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Construction under the Building Safety Act: our active response

Words:
Giuseppe Messina

As the BSA imposes profound changes on the construction process, Pilbrow & Partners is putting a rigorous checklist and proof of principal designer competence at the heart of its quality control

One Portal Way, North Acton, aerial view.
One Portal Way, North Acton, aerial view.

The Building Safety Act (BSA), which now applies to all projects in England, creates an industry reset in terms of how clients, architects and contractors collaborate. Practices can take some pragmatic steps to stay ahead of the practical implications of these legislative changes. At Pilbrow & Partners, as a practice with experience working in Higher-Risk Buildings (HRB), we are developing new processes and investing in the principal designer role to help ensure we are well positioned for the future.

Working with the client

On the back of the BSA, more clients now have their own competency matrixes and are asking practices to complete questionnaires based on them. So far they draw on industry experience and qualification at both an individual and organisational level. For example, an individual on a project might be asked to provide evidence that they are a ‘qualified architect, with over 15 years’ experience including working on tall buildings, holding a CSCS card, with competence on 2015 CDM regulations’. At an organisational level, clients are using ISO9001 accreditation to reassure themselves that architects have the quality assurance processes in place to maintain and record a project in compliance with building regs.

Competence questionnaires from the client usually come in the weeks after a practice wins a commission, and while there are many similarities between client matrixes, they do all differ at this stage. However, these questionnaires will be superseded once registered principal designers are in place.

Principal designer

Perhaps the most important first step for any practice is nominating and upskilling relevant members of the practice so that the relevant knowledge is embedded in each project. We have a number of HRB projects (at least 18m high or seven storeys above ground level) under way, and are looking to get at least two experienced architects qualified as principal designers this year, including at least one director. This will involve giving these architects time away from projects to focus and prepare for RIBA Principal Designer assessment  and to apply for and join the  RIBA Principal Designer assessment.

The primary focus of the principal designer role will be on making sure our internal project architects have and maintain sufficient knowledge and awareness of safety issues at every stage of the job to enable them to discharge their duties under BSA requirements.

Competence                                                                                         

In response to the specific level of compliance information required under the BSA we have adjusted our ISO9001 to cover the merged building regulations. This has led us to develop a bespoke matrix for each stage in the RIBA Plan of Work, drawing on the most critical elements of the RIBA Job Book. As well as validating organisational competence, the matrix is designed to demonstrate how new designs comply with the new statutory building regulations, and feed into the digital record to maintain the required golden thread of information. 

Checks within the matrix are granular; for example, for ‘Approved Document M’ of the Building Regulations, which concerns access and use of buildings, we would look at providing clear diagrams showing how the design meets with each sub-category; a similar process will be developed for other regulation parts. This will mean the principal designer and project architect sitting down regularly and paying close attention to how each project detail satisfies the relevant criteria. This process in itself has the upside of elevating the expertise of project architects. 

54 The Bishops Avenue - Pilbrow & Partners.
54 The Bishops Avenue - Pilbrow & Partners. Credit: Chris Wadsworth

Gateway process

A rigorous submission process at Gateway One and Two is crucial, as under the BSA any major changes to a design can mean it being resubmitted to the Building Safety Regulator for approval. At present the regulator is taking 12 weeks just to validate submissions, with approval taking up to 20 weeks or more. To eliminate the associated contractual risks associated with a delay, a design must be fully developed before it is submitted. In theory this means that the design that is approved is much more likely to be the design that is built – another reason never to rush the initial design process.

On site

We at Pilbrow still see room for improvement in regulation around site supervision, and we advocate the return of the Clerk of Works in some form, to independently track and record a project’s progress in the most robust way possible, and to ensure that a design is followed through accurately. 

If no Clerk of Works is appointed by the client at the project outset site visits will fall under both the more typical lead designer and/or the principal designer role. In this instance we envisage more site visits by architects co-ordinated with the main contractor and Building Regulator around critical milestones. These will be in support of the main contractor who is ultimately responsible for the construction work carried out on and off site.

Communication

We are being proactive in talking to our key clients about the BSA and what it means for specific projects. For our part, these are conversations to advise clients about where responsibilities for these new legislations lie across the board, to engender trust and to ensure that channels of communication are open.

We are also beginning to carry out conversations with the contractors we work with regularly, again to carry through this idea of an industry reset and taking this opportunity to bring clarity and understanding to the respective roles of each party. Going forward we anticipate improved dialogue, checking in on a more regular basis and attending more site visits with contractors.

As well as improving the safety of buildings by providing a verifiable quality control, the BSA also has the potential to improve join-up in the design-and-build process, and to iron out complexities in the project pipeline. By instilling a common goal objective across parties to deliver the initial design vision and ambition, it has the potential to give a stronger hand to committed and invested developers, and to good design overall.

Giuseppe Messina is director at Pilbrow & Partners

 

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