In Turkey, people were quick to blame cowboy builders and corrupt building inspectors for the horrendous loss of life. In the UK, we tend to assume that the lazy building inspector with an outstretched palm exists only on the other side of the Channel Tunnel. The Ashford collapse should remove any complacency. A more vigilant inspection of the original construction work would have picked up on its inadequacies.
It is right to criticise and punish cowboy – or more accurately criminal – builders who endanger lives through shoddy workmanship. But the officials who are charged with ensuring that buildings are constructed to minimum standards and that safe working practices are adhered to on our sites are ultimately responsible. The buck stops with them.
In the early 1980s, when I was working on the refurbishment of a listed building in central London, the local building control inspector visited the site to inspect a recently constructed floor. As is often the case, the inspector arrived on site late, after the floor had been completed and covered.
I have seen old-fashioned clerks of works insist that entire floors be ripped up rather than have the wool pulled over their eyes by a contractor. Not on this occasion. The official inspected and passed the floor’s structure from the main entrance to the site, two storeys below. The last I saw of him, he was heading for the nearest pub with my former boss, discussing the Cheltenham Festival.
Did it matter? Maybe not. There are worse crimes than omitting herringbone strutting. The point is, it might have. And what is the point of having inspectors if they fail to do the job they are paid for?
A friend of mine recently told me about a £10m supermarket he worked on where a failure to inspect the electrical work properly during installation resulted in an overload when the power was switched on. The power was down for more than four hours on the day before the shop was to open and the client came close to losing £150 000 worth of perishable produce.
In another case about three years ago, a registered architect decided to convert his former London offices to flats. His elaborate planning submission included provision for a series of emergency exits and the installation of emergency lighting, but, for cost reasons, he did not incorporate these into the construction. “It’s only for students,” he told me. “They spend all their time in the pub.”
It is right to punish cowboys who endanger lives through shoddy workmanship. But the buck stops with officials
Unfortunately for him, the local authority building inspector did not agree and told him to make provision for emergency exits and lights “or else”. Or else what? Or else nothing, as it turned out, because the inspector never returned to the site and the renovation was completed without the emergency exits or lights.
It is easy to see the architect as the villain in this case. But if we believe that contractors or developers build, as indeed they have a duty of care to do, in line with the Building Regulations, why do we need building inspectors at all?
We need them because a contractor’s prime concern is to make as much profit as it can from a project, just as a client’s is to keep costs low. The building inspector’s role is to check that work has been carried out to the standards specified in the Building Regulations and ensure that neither the client nor the contractor has cut any corners.
Nowadays, many building control inspectors complain that the resources no longer exist to enable them to carry out regular progressive inspections of projects.
There is a statutory requirement for inspections of foundations, damp-proof courses, drainage (before and after backfill), occupation and completion. Beyond that, building control relies on the design plans submitted by the developer, and, as the architect’s story shows, what is submitted on paper is not always what is built.
Effective and more active on-site enforcement of the regulations is the only answer. Without it, government initiatives on cowboys will continue to have a hollow ring. We need it because a contractor’s first duty of care, cowboy or not, is to himself.
Michael Glackin is chief reporter on Building.