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Act now on safety

Eleanor Young

Don’t wait for legislation: the industry must improve now

‘You don’t need to wait for legislation to behave in the right way,’ concluded Dame Judith Hackitt, presenting her report Building a Safer Future at the RIBA conference Protecting Lives: Design and construction post Grenfell. Her words were a reminder that though government, institutional and culture change seems too slow to ensure safe buildings in the immediate future, there are other ways. 

Changing the culture of construction, as Hackitt aspires to do, seems a huge task when you are presented with wider construction failures, even beyond Grenfell and the hundreds of similarly ACM-clad tower blocks. Professor John Cole led inquiries into Edinburgh schools after nine tons of wall collapsed into a playground at Oxgangs Primary School just before it opened for the day in January 2016. 

Cole’s investigations showed drawings ignored as wall ties, including header ties, were installed dangling between the inner and outer leaves of walls, or sometimes just left stashed on the sloping beam above. Also uncovered were 300 serious breaches in fire stopping in the 17 schools. Photos of uselessly placed wall ties in schools across Scotland (100 schools and 51 NHS properties) – built by numerous subcontractors and national contractors – show the level of the problem, which had led to at least five other (unreported) wall collapses. Cole had a raft of recommendations but the strongest is for clients to ensure quality assurance. Clients can’t rely on major contractors, the novated architects contractors employ, independent certifiers or building control to pick up and condemn even the most visible, and potentially devasting, examples of poor construction. 

Further evidence of widespread poor quality assurance systems came from the CIOB’s Design Quality Commission. Its respondents overwhelmingly rated current quality management at all levels inadequate. This was one of the prompts for the Quality Risk Tracker which is being developed with the CIOB, RIBA and RICS. One of those behind it, Nigel Ostime, chair of RIBA Client Liaison Group, was clear that more money was needed in construction to reduce the risks raised at the conference, from barely-trained labourers paid by the brick not the wall tie, to the poor site training of construction workers and professionals and the demise of the clerk of works role. He suggested pre-fabrication could go some way to addressing this economic problem as well as issues of workmanship quality.

Hackitt’s delivery at the conference had a sense of urgency. In line with her report she condemned the complexity of testing and unclear regulation. Her re-mapping of this suggests a far clearer and simpler path with a joint competent authority led by the HSE at the top, giving stronger sanctions and tougher enforcement while working with building control and the fire service lending expertise. Clive Betts, chair of the parliamentary select committee which has scrutinised the report, lent his support to the recommendations but was clear that they should go further. ‘They should be applied to construction as a whole, not just fire safety,’ he said. ‘Can we have any confidence at all in the industry to change itself?’

Can we have any confidence at all in the industry to change itself?

A working group is developing Hackitt’s recommendation of a golden thread connecting planning, maintenance and management of complex buildings. ‘Design and change management in this industry is very poor,’ she said bluntly. Members of the audience pointed out that such a thread rarely existed even through the construction of a project. But the need is there. 

There were questions about where statutory checks focus, and the need for the principal designer to have an independent inspection role during construction.  Cole said: ‘There is no point in having drawings that comply with building regs if they never get built.’ Presenting a proposed version of the fire overlay for the RIBA Plan of Work, Paul Bussey, AHMM senior technical consultant, showed it would try to keep the ‘golden thread’ during construction with the client’s consultant team. Importantly, it also attempts to tackle the issue that it is buildings, not drawings, that kill, and has three checks by the fire service at preparation and brief (stage 2), technical design (stage 4) and in use (stage 7). This will be out for consultation over the summer.  

Until that happens two recommendations from the conference really stick: construction professionals need to get out on site and build up their expertise early in their career – so they know the reality of site construction and what it demands. And those who design and construct buildings, at whatever stage in the process, need to take pride in what they do. With these small moves perhaps the culture change could get started. 

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