Can the Opal and Mascot Towers cracking in Sydney be avoided?

crack in wall of building

Since cracks appeared in Opal and Mascot towers, eight in ten Sydneysiders now have safety concerns about the structure of high-rise apartment buildings. 

An Ipsos poll of residents for advocacy group the Committee for Sydney found the quality of construction and the structural integrity of towers were by far their biggest safety concerns.

Residents of Opal Towers, located in Sydney’s Olympic Park were evacuated on Christmas Eve, 2018 when cracks appeared in the building. The 132-unit Mascot Towers block was evacuated six months later, again due to cracks.

In Melbourne, cracks can occur in houses due to normal wear and tear, but not on the scale seen in Sydney. Director of Millar Projects, Craig Millar explains the differences in building in Sydney versus Melbourne.

Why are cracks appearing in some new buildings in Sydney?

There appears to be a combination of issues in design and engineering. The building certifier is engaged by the builder and is operating at the builder’s request, not necessarily the client’s. So, according to Sydney industry experts, people are checking off work that’s poor or substandard to get the project over the line. The blame game starts after that. 

It’s quite simple. Buildings don’t just break apart and collapse for no reason. If they’re built properly, they last forever. 

Houses and mid-level constructions in NSW seem to be a major issue, and it usually comes down to money.

Cracks don’t seem to be a problem in Melbourne’s construction industry. Why?

Melbourne has a higher regulation of construction. We have a multiple licence system and restrictions on who can do what on a project. 

There’s an issue when people are building mid-level apartment complexes with a domestic builders’ background. They are missing an understanding of commercial construction. They don’t understand what it’s like once you get over two storeys. 

So in Melbourne, their skill set doesn’t legally allow them to do it. They don’t have the experience. If you don’t have a licence for that category, then how can you expect people to perform at that level? 
It’s been well documented by industry insiders that the sign-off process by the building certifier is flawed in NSW. We had issues in Victoria as well, so it’s not like we are perfect and they’re not.

It comes down to the fact that people cut corners. Certifiers who make money signing off substandard work to receive a pay packet is prevalent in any industry. If you get cheap engineering, you get cheap construction. If you get cheap certification, that’s the end result, a cheap building. As soon as the structure starts to deteriorate the rest of the building deteriorates. That’s what you’ve seen in Mascot Towers and other buildings.

What causes buildings to crack?

If the foundations don’t meet the criteria of the soil classification, you’re going to have movement in the building. That’s the biggest problem. 

Once the building moves, either up, down, left or right, something’s got to give. 

From what I understand, Opal Tower didn’t follow the structural design requirements. The load wasn’t transferred through the building correctly. I was told they cut sections of beams out to put air conditioning ducts through which made the building unable to hold its weight. That’s why they had to prop it up with emergency measures and pull the tenants out. 

What could Sydney do to avoid these issues in the future?

Separate their commercial and domestic licencing, so you can only build if you’ve got the qualifications. This should be adopted nationally — one licencing condition across the country for building. 

I’ve seen this because I’m registered in three different states and New Zealand. Building qualifications should be standardised across the country.

How are other states different to NSW?

The criteria are different in each state. You can get mutual recognition but, say I’m in Victoria and I want to build in Queensland, it’s very easy for me to get a licence. But if you’re in Queensland and you want to build in Victoria, it would be difficult. The level of compliance and portfolio you have to put forward is far greater. 

In the past, people were shortcutting Victorian licences via loopholes, until they worked out it was letting poor quality builders operate in Victoria. They had a huge cleanout. 

You can’t build for cheap and expect a good outcome. 

Buying a property is one of the biggest investments most people will make. Just look at the number of people who bought off the plan apartments or other medium-density housing, that are now worthless.

If you’d like more information on building apartments or consultancy, get in touch with Millar Projects.