If you have been staying up with news through our website since the last magazine, you will know that we have been keeping tabs on reports of “shonky products” and the regulatory reaction.
Much of the reporting on these issues has been at third hand. To get the good oil on issues of product assurance, in late April I spoke to John Gardiner, MBIE’s Determinations & Assurance Manager.
Straight off, I ask the question: “Are these issues being overblown or are we at a tipping point?”
John Gardiner responds: “At this stage it’s unknown whether it’s overblown or not, which is why we are just trying to get some more high quality information around what actually is going on.
“There is a fair bit of noise, but we haven’t had any really strong information that suggests there is a problem.”
MBIE has therefore created an email address dedicated to helping gauge the extent of what product quality issues may or may not be out there (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Says John Gardiner: “We are seeking information from the sector so we can get information which we can investigate and actually get to the bottom of the anecdotal noise that we are hearing to see if there is a problem or not.”
And the results so far? “It is not suggestive at this stage that there is a significant issue out there but it’s too early to be able to draw any conclusions,” he says.
BUYING INTO THE FRAMEWORK
MBIE’s spokesperson is keen to talk about the broader related issue of product compliance and the current Product Assurance Framework. By the sound of it, the Framework has not become completely embedded into the Kiwi construction sector’s modus operandi.
Indeed there is a series of MBIE seminars happening around the country during May to remind product suppliers about its role and importance.
“If we have a problem, it is the absence of high quality information,” says MBIE’s Gardiner. “We have a culture generally in New Zealand of building products not being associated with high quality information around compliance. Lots of stuff is sold with at best marketing information, as opposed to compliance information.”
Is there a need for a more forceful way to get uptake or buy-in? “It has got to be an educative response because, the way that the Building Act works, we don’t regulate building products directly,” explains John Gardiner.
“That’s one of the slight complications. The nature of the beast is that we regulate building work, in which products then get included.”
There has been talk about introducing mandatory third party testing of critical building products. What is John Gardiner’s view on this?
“Clearly that’s an option that is being looked at but that is partially where the research that we are doing comes in – to get a sense of the scale of the problem, if there is one. Any form of mandatory third party certification is clearly going to impose a cost. So, before imposing an additional cost, we’ve got to make sure that it is going to have a return for New Zealand as a whole.”
NOT BROKEN BUT NEEDS TWEAKING
Bruce Kohn, on behalf of the Building Industry Federation, confirms MBIE’s take on product assurance and compliance: “Our view is that the present system is not broken, rather that it needs tweaking to ensure that New Zealand consumers can continue to have faith that our supply chain is delivering the products and materials that will stand the test of time and ‘do the job’ they want.”
What needs “tweaking”? “Probably clarity around Standards and test methodologies which must be consistently applied across product areas. These areas were and are contentious in the current issues around steel mesh but these are on the way to being resolved in talks between producers (our industry) and MBIE.”
What about enforcement? Bruce Kohn confirms: “While the Fair Trading Act and the Consumer Guarantees Act apply to the supply chain, the main questioning of the system we have heard refers to a belief that too much questionable product is entering the market free of any hard nosed scrutiny as to fitness for purpose.”
Does “hitting the pocket” come into this? Kohn relates a recent story during the withdrawal for a time of some steel mesh products by way of an answer.
“A supplier whose marketing was not interrupted had faced incessant demands from a group of new migrants for discounts. When they realised that the product’s compliance was not in question, the calls for discounts were abandoned and the need for compliance then fully understood!”
“BLANK CANVAS” REVIEW COMING
In terms of reviewing the current product assurance processes and structures, Bruce Kohn welcomes that, in his opinion, Minister of Building & Housing Nick Smith has “opened the door” to precisely the type of review that BIF has been lobbying for.
“Especially pleasing to us was his inclusion of imported products and materials in any new system that might make independent third party verification mandatory for product vital to the integrity of structures and wet areas.
“We understand the project examining the usefulness of introducing a compulsory assurance scheme will start with a blank canvas. In other words, almost everything is on the table in the product assurance area.”
Having said this, BIF is under no illusions as to the complexity of such a review and, like MBIE, recognises the need to balance changes against the cost of measures taken to both the supply chain and consumers.
It is also supportive of MBIE’s educational philosophies around product assurance: “Its current renewed education campaign among merchants and suppliers has our backing. We also support emphasis placed on the need for Product Technical Statements to be lodged with consent applications by designers and specifiers.”
Acceptance by MBIE of the need for the project to take full account of industry’s experience and views is especially welcome. “My in-tray contains a raft of useful suggestions from BIF members!” says Bruce Kohn.