The Building Safety Act is a welcome recognition that making safe buildings is a highly skilled operation, says Hywel Davies of the Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers
It is a tragedy that it took an incident of the scale and horror of the Grenfell Tower fire to trigger wholesale reform of the regulatory system for buildings.
The Building Safety Act is the most fundamental reform of the regulatory framework for the design and construction of all buildings in at least two generations. It introduces new requirements for the competence of designers and contractors on all projects, supplementing the existing Construction Design & Management (CDM) regulations.
A new and more rigorous regime for planning
The act creates a new Building Safety Regulator to oversee all aspects of the new regime. It also introduces a new and even more rigorous regime for the planning, design and construction of higher-risk buildings and extends the scope of the regulatory regime into the operational life of higher-risk residential buildings. The act also makes many changes to the building control system, in many cases changes that have been needed for years.
It is good to see the act recognise that it takes qualified, competent people to design safe, properly engineered buildings. The focus on competence, particularly of designers and contractors is welcomed by the Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers (CIBSE).
In the UK, engineers are registered with the Engineering Council (ECUK), of which CIBSE is a member. To be registered as CEng, IEng or EngTech requires successful demonstration that the registrant satisfies the competence criteria set by ECUK in their discipline. The act is likely to increase the focus on Engineering Council registration as evidence of having the necessary knowledge, skills, experience and behaviours required in the new regime.
It should go without saying that those responsible for designing and building a structure whose failure can cause a significant loss of life should be properly qualified. But it is made clear in the act that clients must satisfy themselves that all those they employ are competent, individually and organisationally, to undertake the specific work that they are being appointed to do.
The regulatory framework of the act will establish new duties and accountability for those responsible for the safety of higher-risk buildings, through three ‘gateway’ decision points during the planning and construction process.
At each gateway point for higher-risk buildings, the regulator will assess whether duty holders are properly considering building safety and meeting regulations. Gateway One came into effect on 1 August 2021. It mandates statutory consultation with the HSE and requires the developer to submit a fire statement setting out fire safety considerations specific to the development with a relevant full planning application.
Gateways Two and Three are expected to come into force in 2023. Gateway Two approval will be required before building work can start. It should mean that designs are going to have to be far more complete at an earlier stage in construction and any subsequent changes to the design, for example as a result of value engineering are very likely to need sign-off by the regulator, which could lead to significant delays.
Gateway Three approval will be required when building work is completed and will require the Golden Thread of information, which is “the information that allows [the building operator] to understand a building and the steps needed to keep both the building and people safe, now and in the future”.
The building control system will also be reformed under the act. In addition, there will be stronger regulatory powers for construction products with the benefit of a new market surveillance and enforcement regime led by the Office for Product Safety & Standards (OPSS).
The new regime will be enforced by the Building Safety Regulator and is backed by more stringent legal sanctions, including unlimited fines and imprisonment in some cases.
Regulation can only provide a basic safety net
Of course, it is a fact that regulation can provide only a basic safety net. In the end it is down to the industry to deliver higher quality outputs. The passage of the Building Safety Act marks a welcome beginning of the formal legislative reform of the building safety regime in England; this needs to be reflected in lasting cultural change in the construction industry. It is to be hoped that the act will start to drive a significant change in the culture of the industry.
Thirty years ago, the Piper Alpha disaster was the trigger for a radical cultural and safety reform in the offshore industry, the legacy of Grenfell must be that it is construction’s Piper Alpha.
Dr Hywel Davies
Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers
Tel: +44 (0)20 8675 5211