Culture change and regulatory reform is needed


Iain Cox, Chairman of the Business Sprinkler Alliance

The Chartered Association of Building Engineers (CABE) conference earlier this month provided plenty to consider on what needs to change across the construction industry.  With Dame Judith Hackitt calling for a ‘root-and-branch review’ at the conference, where does the industry stand on competency, the Joint Competent Authority (JCA) and regulatory reform?

With members covering design, construction, operation and maintenance of buildings, more than 200 people gathered at the two-day building engineers conference to debate and discuss the state of the industry.  The keynote address on the first day by Dame Judith Hackitt highlighted the need to embrace an industry-wide culture change rather than quick fixes.

Dame Judith, author of ‘Building a Safer Future: Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety,’ told the conference about a “tougher regulatory regime that has real penalties and sanctions for those who don’t perform.” The BSA has long campaigned for more robust solutions to be explored within the regulations for the long-term protection of property as well as life safety.

Another focus within her speech was the Joint Competent Authority.  Although we can fully support the JCA focusing on high-rise residential buildings, the risk inherent in many buildings, industrial and commercial, although not of the same magnitude, is still too high. The JCA is a sound idea but much depends on how it is set-up. If you have to liaise with people from building control, the Fire and Rescue Service (FRS), as well as regional health and safety inspectors in a different county each week, I’m not sure that’s a workable solution.  To be effective the JCA will need to have competent people from health and safety, building control and the FRS, working as a team, otherwise we will retain the fragmented process, identified by Dame Judith.

In her address Dame Judith also said that value engineering was ‘anything but value, it is cutting costs and quality.’ I welcome seeing value engineering for what it has become. While cost is a factor in any build, it actually costs more because of the fragmented construction process.  There is often the ridiculous decision to value-engineer-out fire safety solutions, but then in order to ensure the building is fit for occupation, people have to hire in specialist fire safety consultants in order to put measures back in. Of course, it would make better financial sense to install these measures at the outset.

“There is a confused picture on confidence,” said Hackitt. I think that’s very true in the sense that the fire and rescue service are training their people, building control their people, and industry are training their people – but all to slightly different criteria.  For example, a fire safety officer might be sent out to inspect and prosecute the premises, but they could be far less ‘competent’ than the designer or the person employed as the expert witness on the other side. There needs to be a standardised level of competency in fire safety across the various strands.

On Dame Judith’s comment about the ‘race-to-the-bottom’ culture that pervades the industry, concepts like value engineering have dominated and the perceived regulatory criteria is regarded as a maximum rather than a minimum.  The regulatory changes need to apply to all but the simplest buildings, not just the multi-occupancy, higher risk residential buildings of 10 storeys or more. The culture change she talks about might be driven by the Grenfell tragedy and its aftermath, but without a proper regulatory regime it will inevitably fade.  We need a system that allows for new materials and innovative practices and acknowledges that an unregulated system will inevitably run out of control.  We should not have to learn from our mistakes again and again.