Australia’s laws and building regulations

The Australian Constitution sets out the roles, responsibilities and powers of the Australian Government. Conventionally, matters that are not mentioned in the Constitution are the responsibility of the States.

Because the Constitution does not mention matters regarding the safety, health and amenity of people in buildings, the responsibility for them rests with the State and Territory Governments. This results in eight separate Acts of Parliament and eight distinct building regulatory systems.

At various times it’s been even more complex, with some states passing on many of their building regulatory powers to their municipal councils. This effectively enacted their own building regulatory systems through council by-laws.

Volumes One and Two (the Building Code of Australia)

The complexity of Australia's building regulatory system provided a legislative maze for building practitioners to work through. However, after World War II several of the States and Territories started to establish more uniform technical building requirements, and those States and Territories which delegated their primary responsibilities to municipal councils started to reclaim control. This prompted further discussion about the benefits of having a national set of building regulations.

In 1965, the Interstate Standing Committee on Uniform Building Regulations (ISCUBR) was established. ISCUBR was an agreement between the State and Territory administrations responsible for building regulatory matters, to pool their resources for the benefit of all States and Territories. ISCUBR's first task was to draft a model technical code for building regulatory purposes. The document was referred to as the "Australian Model Uniform Building Code" (AMUBC), and was first released in the early 1970's.

The AMUBC contained proposals for both technical matters and some administrative matters, which were based on the then Local Government Act of New South Wales. The intention was that States and Territories could use the AMUBC as a model for their own building regulations. However, variation from the model was considerable, with many changing the provisions in accordance with their perceptions of local needs. 

In 1980, the Local Government Ministerial Council agreed to the formation of the Australian Building Regulations Coordinating Council (AUBRCC) to supersede ISCUBR. AUBRCC’s main task was to continue to develop the AMUBC, which led to the production of the first edition of the Building Code of Australia (BCA) in 1988.

The BCA was further refined and a new edition was released in 1990. States and Territories progressively adopted this edition of the BCA during the early 1990s.

The Australian Building Codes Board

In 1991, the Building Regulation Review Task Force recommended to Council of Australian Governments (COAG) the establishment of a body to achieve far-reaching national reform. An Inter-government Agreement (IGA) was signed in April 1994 to establish the Australian Building Codes Board ABCB. One of the first tasks of the ABCB was to convert the BCA into a more fully performance based document.

The ABCB released the performance based BCA (BCA96) in October 1996. BCA96 was adopted by the Commonwealth and most states and territories on 1 July 1997, with the remainder adopting it by early 1998.

In 2003 a decision was taken to move to an annual amendment cycle with a date of operation from 1 May each year. From 2004, the BCA moved from BCA96 to become BCA 2004, BCA 2005 in 2005 and so on.

Volume Three (Plumbing Code of Australia)

Historically, the regulation of plumbing and drainage in Australia has developed in close alignment with the State and Territory water and sewerage authorities, as they regulated for plumbing, drainage and water supply. Most regulations were based on British Standards requirements and developments in plumbing and drainage methods and technology.

Standards Australia has for some time published technical standards relating to plumbing and drainage matters. In the late 1980s, several existing plumbing standards were consolidated and a set of updated Australian Standards was published in 1990 with the objective to provide: ‘acceptable technical standards for the design and installation of plumbing systems throughout Australia’. This is the AS 3500 series. Although designed as a national code, its adoption over the years following was disconnected and heavily varied.

A National Plumbing Regulators Forum (NPRF), with representatives from all States and Territories, was established in 2002 to develop a Plumbing Code of Australia (PCA). In 2004, the NPRF’s PCA 2004 was published. It was adopted in the ACT, Qld, SA, Tas and Vic.

The PCA 2004 was designed as a performance-based code, and was set out to be compatible in its structure and operation with the BCA. PCA 2004 referenced the 2003 AS/NZS 3500 – Plumbing and Drainage series of standards, along with other relevant standards, as a means of providing Deemed-to-Satisfy solutions to the Performance Requirements. The jurisdictions that did not adopt PCA 2004 continued to regulate the use of AS/NZS 3500 or used other independently developed regulation.

In 2010, the PCA was reviewed by an NPRF and ABCB working group as part of the development of the NCC, an initiative of the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) developed to incorporate all on-site construction requirements into a single code. PCA 2011 was released as Volume Three of the NCC by the ABCB on behalf of the Australian Government and each State and Territory Government.

National Construction Code

In 2011, the PCA and the BCA came together as a single code – the National Construction Code (NCC).

The NCC provides the minimum necessary requirements for safety and health; amenity and accessibility, and sustainability in the design, construction, performance and livability of new buildings (and new building work in existing buildings) throughout Australia.

It is a uniform set of technical provisions for building work and plumbing and drainage installations throughout Australia that allows for variations in climate and geological or geographic conditions.

The NCC was developed to incorporate all on-site construction requirements into a single code:

  • NCC Volume One primarily applies to Class 2 to 9 (multi-residential, commercial, industrial and public) buildings and structures.
  • NCC Volume Two primarily applies to Class 1 (residential) and 10 (non-habitable) buildings and structures.
  • NCC Volume Three applies to plumbing and drainage for all classes of buildings.

Volume One also comes with a Guide. It is a non-mandatory publication, which has been developed to assist in interpreting the requirements of Volume One. In addition, each NCC Volume contains clearly identified, non-mandatory explanatory information within the text to assist with interpretation of the requirements.

Since its instruction in 2011, many enhancements have been made to the code to make it more user-friendly. This includes moving from a print publication to a free online version in 2015, and moving to a three-year amendment cycle instead of annually, in 2016.

The NCC can be viewed online or downloaded from the NCC Suite.

The future of the code

NCC 2022 will bring about the biggest changes to formatting and structure the code has seen. These changes form part of the Improved NCC useability initiative, making the code even more user-friendly and modern than ever. Enhancements to NCC 2022 include multiple digital formats such as mobile and tablet-friendly options, integration with industry software such as BIM and CAD, and personalised filtering of content.

Regulatory reform and national economic benefits

The construction sector is a significant industry for Australia and represents the second largest sector of small business in the economy. As a result, constraining cost growth and improving productivity has the potential to deliver significant economic benefits nationally.

The building and construction industry has undergone significant regulatory reform over the last twenty years, with a number of these related to the work of the ABCB.

This includes the:

  • creation of a single, nationally consistent BCA in 1992
  • move to a performance-based BCA in 1996
  • consolidation of building and plumbing regulation, resulting in the NCC in 2011
  • provision of a free online NCC in 2015, and
  • reduction in the frequency of NCC changes, from a 1-year to a 3-year amendment cycle, commencing with NCC 2016.

To determine the benefits of a national performance-based construction code, the ABCB commissioned the Centre for International Economics (CIE) in 2012. They quantified the impact of building regulatory reform to date and identified any past, present, or potential barriers that may be preventing the full benefits of reform being realised. The report estimated annual national economic benefit of $1.1billion from the suite of building regulatory reforms introduced through the ABCB over the past twenty years.