Reforms in two other countries show how a sharp focus on standards offers a way to emerge stronger from this crisis, says Mark Farmer

Mark Farmer new 2020

The phrases ‘good recovery’, ‘green recovery’ and ‘building back better’ are being used liberally and inter-changeably at the moment but they all point to an important underlying opportunity. That is to ensure we use this crisis as a catalyst to improve the outcomes our industry is responsible for and the manner in which we deliver them.

In this vein, there is an interesting debate as to whether the government should help stimulate activity in a downturn by reducing regulatory burden and indeed that has already appeared to start to play out post covid-19 with fundamental reform of the planning system rumoured to be in the offing. Post global financial crisis we saw the so called ‘red tape challenge’ that led to things such as Code for Sustainable Homes being reversed back in 2014. Some would argue in retrospect that we have lost a decade of progress in our war against climate change as a result.

The New Zealand reforms show real vision in recognising that manufacturing led quality planning and assurance beats the need to ‘man mark’ site operatives 

The coming period will be an important test of the government’s nerve and resolve to use this crisis as a way of stimulating longer lasting improvement in how the real estate and construction sector operates and the quality and impact of what it produces. The role of the built environment in CO2 emissions for instance cannot be ignored anymore and sizeable reductions in both embodied and operational carbon are critical to staying on track with this country’s 2050 net zero legal commitments. The Future Homes Standard and the government’s awaited response to the recent consultation represents an early marker for how that journey will play out.

In other areas of regulation, we have a Building Safety Bill running through Parliamentary process that represents an opportunity to reform and repurpose Building Regulations. We also have a commitment to a New Homes Ombudsman in response to gathering concern over poor quality build and lack of consumer redress. All of these areas of legislation and codification are important parts of setting our industry on a better path moving forward but all pre-date covid-19.

If we are serious about using any stimulus package for housing and construction to best effect, then it is clear that all of these commitments must be maintained, even possibly dialled up in certain instances and certainly augmented by intelligent conditioning of public funding for homebuilding linked to minimum standards.

I want to share two separate pieces of post covid-19 legislative change and industry reform from our Antipodean friends down in Australia and New Zealand as they offer inspiration perhaps as to how we can double down on better standards as we look to come out of the other side of this pandemic.

Firstly, the New Zealand government has just taken the surprisingly simple but as of yet relatively uncommon step of amending its Building Regulations to better facilitate and control the more innovative methods by which we can construct buildings. The historic focus on product selection, technical rules and performance in conjunction with traditional modes of site based construction has shaped most developed countries’ building codes and regulations. New Zealand though has realised, as part of its wider agenda to reform and modernise its homebuilding sector, that a move to factory assured products and processes through modern methods of construction, when robustly tested and accredited, should lead to a lower risk of non-compliant execution and should actually be incentivised as part of an accelerated and fit for purpose inspection and sign off process. This is what has now been enshrined in their Building (Building Products and Methods, Modular Components, and Other Matters) Amendment Bill

When we hear requests for rules to be removed or weakened claiming it will help boost recovery, we should be very cautious

The idea of traditional plan-based sign-off and site-based inspection of traditional construction has shown itself to be failing to secure safe and quality assured outcomes. This in turn has led to a safety debate in this country dominated recently by materials and products rather than also exploring how more consolidated multi-product manufacturing can negate compliance risks. The debate has also quite rightly focused on competency but perhaps has not adequately signposted higher pre-manufactured value and accredited repeatable processes and materials combinations as another powerful mechanism for de-risking human error.

Until we change the methods of how we put buildings together combined with much more front-loaded design and production R&D and large scale testing, it is arguable we will only ever be as strong as the weakest link. Invariably this will be poor design detailing skills exacerbated by a fixation with bespoke solutions and continued reliance on site based labour intensive activities via a workforce of often indeterminate quality and accountability. The New Zealand reforms show real vision in recognising that manufacturing led quality planning and assurance beats the need to ‘man mark’ site operatives and hope that site inspections and audits capture non-compliance. The Construction Innovation Hub’s latest Construction Quality Planning consultation offers perhaps an interesting opportunity to think differently in this vein and to tie this to a new regulatory and assurance framework in the UK.

The second example of addressing a structural problem head on post covid-19 comes from Australia and is being led by my friend, David Chandler, the New South Wales building commissioner. David is driving through a new private sector construction business risk and performance rating system. This is in turn reinforced by a new piece of state legislation, the Residential Apartment Buildings’ (Compliance and Enforcement Powers) Bill 2020 aimed at rooting out rogue and poor performing businesses from the residential development market. The idea of a truly independent and open source rating system for developers, contractors, specialists and consultants is not new but the idea of creating real consequences from poor ratings is indeed novel and some would say is long overdue. The systemic failings that plague the UK industry and lead to poor quality homebuilding are equally prevalent in Australia and David is taking the fight to the offending parties supported by the state government. The move is about restoring public confidence in delivery and using reputational risk as well as statutory compliance as levers for driving real improvements - the stick before the carrot perhaps.

In summary, both of these examples are pointing to progressive legislators not allowing covid-19 to be an excuse to weaken the regulatory framework that construction operates within, but to use it as an intelligent and powerful tool for enabling better outcomes at a crucial time that can shape our industry for the long term. When we hear requests for rules to be removed or weakened claiming it will help boost recovery, we should be very cautious. It is usually about making things cheaper to do or subject to less scrutiny and we all know what comes with that. We do not want to create, in a mad rush to drive short term economic activity, a post covid legacy of poor quality buildings or an industry still left stuck in its vicious circle of doing things the same old way. We can and should, to use Construction Leadership Council Roadmap to Recovery terminology, ’restart, reset and reinvent’ and appropriate regulation has a key enabling role to play in that.

Mark Farmer is CEO of Cast, author of Modernise or Die and the government’s champion for MMC in homebuilding