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Line of duty: safety changes put designers in the driving seat

Words:
Josephine Smit

With the second and third gateways of the Building Safety Act coming into force later this year, a roundtable of experts and practitioners got to grips with the best ways to fulfil its demands

Credit: Toby Morison

This autumn the industry will encounter the next milestones along the government’s long road to reforming construction’s safety processes, practices and culture through the Building Safety Act. In October, the second and third of three planned gateways come into operation for higher risk buildings (HRBs), completing a safety approval process, led by the HSE as the new Building Safety Regulator, that extends from planning at Gateway 1 to completion at Gateway 3. In the same month, all dutyholders under the CDM Regulations will see their duties extended with respect to all buildings, with government guidance setting out a requirement for them to be competent and ‘co-ordinate their work and have systems in place to ensure that building work, including design work, complies with all relevant building regulations’.

Dame Judith Hackitt’s post-Grenfell report spoke of the need for ‘up-front, coherent design and risk management strategies, with robust record keeping and stable change control processes’. For HRBs, Gateway 2 is a key element of that, not only replacing building control deposit of plans stage, but crucially requiring applicants to secure Regulator approval before starting construction.

The new system tries to ensure there aren’t any unresolved heavy risks within the design that remain remain so through to the construction stage

Sufficient information to proceed
Under the new regime, applications will have to contain sufficient information to assure the Regulator that a design can progress. ‘There are often too many unresolved design issues at that building control approval stage that carry on through the construction phase,’ says Colin Blatchford-Brown, operational policy lead for gateways and building control at HSE. ‘This new system tries to bring those to resolution earlier in the process, to ensure there aren’t any unresolved heavy risks within the design that remain remain so through to the construction stage, which then push you into a place where it’s more difficult to get it right’. Blatchford-Brown was speaking in February at a roundtable discussion focusing on the role of the architect at Gateway 2 – organised by the RIBA in association with Hilti.

The new information requirements prompted many questions from debate participants about how ‘sufficient’ would be interpreted, the level of detail required and the potential for leeway, given that a building may be delivered over years through changing supply chain conditions. Contributors cited examples, including one London council’s expectation that information should include the contractor’s smoke control design. But one architect voiced a different view, saying, ‘Gateway 2 requirements are not dissimilar to a full plans application. These are things that people are not doing that they should have been.’

In response, Blatchford-Brown again contrasted current practice and future framework: ‘Often we see a specification note that says something along the lines of: cavity barriers to meet a particular set of guidance. Is that sufficient? I don’t personally think that it is.’ In future, he continued, applicants could be stating ‘where they [cavity barriers] might be, how they might perform with the build-up you’ve specified, that perhaps you have an idea of the manufacturer who’s going to provide them and how they should be installed – backed up with test evidence.’ The debate sponsor Hilti’s representative echoed those words, adding, ‘It is vital that the right product is specified, supported by the right test data and evidence. Ultimately, it’s not about what needs to happen to pass the gateways; it’s about making sure a building is safe.’

With the cost of navigating the gateway being charged hourly by the Regulator, there is a clear incentive for design teams to provide a high-quality submission to gain approval as quickly and cost-effectively as possible

Speed the approvals process
With larger projects let on a contract ‘package’ basis, some panel members expressed concern that such an approach could affect both programme and procurement. After clarification from the HSE’s Blatchford-Brown, it was agreed that before lodging an application, principal designers need to initiate early dialogue with the Regulator over approaches to obtaining Building Regulation approvals, including the level of detail to be provided for different aspects of the design. And with the cost of navigating the gateway being charged hourly by the Regulator, Schulz noted pointedly that there is a clear incentive for design teams to provide a high-quality submission to gain approval as quickly and cost-effectively as possible.

The Regulator’s power to halt progress where it deems information is insufficient means, as another participant said: ‘If we get it wrong, there are massive penalties for a project if it doesn’t get approval.’ That raised concerns about whether the new system would lead to the adoption of safer, more well-established solutions and so stifle innovation, particularly around volumetric and timber construction. ‘In terms of bringing new solutions to the industry, there are implications,’ said the manufacturer representative. ‘This could have a really detrimental impact – or be an opportunity to standardise,’ summarized Schulz. 

The safety environment is still evolving, with some changes happening rapidly – such as the London mayor’s decision to mandate second staircases for tall residential buildings – with others, including supporting training and documentation, gradually coming into place. But already contributors to the debate’s see potential advantages. ‘I think it will have a profound change in the way buildings are procured,’ said one, ‘because under design and build the design is crystallised in a just-in-time process – to save time but also to get best value from the trade packages. As an architect, I like the idea of having the design totally crystallised.’ Another added, ‘It’s an opportunity to tackle the deep challenges we’re dealing with – the climate crisis and safety equity – to make a difference for people.’ The event ended on a positive note and with a call to arms from one architect: ‘It’s an opportunity we’ve got to take. It’s only going to happen if we roll our sleeves up.’ 

 

Debate participants

Judith Schulz chair and director, Arup
Colin Blatchford-Brown operational policy lead for gateways and building control, HSE 
Paul Bussey fire safety expert advisory group, RIBA, and technical design: CDM/fire/access lead, Allford Hall Monaghan Morris Architects
Khadije Bah northern European head of engineering marketing and engineering design team, Hilti
Sarah Susman associate director development consultancy, PRP
Kevin Leahy technical director, Berkeley Group
Craig Renton partner, quality and safety, Pollard Thomas Edwards
Nigel Ostime partner, project delivery lead, Hawkins\Brown
John Gray partner and head of design delivery, HTA Design
Simone de Gale national council member, honorary treasurer and board trustee, RIBA, and chief executive and chartered architect, Simone de Gale Architects

 

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