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Self-certification, as architects see it
NST-PROP 22/1/2005

Allowing professionals to declare buildings fit for occupation will lead to improved efficiency in the delivery process

Certain views have been expressed of late, in the press and at various public forums, on the issuance of Certificates of Fitness for Occupation (CF) by professionals, both architects and engineers. This was also the focus of an article by the National House Buyers Association (HBA) in Property Times on Jan 8.

What actually is the position of Persatuan Akitek Malaysia (PAM)? Are professional architects competent enough to issue CFs? Can the house-buying public trust architects to perform this task without prejudice , or are they just agents of developers, as made out by the HBA?

Role of architects in the design of buildings

Under the Street, Drainage and Building Act, architects and engineers are the "qualified persons" responsible for the design and safety of buildings.

They prepare  and submit building plans to the local authorities, declaring that the buildings are designed in compliance with the Uniform Building By-Laws (UBBL), and subsequently supervise the construction to ensure UBBL compliance in this area as well. Architects and engineers have to submit prescribed forms to notify the local authorities upon the completion of the various stages of work, and certify that the works have been duly completed.

When a building is completed, the architect's certification is submitted together with letters of support from technical departments, such as Tenaga Nasional Bhd, Sewerage Services Department and Waterworks Department, to the local authorities. The role of the authorities is thereafter merely administrative , to issue the CFs upon receipt of all those documents.

The existing laws and regulations cite the architect or engineer as the person who is best qualified to vouch for fitness and safety of a completed building, having designed it and supervised its construction from beginning to end.

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi on June 26 last year called for the issuance of CFs by local authorities to be replaced with self-certification by professionals. Both the Minister of Works and the Ministry of Housing and Local Government responded by initiating meetings and discussions with industry players to seek their feedback and to prepare proposals for the implementaion of self-certification.

PAM fully supports the Housing Ministry's proposal to streamline the process of CF application and issuance. This will reduce bureaucratic red tape, make the house delivery process more efficient and ultimately, it will work to the benefit of purchasers.

Does self-certification work?

The proposal for self-certification is nothing new. PAM has been working closely with the Housing Ministry on this matter. The Certification of Completion and Compliance (CCC)( issued by architects for completed bungalow units, which has replaced the CFs issued by the local authorities, has been in place for a few years now, and there have been no complaints about it.

Many meetings have been held with the Housing Ministry to extend this self-certification to industrial buildings, and ultimately, to all types of buildings. The call by the Prime Minister appears aimed at accelerating the process of self-certification based on the established frame-work.

The One-Stop Centre (OSC) which serves to expedite the approval process for building plans, is also a move towards self-certification. Self-certification by the submitting person is really an extension of his current role under the OSC. Other infrastructural works such as utilities, roads and drainage are also certified by the professionals overseeing them.

The UBBL holds the submitting person fully liable and responsible for the entire project, whether or not the local authorities issue the CF. The issuance of CFs by the local authorities does not guarantee the safety of the building, since the authorities do not carry any liability.

Will self-certification benefit house buyers?

Under the Housing Development Act and its regulations, architects are already entrusted with the responsibility, and held liable, for certifying the various stages of works. This is also spelt out in the Sale and Purchase Agreement. It has to be pointed out that architects see this role of certification as a public service, for which no additional fee is charged even though there is considerable cost and liability involved in checking and certifying the completion of the works.

Up to 92 per cent of the purchase price would have been paid by buyers upon handing over of vacant possession, when the local authorities accept the CF application, regardless of whether it is issued or not.

House buyers will benefit under self-certification, as certification by the architect for handing over of vacant possession by the developer can be concurrent with the issuance of the CCC by the architect. This eliminates the problem of buyers having to take over their houses but not being able to occupy them until the CFs are issued by the local authorities. The delay and uncertainty over the CF issuance has long been a major grouse of both developers and house buyers.

Are architects competent to issue CFs?

A minimum of five years of tertiary education, followed by at least two years of internship under a professional architect is required before a person trained in architecture can qualify to sit for the professional examination conducted by the Board of Architects Malaysia.

Most architects actually work for a number of years before setting up their own practice. Ask any graduate how tough the professional examination is. No amount of money can "buy" a person this position. So, would an architect risk his life-time education and training to act unprofessionally and without integrity, with the risk of being fined or even deregistered? Is a person with this background and training going to bend rules for money?

Will the quality of houses be affected?

Houses are constructed by building contractors who sign contracts with developers and undertake to build the works in accordance with specifications and drawings prepared by architects and engineers. They physically carry out the building works for delivery to the end uses. Architects and engineers are appointed to periodically supervise the construction to ensure that they are acceptable standard and quality.

The quality of finishes is often confused with quality of works. There are very often projects offered at low prices with lower quality materials specified. This does not mean that the buildings are of poor quality, for they comply with minimum standards set by the UBBL. However, they may not measure up to the better quality of the more expensive houses due to either misplaced expectations of the buyers or misrepresentations in marketing brochures. In this instance, the integrity of the architects or engineers is not the issue.

Currently, developers, architects, engineers and lawyers, are, in varying degrees, liable for the delivery of of the houses or buildings under construction. The building contractor is not. The Construction Industry Development Board (CIDB) was set up to ensure quality in the building and construction industry.

The establishment of a quality benchmark by which all building works are measured will go some way towards establishing consensus among all parties in the industry as to the quality of works to be expected. There will then be no mismatch of expectation and promise.

If two projects are priced differently due to two different qualities promised (for example, grade A quality or grade B quality), then buyers can make an informed choice. The building contractor prices his tender according to the standards specified and in the long term, variables in quality would be reduced and end users would actually get what they pay for.

Complaints received from house buyers are often related to workmanship and the issuance of CFs by the local authorities does not addressed this problem. The  most effective way of improving workmanship is for contractors to be accountable and responsible for works they carry out.

In Australia, for example, a builder is a licensed individual who is regulated by law and a statutory body is held fully liable for the quality of workmanship. The role and responsibility of the certifier strictly related to safety aspects such as compliance of codes and regulations. He is not responsible for the quality of the building.

CIDB has to seriously regulate the performance of contractors and make them accountable, just as all the other parties in the whole housing delivery chain are.

Can we trust architects to be independent?

The HBA has expressed concern that the quality and safety of a building may be compromised if the CF procedure is done away with, especially so in the housing industry. This is because, it claims, the professionals may be subjected to pressure from their developer-clients to certify completion of the various stages of the houses prematurely.

We admit that there are errant architects who are negligent, but the Board of Architects has instituted a new schedule of penalties, including deregistration, against those found guilty of wrongful or fraudulent certification. Its actions have resulted in a reduction in cases of wrongful or fraudulent certification, and statistics of the last few years confirm this.

Therefore, the HBA's misgivings about professional architects are misplaced because the number of black sheep is small in comparison to the number of houses built in Malaysia each year.

Transparent process

In conclusion, we would like to state that:

  • PAM supports the introduction of a more transparent and efficient building approval and CF issuance process and the Prime Minister's vision for a civil, accountable and trustworthy society.
  • PAM fully supports the proposal that architects and engineers be allowed to issue the CCC in place of the CFs issued by local authorities, since under the UBBL the qualified person who submits the application for CF is already held fully liable and responsible for the buildings.
  • The disciplinary framework is already in place, since architects and engineers are well regulated in Malaysia and face deregistration if they breach professional integrity and trust.
  • The HBA should not take a negative stand on self-certification but instead support any move to improve the efficiency of this delivery process. It should also seek to work closely with the professionals and local authorities to continue improving and strengthening the housing industry of the benefit of everybody.

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