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Hilti/RIBAJ panel tackles questions of competence

Competence, a key element of the Building Safety Bill, remains a complex question - what it is, who should have responsibility for it and how it is applied. In the second of four articles, a roundtable discussion unearths some of the issues

'Competence is so much more than learning and education... It's experience... but very importantly it's recognising the limitations of what you should be getting involved in.'
'Competence is so much more than learning and education... It's experience... but very importantly it's recognising the limitations of what you should be getting involved in.' Credit: Toby Morison

Competence is a word that has a deceptively simple definition - the ability to do something successfully or efficiently, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Making it happen, however, is harder, as the UK construction industry demonstrates through its daily project struggles and its too-long list of failures.

The scale of transformation needed across the industry to enable it to deliver competence consistently has been set out in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire. A whole chapter of Dame Judith Hackitt’s post-Grenfell report, 'Building a Safer Future', is devoted to the subject and the drive for it is a leitmotif of the government’s draft Building Safety Bill, which takes forward Hackitt’s recommendations.

These include proposals for a new competence framework for those carrying out work on high-rise residential buildings that affects fire safety or other risks, with five dutyholders across the project team bearing legal responsibility for ensuring that a high-rise residential building is designed and built to be safe.

Architecture doesn’t happen on a drawing board or a computer screen. It happens on a site

Industry bodies have been charged with raising levels of competence among their members. The Architects Registration Board (ARB) is formulating its next steps while the RIBA has already woven competence through its new education and professional development framework, outlined in its report ‘The Way Ahead’.

The framework includes mandatory competences, which will form part of architects’ initial training and ongoing professional development, being subject to retesting every five years under chartered membership. The first of those competences, health and life safety - including fire safety - will be introduced from 2022, with climate literacy, ethics and social purpose, and research literacy set to follow. 

Not trained in fire safety means not competent

‘We’ve got a generation of people - all the way through industry and not only architects - who aren’t being trained and who are therefore not competent,’ Jane Duncan, chair of the RIBA expert advisory group on fire safety, told participants at the round table discussion, Rebooting Construction in the UK, hosted by RIBA and RIBA Journal in association with Hilti last November.

Others confirmed Duncan’s words. ‘I’ve seen examples in Britain where there’s a direction to firestop a building for two hours, full stop; and then the person on the job site, who is probably the lowest educated person there, decides to try and do something at the eleventh hour,’ said Paul Langford, global head of fire protection at Hilti. ‘The responsible person often doesn’t even realise they are the responsible person. They don’t understand what competence looks like,’ said Gary Neal, head of fire at Skanska.

In defining competence, debate participants agreed there was a need for breadth of knowledge and experience. Lynsey Seal, principal fire engineer with the London Fire Brigade, said, ‘Competence is so much more than learning and education - it’s experience and other skills, but very importantly it’s recognising the limitations of what you should be getting involved in.’

Will Freeman, design director of Wates Construction and non-executive board member of the ARB, added, ‘As Grenfell has taught us, there are a lot of things that might be linked back to fire that people hadn’t previously been aware of. And I think it’s important there’s a more rounded education that explains that the decision you’re making here might have a knock-on effect further down the line.’

John Cole, member of the RIBA expert advisory group, summed up the challenge facing architects. ‘Architecture doesn’t happen on a drawing board or a computer screen. It happens on a site and yet architects - and other members of the design team - are increasingly not there so they’re not learning, they’re not getting the feedback and they’re not improving the design as things move on. This is particularly true of young architects.’

The predicament of younger staff concerned Neil Farrance, partner at Formation Architects, who said some of his firm’s part III architects had, ‘had no training whatsoever in the concept of fire safety.’ He asked: ‘The question for me is: at what point in the life of an aspiring young architect is it appropriate to start that process of instruction and teaching?’

Farrance also drew attention to the fact that the draft Building Safety Bill contains 170 mentions of the word competence, but does not feature the word reputation once. ‘Reputation and technical competence are often muddled and potentially conflicting,’ he said. ‘We are seeing an increasing divergence between design reputation and technical competence and I don’t think it can be assumed one will automatically flow from the other.’ 

But this does not mean architects need to gain the expert knowledge of a fire engineer. ‘I think wider awareness and skills need to go more broadly into lead designers, architects and construction professionals,’ argued Al Beevers, head of health and safety at developer Argent.

‘Architects need a base understanding of fire safety to assist in the design of the building – and where the complexity of the building increases, they seek professional support,’ said Andrew Gausden, project manager with East Sussex Fire and Rescue Services. 

Dutyholders and principal designers: A confusion over roles

The challenges of embedding competence in UK construction are further complicated by the government’s proposal in the Building Safety Bill for dutyholders, which raises questions about the nature of the role of the principal designer. The bill draws on the 2015 Construction Design & Management (CDM) regulations, which place responsibility with the principal designer before work starts on site, and pass it to the principal contractor once construction starts. That, in itself, is unsatisfactory, said Gillian Birkby, consultant in the real estate department at law firm Fladgate: ‘First, it ignores the fact that design carries on way into the construction process itself. Secondly, the principal designer - if you read the regulations very carefully - is about health and safety for the construction workers.’

Now the same thinking is being applied to the upcoming legislation, she said. ‘Government made it worse by referring to the principal designer in the Building Safety Bill and saying that everyone who is a dutyholder under CDM is a dutyholder under the Building Safety Bill. In no way is this the person who is in any way leading, co-ordinating or pulling together the design.’ 

Paul Bussey, technical design lead at AHMM and member of the RIBA’s regulations and standards group, however, had a different take, arguing, ‘The principal designer role is much more wide ranging and is in control of the pre-construction phase. That’s where we’ve got to educate the government to realise it’s broader than the Health & Safety at Work Act requirements for issues that relate to the construction workers.’  Such exchanges illustrate how much work has still to be done in defining the industry’s route to competence. 

A full list of fire safety round table attendees was published in the first of this series of four in RIBAJ, January 2021 (p42-43). Further perspectives on insurance and procurement will appear in the March and April 2021 issues.

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