Construction Law – Certain instances where the NHBRC could be held liable by a home owner for the rectification of major structural defects in a new home

INTRODUCTION:

1. In the unreported matter of Stergianos v National Home Builders Registration Council 2012 JDR 1982, the Plaintiff, Mr Stergianos, issued summons against the National Home Builders Registration Council (“NHBRC”), alleging that the NHBRC is obliged to remedy the defects evident in his home.

2. In our law the Housing Consumers Protection Measures Act 95 of 1998 (“the Act”) protects home owners in certain circumstances from the effects of poor workmanship on the part of home builders who are registered with the NHBRC.

3. Before we delve into the facts of the aforesaid matter, the following relevant Sections of the Act should be taken into consideration where a home owner wishes to hold the NHBRC liable for defects evident in a home resulting from defective workmanship on the part of a home builder:

3.1. Section 3 of the Act specifies the objectives of the NHBRC which include, inter alia, the following:
3.1.1. Representing the interests of housing consumers by providing warranty protection against defects in new homes;
3.1.2. Regulating the home building industry;
3.1.3. Providing protection to home owners where home builders fail to comply with their obligations in terms of the Act; and
3.1.4. To establish and promote ethical and technical standards in the home building industry.

3.2. In terms of Section 10(1) of the Act, a “home builder” is required to be registered with the NHBRC prior to the commencement of construction and if not, no payment may be received from a housing consumer in respect of the sale or construction of a home.  Section 10(2) determines that where a “home builder” is not registered with the NHBRC, he is prohibited from constructing a home.

3.3. The NHBRC is required, in terms of Section 12, to publish a Home Building Manual (“HBM”) which contains technical standards with which home builders must comply.

3.4. Further, Section 14(1) of the Act determines that a home builder is not allowed to commence building a home before:
3.4.1. the prescribed documentation, information and fee have been submitted to the NHBRC;
3.4.2. the NHBRC has accepted the aforesaid and entered same into its records; and
3.4.3. a certificate of proof of enrolment has been issued.

3.5. Section 15(2) states that the NHBRC is allowed to disburse any amount contemplated by Section 17(1) of the Act.  In terms of Section 17(1) the NHBRC shall pay an amount for rectification from the fund established for that purpose in terms of Section 15(4), where:
3.5.1. within:
3.5.1.1. five years of the date of occupation, a major structural defect has emerged in a home as a result of non-compliance with the NHBRC Technical Requirements and the home builder has been notified accordingly within that period;
3.5.1.2. twelve months of the date of occupation, a roof leak attributable to workmanship, design or materials has manifested itself in respect of a home and the home builder has been notified accordingly within that period;
3.5.2. the home builder is in breach of the home builder’s obligations in terms of Section 13(2)(b)(i) regarding the rectification of such defect;
3.5.3. the relevant home was constructed by a registered home builder, had been enrolled with the Council and, at the occupation date, the home was enrolled with the Council subject to Section 14(4), (5) and (6);
3.5.4. the home builder no longer exists or is unable to meet his obligations; and
3.5.5. in the case of a home that has been enrolled with the Council on a project basis in terms of Section 14(2), the application has been made by the MEC pursuant to an agreement in terms of Section 15(4)(c).

3.6. In terms of Section 17(2) the NHBRC is empowered to either reduce any amount that may be expended in terms of Section 17(1), in exceptional circumstances, make a payment to a home owner in full and final settlement instead of rectifying the defect, or refuse any claim.

BACKGROUND FACTS:

4. In the aforesaid matter, the Plaintiff concluded a contract with the Contractor, Herrington Construction CC, for the building of a home for the Plaintiff.  The home was constructed with a number of difficulties along the way, where after the Plaintiff took occupation thereof.

5. During the first year of occupation, cracks began to develop in the concrete floor slab which worsened progressively.  Attempts to fill the cracks failed as they continued to open.  The Plaintiff appointed a structural engineering expert, Mr Kleinhans, to determine the cause of the cracks.  Mr Kleinhans was of the view that the cause was structural.

6. The Plaintiff then issued summons against the NHBRC in terms of Section 17 of the Act, seeking orders that the NHBRC was responsible for the rectification of the structural defects in the home, and to rectify the defects within 180 days and to pay its costs.

7. The NHBRC refused the Plaintiff’s claim.  All the elements of the cause of action set out in Section 17(1) of the Act have either been admitted by the NHBRC or were not in dispute.  The only element in dispute, which had to be determined by the Court, is the cause of the defect.  If it were to be found that the cracks in the floor slab were caused by a major structural defect, the Plaintiff would be entitled to the relief contemplated by Section 17(1), otherwise the action will fail.

8. Section 1 of the Act defines the term “major structural defect” as:
“a defect which gives rise or which is likely to give rise to damage of such severity that it affects or is likely to affect the structural integrity of a home and which requires complete or partial rebuilding of the home or extensive repair work to it, subject to limitations, qualifications or exclusions that may be prescribed by the Minister.”

9. According to Kleinhans, the site on which the home was built had, right from the start, presented certain technical challenges as the home was built on a primary dune and the characteristics of the site signalled that special precautions had to be taken when building on a dune as same is mobile.

10. Kleinhans required to assess the relevant documentation in order to determine whether the home complies with technical requirements and prescribed standards, however, very little documentation could be found in this regard.  Kleinhans regarded a record of three Dynamic Cone Penetrometer (“DCP”) tests conducted before building commenced as most likely to classify the soil type in order to designate a class to the site as required in terms of the Home Building Manual.  According to Kleinhans, the said results raised concern, as well as a need to take remedial measures.

11. He then conducted a DCP test to determine the density of the fill below the slab and also evaluated the “health of the structure” by taking relevant photographs of the cracks, recording them on a plan and examining same for a pattern.  Most cracks were in the floor slab, while some were in the ceiling and walls.

12. Mr Kleinhans came to the conclusion that the defects in the concrete floor slab of the home were indeed caused by major structural defects in the substructure of the home and consequent settling of the slab.  The test results also confirmed that the fill beneath the slab was not sufficiently compacted to bear the weight of the slab.

13. The NHBRC also appointed an expert, Mr Mathibeli, who was of the view that the cracks were caused by shrinkage as a result of poor workmanship when the concrete slab was poured and secondly, the builder’s failure to place expansion joints in the slab where required.  Mr Mathibeli, who has not conducted any tests, came to the conclusion that the defects in the slab were not structural in nature.

CONCLUSION:

14. After assessing both experts’ views, the Court ordered the NHBRC to rectify the structural defects in the Plaintiff’s home in terms of Section 17 of the Act, subject to the maximum amount prescribed by regulation 13(1), read with regulation 13(2), of the regulations promulgated in terms of the Act.  The Court also ordered the NHBRC to pay the Plaintiff’s costs.