The Ministry of Business Inovation and Employment (MBIE) and Commerce Commission announcement that some concrete reinforcing steel mesh supplied into the New Zealand construction market doesn’t comply with New Zealand standards has caused considerable concern.
Resulting in HERA staff recently being the target of extensive media attention with varying degrees of accuracy in being quoted.
HERA’s fundamental message is that when NZ design standards specify NZS or AS/NZS product standards, the products specified for a project are required to conform to these standards, independent of product use – be it for steel, timber or concrete construction.
Current issue is with steel reinforced concrete, not steel construction
Recent media has particularly implicated the reinforcing steel mesh non-conformance issue, yet despite the fact that this mesh is largely used in concrete construction which isn’t a HERA interest – as a key member of the steel supply chain, we appear to be a first port of call for comment.
A lack of understanding of this distinction (despite much explanation) has led to incorrect reporting – something that doesn’t sit well with us or the steel construction industry. Knowing that reinforcing steel is also used in steel-concrete composite construction such as composite flooring systems, we need to take a stronger stance in advocating reinforcing steels in all applications need to comply.
This incidentally would also level the competitive playing field between different systems by equally spreading compliance costs.
Is NZ the ‘Wild West’ of steel testing?
Our Structural Systems General Manager Dr Stephen Hicks was quoted in media as labeling NZ as “the wild west of steel testing”. Based on MBIE advisories and media reports, I feel comfortable in supporting his statement.
An important part of compliance is standards-conforming product supply. This requires a complex process – particularly if products come from overseas countries that don’t have a track record in supplying conforming products. HERA is a member of the independent, expert, third party Australasian Certification Authority for Reinforcing and Structural Steels (ACRS) and Dr Hicks also sits on its board.
Stephen’s extensive UK-SCI (Steel Construction Institute UK) background in structural steel product conformance, together with the structural reliability that underpins design standards, allows him to speak with confidence on the European situation, where all steel for critical applications must come from third party-certified suppliers, whom take on a legal responsibility for the conformity of the construction product through a Declaration of Performance (be it a manufacturer, importer or distributor) – this certainly lends weight to his opinion.
Steel construction industry leads in respect to product conformance
HERA and Steel Construction NZ (SCNZ) led the industry in establishing the Steel Fabrication Certification (SFC) scheme, which was driven by steel construction industry members. This scheme has been enthusiastically welcomed both as a necessity and a business opportunity to demonstrate constructional steel work compliance.
Over 70% of the New Zealand constructional steel work capacity has now been covered by the scheme, however participation still remains voluntary for steel fabricators and suppliers. In respect to constructional steel supply, over 80% of our hot rolled and fabricated sections coming from ACRS-certified sources include Asian steel mills.
These products often go into critical steelwork such as seismic frames, and our confidence in compliance is boosted by the excellent performance of steel buildings using the same supply chain in the Canterbury earthquakes as steel used for constructional steel work by SFC members.
However in my view, we need to go further – with the floodgate open to ‘cheap’ steel and external pressures to reduce cost often at the expense of quality, seeking all steel for critical applications via certified supply lines is key.
While I agree with MBIE that steel mesh installed in residential housing when missing a couple of percentage points in elongation is not a concern, there appears to be the strong view emerging from our industry that industry self-regulation on its own is insufficient to guarantee the performance of our buildings; particularly, when there are external pressures to reduce costs, often at the expense of quality.
All safety critical work to have reliable third party product conformance
What we’d like to explore is whether all safety critical building work independent of building material should be required to have reliable third party certification enforced by the MBIE driven regulatory framework. For Importance Level 3 and 4 steel-framed structures, it would mean all steel would have to come via ACRS- or other creditable certification provider-certified supply chains.
There’s nothing wrong with following the European lead here – especially as our industry is very close to having this achieved. With MBIE’s assistance, we could improve standards and ensure a level playing field both when it comes to imported products and across competing New Zealand construction systems.