Building and Construction Minister Hon Chris Penk wants to make remote building inspections the default. In this article we consider the promises (and potential pitfalls) of the proposal. 

Earlier this week the Government announced plans to streamline aspects of the building consent process and reduce construction costs, by requiring building consent authorities (most of whom are councils) to adopt the use of remote inspection technology. 

What would this look like? 

Rather than a building inspector physically attending a building site, remote building inspections generally involve the use of video and photo imagery being sent or live streamed to an inspector. This can be supported with tools like geolocation that verify the source. 

The concept is not new. A number of councils began using remote building inspections as a way to continue performing their consenting functions while Covid-19 restrictions applied. However, uptake has been sporadic across the country, with some councils reluctant to adopt remote technology instead of in person inspections. 

Under this new proposal most inspections would be expected to occur remotely, although Minister Penk acknowledges that there may be rare situations where a remote inspection is not appropriate, such as where a site has poor cellular coverage.

The promise 

The Government hopes that a shift to (by default) remote inspections will:

  • lower overall costs by removing the need for inspectors to travel to building sites, and in turn reduce transport-related emissions;
  • offer greater scheduling flexibility for inspectors and building professionals;
  • reduce delays and enhance productivity by increasing the number of inspections carried out; 
  • enable expertise and resource-sharing between regions; and
  • improve record keeping, meaning better quality assurance for homeowners. 

Our comments 

The innovative use of technology to enhance and streamline building consent processes should be welcomed. However, there are some potential pitfalls that the Government will need to carefully guard against as it moves this proposal forward. 

A key concern will be ensuring that the quality and reliability of information sourced from these inspections does not suffer. Councils owe a duty of care to ensure that their inspections are accurate, and that houses built under their watch comply with the Building Code. If that duty is breached, they could be liable. Many councils are still dealing with litigation arising from the leaky building crisis and they (and their ratepayers) will not want to see this repeated. 

There may be an opportunity for the Government to consider policy intervention targeting either building consent authority liability costs, or the nature of councils’ duties of care when conducting inspections under this new regime. Successive governments have been reluctant to alter policy settings to shift legal risk away from councils, but doing so could encourage authorities to embrace new technology without the prospect of litigation looming overhead. 

Some potential risks and limitations of remote inspections include that:

  • Building practitioners could mislead inspectors (even unintentionally) by sending inaccurate or incomplete visual records of building work. There is room for error if the onus is placed on inspectors to identify suspicious inspection records and carry out further verification. 
  • The financial cost of purchasing the necessary technology and training staff on its use could impose a disproportionate burden on smaller, less well-resourced, councils. Building practitioners may also require training on the new technology, and it is unclear who would be responsible for this, and whether there would be any centralised support. 
  • Certain types or stages of building work may not be suited to remote inspections, for example where physical testing is required, or where a full view of the building is necessary for the inspection. 
  • Virtual inspections may not be realistic options in rural areas, where there is poor internet coverage, or even when weather conditions do not allow. 

Finally, it is not uncommon for council officers to encounter unlawful activity that is unrelated to their inspection work during a physical building inspection. For example, officers can stumble across non-compliant or unconsented building work that they are not there to inspect, or observe non-compliances with the Resource Management Act occurring on or near a building site. Requiring building inspections to be conducted remotely will reduce the likelihood that these offences are detected. 

On the other hand, conducting targeted remote inspections could assist in limiting the scope of inspecting officers’ responsibilities and minimise issues surrounding limitation periods. Councils could face less unfair criticism that they “should have known” about offences occurring elsewhere on a building site if their officers are not present in person, and may be able to avoid inadvertently triggering the limitation clock under the Building or Resource Management Acts for such offences.

Whether a more limited duty can be linked to remote inspections is a matter that we expect building consent authorities will be interested in exploring.

Next steps

The Government will release a discussion document in the third quarter of 2024 (July-September) that outlines a range of options for encouraging the uptake of remote inspections and increasing consenting efficiency. Building consent authorities and the construction sector will have an opportunity to offer feedback on the proposed approach.

Get in touch

For further information about how these reforms could affect you, or for assistance with getting involved, reach out to one of our Building Act experts below. 

You can read the Minister’s speech here and Cabinet Paper here

Special thanks to Jade Magrath and Clara Evans for their assistance in writing this article.


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