective builders seeking accreditation.

"There is a gap between what is being taught and learned in those courses and what we as a regulator expect," Mr Simmons said.

Mr Simmons also pushed back on concerns about private building certifiers, arguing the system allows more professionals to service a growing market.

"In any given market there will be people who are very, very good at their job and people who are not very good at their job," he said.

"Once we find those people who aren't doing the right thing, we take action against them. We don't need those kind of people in our industry."

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