The Morrison Government and the Turnbull Government before it has highlighted its regulatory reform agenda … deregulation … cutting Red Tape … to hasten development … cutting compliance costs to enhance profit margins …
AND is it the same laissez-faire approach to planning that has made us a tower-dwelling nation that has deregulated imported building products … including combustible cladding, dumped defective steel, and cement board containing asbestos … globalised the supply chain, privatised certification and established the ‘performance’ route to code compliance? The consequence is good-bye for someone who trips onto a glass balustrade …
Balustrades? Really? What could be interesting about a balustrade? Quite a lot, actually, and not only because babies can get their heads stuck between the uprights.
Years ago, I was interviewing Austrian architect Hugh Buhrich on the roof of his first house in Castlecrag. Buhrich House II (1972) is the famous one, with its much-published undulating ceiling and terrifying cliff-edge stair hanging over the scarp at Sugarloaf Point.
Buhrich House I (1949) is less glamorous but more heart-stopping, even to the point of peril. Buhrich, 93, gambolled like a spring lamb up the unprotected circular stair, each tread cantilevered rakishly from a central hand-adzed trunk, to where the house’s flat roof hovered some 40 or 50 metres above a steep bush valley. There were no balustrades. Just air.
I said something suitably breathless about the view before noting, in afterthought, that you wouldn’t want to do it with kids. Buhrich replied in tungsten tones that he (and his wife, the well-known architecture critic Eva Buhrich) had raised their twins there from babyhood. Poor Eva, I thought. He turned away muttering something about evolution in action.
So yes, dangerous. Theirs was a generation toughened by trauma. Yet that perilous rooftop may, it now emerges, be significantly less dangerous than buildings all around us. So, at least, says the newly formed and refreshingly dull-sounding Australian Balustrade Association.
Imagine a kid, say 5-years-old, holidaying at the Sunshine Coast, visiting friends in a high-rise, or just living in one of the tens of thousands of new residential towers across Australia’s cityscape.
The kid runs onto the balcony chasing a ball, sibling or puppy, trips and falls against the balustrade. The frameless glass panel pulls away from its corroded stainless-steel pins, shears entirely from the wall or shatters into a zillion bits. Child falls into space. End of story.
This hasn’t happened in Australia, yet – although it’s been close. We’ve had spontaneously “exploding” glass balustrades in Melbourne and at least one installer struck off in Queensland for balconies that could endanger life.
Last year, although in a small sample, a Queensland Building and Construction Commission audit that found 100 per cent of glass balustrades tested were unsafe.
We could wait for disaster, then act. That’s an option. Or, as the Australian Balustrade Association advocates, we could replace the current regulatory miasma with clear standards for materials and installation and clear systems for certification and accountability so that the child-fall moment never becomes reality.
It’s not only glass, although glass is the focus. Glass is both the developer’s balustrade material of choice, and staggeringly unregulated.
Let me come clean. I don’t much like balustrades, and partly because of regulation. Ever since, decades ago, the building codes banned anything climbable, horizontal elements or spaces wide enough for a child’s head, balustrades have been a nightmare of enforced ugly.
And although these rules help tip the building world towards balustrades of miraculous glass, they’re actually worse, being cowardly, greedy and inept, as well as tacky.
Cowardly because they’re tasked to delineate space but don’t have the chutzpah to do it with clarity. Greedy because this cowardice derives from a desire to grab all view possible and then some, as though more is inherently better. And inept because that is manifestly untrue. More is very often worse – a lot worse – than less.
Sure, humans like view, but they also need containment; refuge, as well as prospect – especially when projected by a glass box into hundred-knot-wind territory half-a-furlong above terra firma.
Yet, for all the glass balustrade’s aesthetic failures, I’d presumed it’d be thoroughly regulated. Not so.
Indeed, so vague is the control regime, and so potentially catastrophic is the simultaneity of deregulation, privatisation, globalisation, urbanisation and mammoth building booms, that the ABA anticipates serious structural failures.
*The same laissez-faire approach to planning that has made us a tower-dwelling nation has also deregulated imports, globalised the supply chain, privatised certification and established the “performance” route to code compliance.
*Dr Darryl O’Brien, from Central Queensland University, argues that these disruptions have generated a dramatic “information asymmetry” between manufacturers and consumers. They know everything (but carry virtually no responsibility): we know nothing yet carry the lot. This, in turn, has allowed the proliferation of NCBPs, or non-complying building products. This traps the parent (say) of that running kid in the worst possible position, combining abject trust with total moral and financial responsibility. For it’s the owners who will have to rectify, when non-compliance comes to light.
But even the word “compliance” is an overstatement, since there’s nothing much to comply with.
There is no overall balustrade standard. Australian Standard 1288, Glass in Buildings, offers a small section (s.7) on balustrades but doesn’t require non-shattering or laminated glass, mandate labelling or require regular checks (as with pool fences) and is silent on most current balustrade types (like frameless glass or that held by spigots).
This is where performance testing should kick in. Look around. Most new buildings have frameless glass balustrades, which require full engineer-analysis and sign-off. But few in the industry – according to a recent national industry survey – believe this is happening.
And even if it is, says the ABA, Australia has no structural or wind-load testing methodology and, as we know, the title “engineer” is unregulated almost everywhere.
The same survey offered scary anecdotal evidence from fabricators, suppliers, designers and certifiers of inferior materials, sloppy installation and questionable certification practices. Absent case law, no one even knows where the liability lies.
No doubt, forced to choose, I’d go safe over beautiful. But filling our cities with what’s ugly and unsafe makes it especially ironic that, after we bothered to require balustrades but ban anything that could be scaled, our greatest danger is one we can see right through.
Elizabeth Farrelly is a Sydney-based columnist and author who holds a PhD in architecture and several international writing awards. A former editor and Sydney City Councilor, she is also Associate Professor (Practice) at the Australian Graduate School of Urbanism at UNSW. Her books include ‘Glenn Murcutt: Three Houses’, ‘Blubberland; the dangers of happiness’ and ‘Caro Was Here’, crime fiction for children (2014).