Why do we settle for near to near enough?

I remember clearly back in the mid 90s an enlightening meeting I had with the owner of one of South Australia’s largest domestic home builders who for this blog will remain nameless but I’ll refer to him as Mr White (I’m a Tarantino tragic).

In 1994, the building code changes required all wet areas to be waterproofed, where prior it was common for upper floor wet areas to be waterproofed while ground floor showers were seldom done. Having lucked out numerous times to get in with this builder, the opportunity came up as this time the owner wanted to see me. I knew this would be a rare occasion to pitch to this guy so I prepared diligently, every single detail. At the time our business was a pioneer in the waterproofing market and the only manufacturer in SA that specialised in waterproofing, and proudly this fact remains. This company dominated in the first home buyer market, building single story 2-3 bedroom family homes so I thought it would be a no brainer with the proposal I prepared, believing I’d come out of this meeting with a 800/year home builder secured.

Knowing how tight they were with costs, I prepared samples, CAD drawings and photo to include with our super duper once in a lifetime offer. For the average shower to be waterproofed our offer for material and labour cost was $75 with a 10 year warranty. Doing the math, the construction cost for these types of homes back then were on average $100k and with 2 showers maximum in a home, the $150 would equate to 0.15% on the construction cost. What a deal I thought, for $150 I’m going to take away their current issues with leaking showers, they can promote to their clients a 10 year warranty against any leaks and our brand would be linked to one of the largest home builders in the country.

As I finished my pitch Mr White looked at me and explained that he built 1000 homes the previous year and this was now going to cost him $100-150k extra per year. I had prepared for this as I knew from their insiders they employed someone to deal with complaints about leaking homes. As a brash 26 year old I responded to give Mr White the upside, “you can now ensure your customers have no leaks, your maintenance costs are reduced, your reputation is intact and show your customers that they can now have 10 years protection against dampness issues when they build with you”. Then came the cold reality check from Mr White which went along these lines…”My obligations as a builder are for 7 years to ensure the houses are defect free. I employ a maintenance guy for $35k/year to go to all these homes that have leaks and he takes a tube of silicone and keeps plugging up these leaks until the 7 years is up. After that period it’s no longer builder defects, so there is no sense in me spending this money upfront for every house I build.” The silence in the room was deafening. Here was Mr White, a millionaire many times over, looking directly at me without flinching and I was aghast of the attitude and the arrogance. I tried to talk up the benefits of all the reasons why he should go with my offer and how he would be helping the industry reduce dampness issues, which to this day remain the 2nd biggest contributor to building damage after termite attacks, but there was no interest. It was clear that managing client problems for 7 years was his definition of after sales customer care. And so this was an “Ah Ha” moment for me, if Mr White thought liked this from the top then this filtered down to explain why their sites were full of cheap materials installed by very average workmanship. There was no pride in the final product, the only objective here was to make money off of the poor bastard that got lulled into a price for a home that would end up being a money pit. This meeting has always stuck with me and unfortunately too many similar attitudes I’ve found around the country over the years.

I’ve been fortunate that my businesses have led me to travel around the globe and years later in 2004 I spent time on building sites in Germany. I was blown away with what I saw from the quality of concrete/masonry works to the attention to detail evident with all 2nd fix trades such as windows, tiling, doors, plastering etc. and this was before appliances had been installed. Everything looked solid and first class reminding me of building sites I spent time on as a kid with my father back in the day when school holidays were spent on a building site (Nike didn’t invent the child sweat shop). I thought these building sites near Frankfurt must be those of premium type housing but it turned out this builder targeted first home investors and student housing rentals, which had me intrigued as this was a builder considered to be building affordable living. So I asked him how can he compete in the market when he is building this level of quality? Surely the double glazed windows, double door seals, extent and quality of waterproofing membranes in wet areas and kitchens, floor to ceiling tiling in wet areas, sealed outdoor pavers, additives in the internal renders (just to name a few) comes at a cost?

It took him a few minutes to understand what I was eluding to and then he pointed to other sites in the street claiming they are all built the same way and what he was building was fairly average and nothing out of the ordinary. So I explained how house builder’s in Australia are liable for 7 years and then told him my story about Mr White targeting the “affordable housing” market. I then learnt in Germany builders are liable for defects for only 5 years from the handover date but he made the comment that stills stays with me “German builders don’t work around ensuring no defects for 5 years, we work to ensure the building lasts 50 years. If someone claims faulty defects against what we build, it is our reputation so we ensure the building lasts long after we’ve been here”.

Another “Ah Ha” moment….. different mindset in Germany obviously makes a world of difference resulting in superior quality because quality is a given over there, shortcuts and short term are not part of the psyche. That experience brought me back to my dealings with the “Mr White’s” in our national construction market. In comparison to what I’ve seen in Europe, we can’t make claims that building a house is cheap here, like most things now the reality is hitting home of Australia being an expensive country across many areas. Yet what we accept as standard quality here is at the other end of the spectrum to countries across Europe. Ever spent time in a basic German or Scandinavian home in the middle of winter? You can be inside with a T-shirt on being warm and cosy and outside can be minus -150C, compare that to being in Melbourne in winter where temperatures are at 50C outside and unless the air conditioner is working overtime, you’ll have a few layers over that T-shirt.

So how did we arrive to accepting mediocrity and in many cases the near to near enough being good enough attitude? It wasn’t always like this in Australia’s affordable home construction market. In between the Mr White’s of this country with their approach to home building and consumer demands for low cost housing, there probably is a debate on what has caused us to accept the near to near enough being good enough attitude over the past few decades. So can we blame the public labelling some tradies as dodgy or is this attitude a result of some tradies being screwed down to do jobs at lower prices while their costs to operate rise? Is this the reason behind why the quality of materials often used are average or just satisfactory? Is this why the same old same old methods and materials are used because the perception of using a green friendly product, energy efficient system or innovative product equates to a higher cost? Have we become oblivious to quality and believe it only comes in premium constructions? Have we truly understood the cost of building, that being not what the upfront cost to build is but the ongoing cost to maintain/repair it is, which inevitably is a building cost?

I’m certain my peers and colleagues in the industry have varying opinions on this. Whatever everyone’s take to this may be, until we demand things to last and respect that the cost of a home is the most significant investment for most Australians then affordable homes will never reflect the prices people pay. While Europe is now moving into the next realm of green building for homes, without any compromise to quality, we still are far too accepting of the Mr White mentality towards “affordable housing”. This not only ensures the lack of quality remains but it prevents progress and moves toward improvements through building innovation.

Building won’t get cheaper, but cheap attitudes can change and need to. In a country where many of our cities are considered some of the most liveable in the world, we need to start demanding homes are built to last and shake off the near to near enough being good enough attitude. If we settle for second, third and fourth best, then that’s where we’ll inevitably stay.