The Opal building’s structural crisis raised the worrying issue of engineering quality not only for residential property but across all areas of commercial property as well.

While a case as terrifying and critical as Opal – in which residents were evacuated from the 34-storey high rise in Sydney’s Olympic Park on Christmas Eve amid fears of building collapse - may not have been seen in the commercial space, a thorough building inspection before purchase can help minimise chances of unwelcome future expense involved in fixing unforeseen structural problems.

As evidenced by the Opal incident, faults commonly appear in even the most modern of buildings warns Shawn Forstpointner, managing director of All Suburbs Building Inspections and Reports (ASBIR).

Yet many commercial buyers seem either unaware this can be the case or simply ignore the fact that commercial property construction entails a far broader and more complex range of issues than residential, he said. Along with others in the industry, Mr. Forstpointner said resistance toward pre-purchase inspections of commercial property was a source for constant amazement.

“It really is madness not to have an inspection considering commercial buildings will generally cost more than a house for which building inspections are a standard occurrence,” Mr. Forstpointner said.

“For a start, commercial buildings are larger and usually constructed of different materials which will always means they require a specialised building inspection.”

The truth is in there

The newer and more modern a commercial building the greater the chance a potential buyer will eschew an inspection, yet problems are prevalent even within recent builds.

“For instance, people tend to look at a tilt slab construction (one of the most highly-transacted types of commercial property) and think to themselves ‘what could possibly go wrong?’,” Mr. Forstpointner said

“This is understandable as the majority of constructions these days are pre-fabricated and relatively simple, yet we still pick up trouble with rooves which are a hot topic for commercial properties. Box gutters, in particular, we find leak a lot, so having a thorough inspection of the roof is highly important. Leaking is extremely common.

“Other common cases we find are with fixtures and screws in rooves which end up with dissimilar metal corrosion which causes the screws to swell and pop out, allowing water in over a period of time.”

While most cracking found during inspections is cosmetic, there is always the chance that structural yet unseen cracks have also occurred which requires engineering expertise to detect. “Subsidence is one of the main causes of cracking especially if there are big tree roots impacting on the foundations,” Mr. Forstpointner said. “Inadequate drainage can also result in water changing the composition of the soil which makes the foundations less stable. Another issue we find is articulation joints that haven’t been installed properly and allow movement when soil dries and changes shape. We find this particularly in older buildings.” 

Building a solid future

Moves, however, are underway to reduce the incidence of construction disasters in high rise commercial and residential buildings following both the Opal saga as well as the findings of last year’s Shergold and Weir report into the building industry.

Just weeks ago, a raft of proposed new laws and recommendations unveiled at a forum of State and territory building ministers hailed the biggest overhaul of the NSW and potentially nationwide building sector.

Foremost among the moves is the appointment of a ‘building commissioner’ to approve design plans. Each stage of construction would also be subject to mandatory inspections.

Furthermore, in a move to raise accountability to new levels, each person in the construction chain will need to be registered before working on a commercial or residential high-rise.

The Shergold and Weir report commissioned by the Building Minister’s Forum was released almost 10 months before the Opal building crisis, the report’s major findings being deep-seated problems in building regulation underpinned by “inadequate” compliance and enforcement systems that needed to be changed “as a matter of priority”.

At the BMF held in February this year, State Better Regulation minister Matt Kean was reported to have blamed non-compliance during the building of the Opal tower was to blame for its structural defects.

The NSW government is expected to adopt all 24 recommendations made at the forum in relation to construction of high-rise buildings – a move which should give more confidence to buyers of both high-rise commercial and residential property alike.