The consensus seems to be that the ‘game-changing’ Building Safety Bill – out last week – is the government taking safety seriously. Now, writes Tom Lowe, it is up to construction to up its game. He joins industry experts to see what needs to change
Troubling evidence of industry failures is once again in the Grenfell inquiry spotlight. After a covid-induced hiatus of several months, construction professionals are coming under scrutiny for their actions, which – you would think – must make construction firms keen to sharpen up their act. But this is not what David Stow has seen. The Arup associate director of fire engineering says that just in the last few weeks, he has personally witnessed cavity barriers and fire-stopping materials tested for vertical orientation being installed horizontally, fire-resistant boards intended for structural uses being used as fire blockers, and many other examples of workmanship that is at best complacent and at worst life-threatening.
Stow, speaking at a Building webinar earlier this month on the new building safety regulations, says he regularly sees first-hand a culture of patchy compliance. At a time when the sector is anticipating the sweeping changes that last week’s Building Safety Bill promises to bring when it comes into force, Stow says much of the industry is still “struggling to keep up”.
“Products and materials might have been justified on the basis that, well, ‘This is how we’ve always done it, so it must be right, and why are you asking me so many questions?’. Those approaches are clearly no longer acceptable.” And yet, clearly, they are still being used.
Perhaps it is not a surprise. As laid bare in the webinar discussion (the key discussion points of which are outlined below), after the initial high-rise residential boom in the 1950s and 1960s almost no buildings of this type were constructed for about 30 years, before coming back into fashion in the mid-2000s. In the intervening period there was what Simon Lay, director at fire consultant OFR, calls a “knowledge chasm” where much of the expertise involved in this type of construction was lost.
He says: “It’s very hard to understand where anybody who started building things in the mid-2000s got their knowledge from. That’s quite a scary thought.”
He adds: “A lot of people perhaps thought designing and building high-rise buildings was easy. But get anything wrong on that floorplate and you repeat it throughout the whole building.”
It poses a troubling question: if the 2016 refurbishment of Grenfell led to disaster, what other unsuspected dangers are there hidden in existing tall buildings waiting to emerge?
Residents of tall towers are likely to say that the new Building Safety Regulator cannot come soon enough. And they will be reassured that Graham Watts, chief executive of the Construction Industry Council and chair of the Competence Steering Group – which has proposed measures to tackle competence gaps identified in the Hackitt review in the wake of the Grenfell disaster – says: “The industry is in for a game‑changer.” So read on for how and why so much has to change.
The draft Building Safety Bill
Announced at the beginning of last week, the Building Safety Bill promises to be a watershed in the modern history of the construction industry.
Over the summer it will be scrutinised by parliament select committees before being brought to a vote in the autumn. The CIC’s Watts expects it to become law some time before next summer, but it will then be subject to years of additional legislation and transitional arrangements. So implementation is still some way off, perhaps not before 2024, according to Watts.
But how closely will the bill actually reflect the recommendations of the Hackitt review when it does come into force? The prime minister’s “build, build, build” agenda, coupled as it is with a sweeping deregulation of the planning system announced by housing secretary Robert Jenrick last week, certainly raises some questions about a consistent safety approach across different policy initiatives.
One particularly controversial example of how the two policies will work together is in the new permitted development rights allowing high-rise offices to be converted into housing. For these, the “planning” gateway required for all other tall buildings does not apply, meaning a developer will not need a fire statement or assessment from a building safety regulator before pressing ahead to the construction phase.
But Watts says that policy makers in government are keen to stick as close to the Hackitt review as possible. He says: “To be fair to the policy people within the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG), they have been pretty consistent in the line from accepting all the Hackitt recommendations through to the report on the consultation.” Indeed, Judith Hackitt herself has welcomed the draft bill, saying: “It meets the ambitions and recommendations set out in my review.”
And with a majority of 80, whatever gets the government’s approval is almost certain to pass unhindered through parliament, at least in the House of Commons. Watts says: “I expect if there are any areas where there might be some tinkering around with the bill, it will probably come in the Lords where there are a number of lords with experience of the property sector and the industry.”
A new profession
The new building safety managers will not just be the existing fire safety inspectors with a beefed-up remit. The role will be, in the words of Watts, “a new regulated and unified building control profession”, one that will be coupled with a new independent body to oversee registration and organisational audit across both the public and private sectors. For those wishing to get to grips with a whole new world of job opportunities about to open up in the industry, a report entitled Safer People, Safer Homes, due to be published next month by the CIC, will set out the blueprint for how the new profession will work.
But Watts warns: “[We shouldn’t] pretend that it’s all rosy in the garden, because I think there are a lot of issues that the new legislation and the new regime pose.” According to Watts, there is currently nobody across any of the sectors the new system will affect who is qualified to act as a building safety manager. He says: “To have enough building safety managers in place for every building that’s going to be in scope will be a tall order, even for 2024.”
We shouldn’t pretend that it’s all rosy in the garden, because I think there are a lot of issues that the new legislation and the new regime pose
Graham Watts, CIC
The panel also doubts there will be enough fire engineers to cope with all this increased demand. OFR’s Lay says: “There isn’t even a proper definition of what a fire engineer is and the competency of that.”
