In the past decade, the registration board has completed 22 inquiries – finding against architects in half these cases. The board did not deregister an architect in this period, despite having the power to do so.
And in 2012, the board stopped reporting complaints it received by phone from the public – despite previously averaging more than 50 calls a year.
“I have seen so many people complain and it just stops instantly,” said Phil Dwyer, a registered builder and president of the Builders Collective of Australia, a group that lobbies for better consumer protection in the construction industry.
“Architects simply won’t take complaints [and] appear to be immune from any sort of accountability in this state,” he said.
Many complaints, however, come from consumers enraged over a contractual dispute, which is not part of the board’s responsibilities.
Adam Toma, chief and registrar of the board since December, said the board, along with the disciplinary actions it did take, provided guidance and support to consumers concerned with their architect’s performance.
He also said architects were regularly suspended for not having insurance. In the past six months, 39 architects were suspended for this.
Architects Registration Board of Victoria chair David Islip, an architect, defended the organisation, saying it upheld “the highest standards of integrity” in the industry.
The board of the registration board is made up of five architects, a building industry representative and two consumer advocates. This board decides which complaints about architects are investigated.
Architects investigated are not named in inquiry reports although it is possible – with some difficulty – to find out if an architect has been investigated.
The situation is at odds with the practice in New South Wales, where architects found guilty of shoddy work by the registration board are publicly named.
Lawyer Sean Barrett, whose complaint against the architect who oversaw his renovation project was dismissed, queried the transparency surrounding the board’s inquiries.
Mr Barrett said he was “open to a reasonable explanation’’ about the board’s decision to dismiss his complaint. But he was ‘‘concerned about the lack of transparency and the manner in which these inquiries are conducted”.
Before November’s state election, Mr Barrett took his case to Planning Minister Richard Wynne. The board, he wrote to Mr Wynne, was ‘‘operating more like an exclusive club that is disproportionately focused on protecting the interests of its members’’.
The Architects Registration Board also refused to investigate a complaint from Margaret Wallin. In 2004, Ms Wallin and her partner engaged architect Craig Chester to design a redevelopment of their Kew property.
The development went wrong, and the couple’s relationship with the architect collapsed.
Mr Chester pursued the couple through the courts for payment of his fees, while they counter-sued him in the County Court.
Alongside the contractual issues, though, emerged serious concerns over Mr Chester’s behaviour. They complained to the board, which refused to investigate.
Ms Wallin went to the state planning tribunal – which forced the board to investigate Mr Chester. The board then found Mr Chester “guilty of being careless or incompetent” and “guilty of unprofessional conduct” in four areas. He was fined $4500.
Mr Chester disputed the findings, but said he had run out of professional indemnity insurance of $100,000.
“I wasn’t happy but I couldn’t fight it any further,” he said.
Ms Wallin said she was appalled at the board’s lack of willingness to look into her case.
“The ARBV no more represented me than fly off the moon,” she said.
The Planning Minister said he had asked his department to look into how architects were investigated by the board.
“I’ve asked the department to look further into the issues raised and investigate where we may need to make improvements,” Mr Wynne said.
In Victoria’s highest-profile building case, 2014’s Lacrosse tower fire in Docklands, the Architects Board of Registration told the cladding taskforce that the architect, Elenberg Fraser, had no case to answer. The board was told this was not a good enough answer.
The Australian Institute of Architects defended the board, saying it did a good job policing an industry where too often designers were blamed for problems that weren’t their fault.
Amy Muir, the institute’s Victorian president, said the vast majority of relationships between architects and their clients were extremely good.
“In the rare instances where disputes arise between client and architect, the ARBV is known to conduct a thorough investigation and independent examination of the issue to the limits of their existing powers,” she said.
But builder Phil Dwyer said that while accountability in construction had improved somewhat and still needed further toughening, architects continued to encounter almost no enforcement when they did the wrong thing on behalf of clients.
“They need to be properly licensed rather than being their own adjudicator,” he said.
Clay Lucas is a senior reporter for The Age. Clay has worked at The Age since 2005, covering urban affairs, transport, state politics, local government and workplace relations for The Age and Sunday Age.