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Why the principal designer should be an architect

Jack Pringle

In the safety-conscious world of post-Grenfell regulation, taking responsibility will strengthen the profession. Jack Pringle assesses the significance of the principal designer

The principal designer role is a rare opportunity for architects. RIBA Award-winning Hanover by Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands.
The principal designer role is a rare opportunity for architects. RIBA Award-winning Hanover by Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands. Credit: Jack Hobhouse

It is a sad truism that health, safety and welfare legislation often moves forward most rapidly in response to disastrous events. When 186 people lost their lives in the fire at the Exeter Theatre Royal in 1887, during a production of The Romany Rye, significant tightening of fire safety regulation in British theatres and other places for public entertainment followed. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in the Greenwich Village neighbourhood of Manhattan, New York City, in 1911, was the deadliest industrial disaster in the history of the city, causing the deaths of 146 garment workers. As a result of the fire, the American Society of Safety Professionals was founded and New York City introduced laws mandating better building access and egress, fireproofing requirements, the availability of fire extinguishers, and the installation of alarm systems and automatic sprinklers, the legacy of which still endures.

Response to Grenfell

The fire at the Grenfell Tower block of flats in North Kensington, west London, on 14 June 2017, killed 72 people and injured more than 70. The shock that such an event could take place in one of the world’s pre-eminent cities, within a sophisticated legal and regulatory framework and a highly developed construction industry, has had profound ramifications. The Grenfell Tower Inquiry has not yet concluded, but clearly the nature of the building’s cladding was a major factor in the rapid spread of the fire, and the government has already introduced the Building Safety Act in response to the recommendations of Judith Hackitt’s Building a Safer Future report.

Since the Grenfell Tower fire, the RIBA has been working closely with government and other professional bodies and industry stakeholders to inform the Building Safety Act and support the development of a new Building Control regime. The RIBA has contributed to the competence standard (PAS 8671) developed by the British Standards Institution for the Principal Designer (Building Regulations) statutory duty holder role, and has made commitments to the Industry Safety Steering Group, chaired by Hackitt, to introduce a competence certification scheme.

The institute has developed a principal designer CPD course, delivered through the RIBA Academy, that has already been attended by more than 450 chartered members. Completion of a CPD programme and certification for inclusion on the register are two ways in which members can demonstrate to clients and co-professionals their competence for this role. Clients have an explicit duty to appoint a competent person as principal designer – one that we expect most clients will want to make as simple as possible to discharge. The RIBA is working closely with the Building Safety Regulator (BSR), within the Health and Safety Executive, to ensure its register gains proper recognition and profile, and that the RIBA voice is heard in the development of future revisions to the Building Regulations Approved Documents – also now within the remit of the BSR.

The role is a rare opportunity to put architects back as the guiding hand of the design and construction process

Keen to position architects as the natural design professionals to undertake the principal designer role, the RIBA sees this as a great opportunity for the profession both to demonstrate a real collective commitment to a safer, high-quality built environment and to offer comprehensive design leadership. It is a space that both the RIBA and the profession have to occupy. For too long architects have stepped back from what are perceived as the technocratic elements of practice and ceded ground to project managers and design and build contractors. While there will be challenges – managing liability through the right forms of appointment, getting the right fees, keeping your PI insurers informed if taking on the principal designer role, developing the right skill sets and management tools, ensuring that responsibility comes with authority – the role is a rare opportunity to put architects back as the guiding hand of the design and construction process.

Ideal candidates

While architects are ideally placed as lead designers to undertake both CDM and Building Regulations principal designer roles, they have to be able to demonstrate these specific competences – to be the designer that can plan, manage and monitor design work in relation to CDM and Building Regulations compliance – which is the purpose of the RIBA Principal Designer Register. This duty holder role applies not just to higher risk (high-rise residential) projects, but to all controlled building work; the Register can cover this whole range of activity, including a lower cost certification option for those working only on domestic projects for consumer clients.

Lamenting the decline of the profession, Dutch Royal Gold Medallist Herman Hertzberger said: ‘We’re not buried next to the King any more.’ It is time to end the elegies for a lost past and take action to secure a better future. It’s time to turn on, tune in and get to grips with our ethical and professional responsibilities, before government or other professionals do it for us. 

Jack Pringle is chair of the trustees at the RIBA

Support for Principal Designers

Adrian Dobson, RIBA executive director, knowledge and standards

The RIBA has been increasing its support for members in undertaking the principal designer role with an updated CPD course, delivered through the RIBA Academy, and a new RIBA Principal Designer’s Guide written by Dieter Bentley-Gockmann, director at EPR Architects. The guide is a companion to the RIBA Health and Safety Guide for designers, which provides practitioners with comprehensive knowledge regarding the principal designer role as it relates to the Building Safety Act.

Coming very soon will be a RIBA Professional Services Contract for those acting as principal designer (as defined in Building Regulations) to complement
our existing principal designer (CDM) appointment document. This will be an essential document for ensuring that civil liabilities in undertaking the role are properly managed and for setting out clearly the scope of work and fees associated with providing this service. A new fire safety overlay to the RIBA
Plan of Work will also appear later in the year. We will continue to release regular professional features looking at various aspects of the new Building Control regime, including managing liability and insurance, demonstrating competence, assessing resources and fees, and exploring how practices large, medium and small are adapting their work processes and business models – see

Details about applying to the RIBA Principal Designer Register can be found at:


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