The new Building Safety Regulator requires cultural shift at the heart of construction, says the author of the post-Grenfell report into safety; not understanding that will carry the highest cost
The 2023 Construction Leaders’ Summit took place last week, hosted by the NBS, at Tottenham Hotspur’s stadium in London, bringing together key voices in building safety and sustainability. At it, Dame Judith Hackitt, former chair of the Independent Review of Building Regulations & Fire Safety, gave her view on industry implementation of the ‘golden thread’ of information and a ‘systems-based’ approach to improving compliance and information sharing. RIBAJ put some questions of our own to her.
The RIBA Journal has just published a piece on novel approaches to second staircase design. Could this just be seen as 'compliance' rather than the cultural change you seek?
First of all, I think it’s good that people are thinking about solutions but if they are thinking about it with the old mindset of the least they can get away with then that’s not going to cut it. From now on, they are going to have to satisfy the new Building Safety Regulator. Designers will have to demonstrate that their ‘innovative approach’ – double helix stair or whatever it is – satisfies the regulator that the building can be evacuated safely in the event that it needs to be.
Such solutions can be about minimising floor area lost to extra staircase provision, so things are being driven by financial as well as safety concerns
I understand that. In any business it’s always about a balance and this is no different from any other you’re working in where no-one wants costs to go up disproportionately. But at the same time the purpose of what we do is to make buildings safe, and safe for people to live in, and that means people being able to get out if they need to; not being impeded because the single staircase has become the domain of the firefighters – as it needs to be in the event of a fire. People need to go beyond the ‘how do I get past this rule?’ mindset and instead have the one of ‘what’s the solution that meets the requirement?’
There are concerns from smaller practices that with a lot more codes and guidance, they are ill-placed to afford access to British Standards and the like. How will such firms deal with the costs of an increased legislative framework? Getting a fire consultant on board at greater client expense?
In simple terms, when you’re building a building, and a high-rise one in particular, you are going to need to get through the three gateways; put in a proposal which the regulator comments on, then get through the design gateway and then through the commissioning gateway. If you cannot demonstrate that you have involved the right competent people in creating that design and building the building, you simply won’t get permission to bring it into occupation. So, when people ask me what it is going to cost, I say the cost of not doing the right things to get through the gateways is potentially enormous – so why wouldn’t you do it right?
People need to go beyond the ‘how do I get past this rule?’ mindset and instead have the one of ‘what’s the solution that meets the requirement?’
So it’s a carrot AND stick approach?
I think that what’s going to happen is that there will be much more upfront work done, we are going to see design done in more detail earlier in the process, involving more of the players and not done in siloes the way it is now – and once the design is agreed, that is what will get built. My personal belief is that this will be far less costly for the industry overall than the current system.
Do you think that with the HSE as Building Safety Regulator, that the Building Safety Act now has the requisite teeth?
Does it have the powers that it needs now? Yes, without question. Does it have the resources? Yes, and they are not having any problems recruiting people. One of the most encouraging things to me, having been close to them throughout the process, is the extraordinary level of interest they get, every time they recruit, from people who want to be part of this new regulator delivering a new culture and standard in the industry. Of course, the government is funding the set-up, but remember that the scheme will operate on a cost recovery basis, so it will be the industry that pays. This goes back to whether it's a carrot or stick approach - it’s a carrot, because if you get it right in the first place, the cost from the regulator will stay down.
Do you have a sense of pride in what the Building a Safer Future report has achieved in moving the UK construction industry forward?
It has certainly achieved my objectives. I am very pleased that the government has delivered on the full package of recommendations, which is what I asked it to do. I can’t bring myself to say I take pride in it; in fact, I think it has been the hardest job I have ever done. But the circumstances in which I did it, on the back of the Grenfell tragedy, mean that I know how important a piece of work it is, and I hope it is going to make a long and lasting difference. But how we ever got into this position, I'll never know.