New HIA president takes helm in unprecedented times

Newly appointed president of the Housing Industry Association (HIA) Debbie Johnson spoke exclusively to API Magazine about the challenges facing the building sector and housing industry, and her own unique career path.

Debbie Johnson in front of residential construction site with suburb in background
Debbie Johnson will need to apply her 40 years experience in the building industry as the HIA navigates a challenging period for the industry.

Newly appointed president of the Housing Industry Association (HIA) Debbie Johnson takes the helm at one of the most interesting and challenging times in building industry history.

The peak industry body for the residential building, renovation and development is confronting an unprecedented era that has seen 2,500 home builders collapse in the past two years, with two thirds of those falling over in the past 10 months.

Ms Johnson said further building company failures could not be ruled out unless significant improvement was made in increasing the supply of land.

“While building industry collapses were fortunately low through the pandemic period there has been an increase in recent times as the market has come back from its peak.

“The domestic construction sector is different to the commercial area in that our members are typically locked into a fixed price contract.

“The unprecedented increase in building costs and shortage of trades through the pandemic years has caused significant pain for consumers and the industry alike.”

Housing affordability 

In lobbying governments for solutions to the worsening housing crisis, Ms Johnson said one of the most pressing issues nationally is housing affordability.

“There are many contributing factors to this, the most obvious resulting from a sustained period of undersupply to the market,” she said.

“To deliver on the new homes required, we will need to see improved land supply in the first instance.

“Similarly, there has been an extreme shortage of skilled trades and building supplies over the last few years.

“While building materials and trades are becoming more readily available this undersupply will be evident for some years to come.

She said the industry was also frustrated with many of the recent building legislation changes and others in the pipeline.

“While these changes are designed to improve the quality and energy efficiency of new homes, they do and will add thousands of dollars to the construction cost.

Balancing the needs of the environment in regards to urban expansion and delivering enough new land for a rapidly growing population was a balancing act.

“Governments need to take a holistic view when it comes to delivering policy affecting new homes.

“There needs to be genuine diversity in the market; a starting point for people to either rent or buy.

“The challenge for governments is to get the necessary infrastructure in place to support low, medium or high density land opportunities.

“While the industry stands ready to invest and develop according to market demands, the current approval processes are our main constraint.”

Sustainable development

Ms Johnson (66) was appointed as HIA’s Queensland Regional President in 2013 and appointed to the Association’s National Board in 2017.

She has owned her own business, Building Suncoast Green, for 40 years and has always placed an emphasis on sustainable development.

“Ideally a home should always be sited appropriately to maximise the specific climate relative to that location.

“If you design to capture the sunlight required and harness the crossflow ventilation you will have already done the heavy lifting.

“Personally, having designed and built all of my own homes, I have never even installed air conditioning or heating and it is not likely I ever will.”

She stressed that HIA is acutely aware of the focus on sustainability and the opportunity this presents for our members and the industry more broadly.

“We have always worked closely with governments at all levels to achieve practical outcomes.

“We have long offered our Greensmart accreditation program and celebrate excellence in sustainable design through our National annual Greensmart awards program.”

Architect of an impressive career

A career in the building industry was always on the cards for Ms Johnson, who as a 14-year-old at Brisbane Girls Grammar School was awarded a technical scholarship and commenced studying architectural technology at Queensland Institute of Technology.

“It had always been my intention to study architecture.

“I had been introduced to domestic construction through my father who was a financier with a bank and later worked in real estate.”

At just 18-years-of age, Ms Johnson married a musician and spent a few years living in Sydney and Melbourne before starting a family.

“Through this time, I worked from home preparing building design documentation for renovations and extensions, which primarily was perhaps work that others didn’t particularly want to do, but I was very fortunate to work with and for some excellent builders who were generous with their time.

Asked if it was onerous early on being a female in a male dominated industry Ms Johnson said the opposite was the case.

“To be truthful it has probably been an advantage, as a woman stood out in the early years although not so much now.”

The mother of four and grandmother of 12 was divorced at 28 and moved back to the Sunshine Coast

With two children to care for, she decided to move back to the Sunshine Coast, where she still lives today in Marcoola.

“This wasn’t because I knew anyone or had family here, it was more because I needed a new beginning.

“Of course the Sunshine Coast was and is a beautiful place to raise children.

“In the 1980s I started my own business offering building design services.

“In the early 1990’s I remarried to my current husband and business partner Phil who is an electrician.”

Her determination to broaden her skills led to three and a half years at night school gaining qualifications that enabled her to become licensed as both a medium and a low rise builder.

“Under Queensland legislation I already held an open class building designer’s licence.

“The business was now providing building, design and town planning services.

“It was around this time I became a member of HIA, which as a small business operator has proven to be an invaluable business partner for me ever since.

“As a businessperson I believe you support the community that supports you.

“We all know that giving is its own reward but in reality the more you can give the more you receive.”

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