He says it is a difficult profession in terms of finding people, but OFR is currently looking at ways to “breed” new fire engineers by looking across graduate schemes and putting in new training schemes.
For clerks of works, Watts says that the role could be filled by professional construction managers who have been made redundant due to the coronavirus pandemic. Watts says that people in this profession “would have transferable skills and could be turned into clerks of works relatively quickly”.
But even if the new regulator is able to cope with the sheer number of new staff required, will the new professions be insurable? With the levels of accountability the role involves, this is far from certain. In a worst-case scenario, the potential for huge added costs could become a block on new developments.
The nightmare for the government would be to find that its building agenda grinds to a halt because of the new regulatory regime.
One of the first actions taken by the government and the construction industry after the Grenfell fire was the creation of the Industry Response Group.
Consisting of the MHCLG, government agencies such as the Infrastructure and Projects Authority, and key trade bodies including the Construction Industry Council, Build UK and the Construction Products Association, the group has advised the government on the myriad changes needed to ensure a disaster like Grenfell can never happen again. One of these is the remediation programmes to remove unsafe cladding from tall buildings.
Another was to create the Competence Steering Group (CSG), which is chaired by the CIC’s Watts. Set up to drive the creation of new legal competence frameworks on building safety, this body has been working with more than 250 organisations across every sector in the built environment. This includes bodies in the construction and fire safety sectors, client and resident organisations, and key government departments including MHCLG and the Health and Safety Executive.
One of its roles has been to establish the remit of an overarching competence body to regulate key products, services and disciplines in construction. This will consist of a new suite of standards already in the works at the British Standards Institute (BSI), which sets technical standards and provides certification. Roles covered so far include principal designers, principal contractors and building safety managers, with more standards expected to be developed for the length and breadth of the supply chain.
The outcome will be a new workstream for competence in the built environment encompassing a BSI Committee for Competence in the Built Environment, a British Standard Benchmark Competence Framework and new specifications, guidance and supporting documents for the three key construction roles listed above for which the BSI has been creating new standards.
The first draft of the new standards should be published by September, when a period of open public consultation will begin that will continue until the scheduled final publication of the standards in March 2022.
Alongside this top-down approach, the CSG has also been tasked with implementing a bottom-down approach with enhanced competence frameworks in the pipeline for construction roles, including engineers, architects, project managers and building control officers. These will all be knitted together to form an overarching competence framework.
With the sheer scale of the work being undertaken by so many public sector bodies, it is perhaps no surprise that Watts expects the new systems to come into force no sooner than 2024, seven years after the Grenfell fire.
Is BIM the answer?
So who is responsible for making sure that a high-rise project can be signed off by the building safety manager? The merry-go-round of buck-passing seen at the Grenfell inquiry has demonstrated the need for clarity on where this burden falls. David Frise, group chief executive officer at the Building Engineering Services Association (BESA), says that it should be up to the contractor to supply evidence of competence and compliance, at both an individual and a company level.
BESA currently issues skill cards for individuals to prove their qualifications in certain construction disciplines, but there are plans to expand this to become a register of individuals’ competence.
For Frise, the key question that needs to be nailed down is: can you do the job? He says: “We all know that, actually, the fact you cannot do a job in the construction industry has never stopped you winning a job. But actually, we think that is going to change. We believe the culture needs to change.”
In the new regime, proof will be needed that a contractor has the skills to do the work, whether that be complex pipework, installing ventilation systems, maintenance, or any job on a project that could potentially lead to a safety risk.
This will be a vital element of the so-called “golden thread”, a requirement for designers, contractors and building operators to digitally record details of a building’s design and construction and pass them on through the chain of responsibility. Each contractor will need clear photographic evidence of every single part of the work they have done so that they cannot be held liable in the future for later changes to the building. Frise says: “If you want to sleep at night, that’s probably a good thing for any contractor to do anyway.”
But Frise has some questions around the current uptake of BIM: “There are too many difficulties around: have we got the skills base to do that, and who’s going to pay the software licence, and who’s going to keep the model up to date?’’ Another issue is that a common data environment or a common language allowing BIM data to be fully reliable has not yet been developed, Frise says. “BIM is the answer, but we’re not ready for it yet.”
So how will evidence of competence and compliance be passed on in the meantime? Frise says there will be a number of “intermediary products” like SFG20, a software used by building owners and facilities managers to track engineering services in buildings.
It includes maintenance information for all types of equipment found in buildings and is currently being used to get buildings mothballed during the covid-19 lockdown ready for reoccupation. It also automatically downloads information on new standards and legislation – which, in 2024, promises to be quite a hefty update.
Our expert panelThis webinar, broadcast live on Wednesday 15 July and available on demand, dealt with regulatory reform in construction and in particular the duties and competencies of those working in the industry. Industry experts on the panel, which was chaired by Building’s technical editor, Thomas Lane, included:
Jon Miller partner, Fenwick Elliott
David Stow associate director – fire engineering, Arup
Graham Watts chief executive, Construction Industry Council and chair, Competence Steering Group