Imagine a world in which there was a single regulatory checklist and software could check compliance in the time it takes to eat a sandwich. It’s easy if you try …

It’s lunchtime on Friday 19 November 2010 and, while I bite into my sandwich, I’m thinking it would be good to get my building design checked for compliance with the Building Regulations, the Code for Sustainable Building and the plethora of requirements from bodies that need to justify their existence. I connect to BuildCheck, the single, automated compliance checking system for buildings, send the CAD files and wait.

Thank goodness for BuildCheck – it is so much easier than it was back in 2005! Why did it take everyone so long to change to a modern system? Certainly the great building slump of 2006, caused primarily by the regulatory paralysis, was the key driver. By 2007 it was finally recognised that the only long-term solution was for all buildings to use 3D object-oriented CAD systems and the BuildCheck system was born. It wasn’t cheap but, uniquely, it was a PFI and IT project that came in on time and on budget.

The bidding consortiums set their own timetable, and decided how many regulations would be included, the length of concession, the price and the method for calculating charges for each building. Government, industry and IT experts assessed the bids. Unsurprisingly, the winning consortium included firms from Norway and Singapore, where a prototype system was already in place back in 2005.

The only way to get the system working, of course, was for the government to freeze all regulations during the development of BuildCheck and, indeed, for two years after its implementation. A brave decision! For a minister to finally recognise the difference between activity and achievement was a revelation, but I do wonder whether it helped their political career.

It became a legal requirement for all public bodies with regulatory or funding powers concerning buildings to rewrite their requirements into logical, measurable and unambiguous checklists – a gargantuan task. It was pure coincidence that 2008 saw a large rise in attendance at English language evening classes …

As all checklists had to be registered with BuildCheck, or become null and void, there was for the first time a catalogue of all requirements – not only Building Regulations and the Code for Sustainable Building, but the strictures of English Partnerships, local councils and so on. The number was staggering and it was necessary to simplify and reduce the amount.

This was especially true in the environmental impact of materials area, where several herds of sacred cows had to be culled. The European standards on integrated environmental performance of buildings had been published in early 2005 and these helped to rationalise requirements, in the manner of a much more comprehensive BREEAM or EcoHomes. By building on the International Standards Oragnisation’s environmental product declarations, which gave details of the environmental impact of products without adding them up into a single score, the UK made its system a model for Europe and possibly globally.

It became a legal requirement for all public bodies with regulatory or funding powers concerning buildings to rewrite their requirements into logical, measurable and unambiguous checklists – a gargantuan task

Because the clever CAD software knew what each object was made of, it could link to the manufacturers’ or other databases, get the environmental impact of each object and calculate the overall impact of the materials in the building. Once this information was combined with the energy use and other factors, it gave an overall environmental score.

The slimmed-down checklists were passed to the IT guys who converted them into the intelligent software that checks all buildings in the UK. Scotland harmonised its regulations with England and Wales – although they say it was the other way round. Northern Ireland also came on board.

The consortium set up BuildCheck at its own cost, planning to recoup its outlay by charging a fee per building checked. As all buildings had to use BuildCheck, there was a foreseeable income and the consortium sold some of this future revenue to a bank in return for cash advances. The final payment was only made recently, after the first six months of satisfactory working.

In another year, the regulatory freeze will end. However, all future changes to Building Regulations must use the data on the BuildCheck system to inform proposals and also for the Regulatory Impact Assessment. Although there will always be disagreements on what the data means and the costs of any changes, for the first time, industry and government will be able to agree on the basic data.

A further advantage of BuildCheck is that part of the checking fee is reserved for the maintenance and updating of software, notably the Part L tools, SAP and SBEM. In the past, the government has struggled to make money available for this most vital of tasks, but now there is a steering group made up of all the usual suspects: government, NGOs, interest groups, industry and consumers. Its remit is to make sure that the software does what is needed, particularly in terms of quality. It must also take into account innovative technologies so that the tools do not act as a barrier to new technical solutions. The real work is done by the IT geeks, who now have sufficient time and money to test software revisions properly before release.

The system has finished checking my building and I have just finished my sandwich – perfect timing. A couple of areas have been flagged up as possible failures as I had suspected, but this is the whole point of BuildCheck. It gives clear, definitive decisions on all regulatory requirements in a timely fashion. Not much to ask really … what took us so long?