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Conference - Building safety regime starts to settle in

Words:
Josephine Smit

Teamwork, expertise, reliable information and a holistic approach to projects form part of the new building safety regulations’ balancing act. Our seminar found benefits, challenges and a positive prognosis

Credit: Toby Morison

The Building Safety Regulator (BSR)has been a planning statutory consultee for high rise buildings since August 2021 and has been providing its building control function for more than six months. In the process, it is forming a picture of how well the construction industry is grasping new safety requirements and of how the new regime operates under the regulator.

Given current market factors, it is perhaps not surprising that the BSR has been scrutinising significant numbers of applications for smaller developments and refurbishments, with the latter including commercial-to-residential conversions and vertical extensions. The quality of information provided to BSR for such projects has been ‘mixed’, said Andrew Moore, head of operations, planning and building control, BSR at the Health and Safety Executive. ‘The problem with having poor quality information come to us is that it almost inevitably leads to delays’, requiring BSR to seek clarifications, Moore told the audience at the Fire Safety Conference: The Building Safety Act in Practice held in London by the RIBAJ in association with Hilti. ‘A big plea from me is to get the right information to us, because that allows us to be as efficient as we can,’ he stressed.

Currently, applications are showing ‘a lack of awareness as regards to the narrative required’, he said. He advised that a team needs to identify every area on a project where building regulations compliance is required: ‘Say what code or standard you are complying with. Don’t just set it out but justify why that is the right code or standard, why it is the right approach – why following that code ensures compliance with the building regulations. The third step is to provide a narrative, a direct line of sight.’ The regulator would not be interpreting plans, as happened in building control in the past, but instead be assessing applicants’ interpretations, Moore said, saying the new process is ‘more like an exam, where all the work is done upfront’.

Gateway 2 design incentive

Under the new regime, design is fixed at gateway 2, and any subsequent significant change must be assessed by the BSR. This fixed point, said Moore, serves as ‘a huge incentive to getting the design fixed right up front, because for each major change, we in BSR have a maximum six weeks to assess it’.

‘The [Building Safety] act is going to force us to think about what we do,’ said Gary Neal, head of fire at Skanska, with a focus on making projects ‘safer, better, stronger. We all know what the RIBA stages are and there’s no “design” at stage 5, but on every single job we’re still designing while constructing.’

With the onus now on industry to provide the right information to the regulator at the right time, how is it responding? Arup research into residential cores and smoke control systems has generated more than 90 computational fluid dynamics (CFD) models of core configurations to determine what solutions in the guidance work best for different building types. That has given it ‘a body of evidence to satisfy ourselves and the regulator that the solutions we are putting forward are compliant’, said David Stow, associate director, fire safety, UK fire leadership at Arup.

From left to right: Paul Bussey, Andrew Moore, Gary Neal, Jane Duncan, Caleb Smith, David Stow, Judith Schulz.
From left to right: Paul Bussey, Andrew Moore, Gary Neal, Jane Duncan, Caleb Smith, David Stow, Judith Schulz. Credit: Flo Armitage-Hookes

Reliable product information

Product manufacturers should be well placed to provide design teams with the essential information the regulator expects, but Skanska’s Neal was scathing about the response of many: ‘I am appalled by how much information comes across my desk on a daily, hourly basis from suppliers making outlandish claims, without certification, with outdated evidence, untested laboratories, non-compliance... absolute fiction. Be aware that most of the products hitting your desk are not supported by valid evidence and certification. That’s a damning indictment of the products.’ Paul Bussey, architect, CDM and BSA principal designer consultant and member of RIBA’s expert advisory group on fire, endorsed his point. ‘We cannot look at and interrogate every material,’ he said. ‘This is something that has got to be addressed.’

‘As manufacturers, we have to be very aware that we can’t sell anything that isn’t going to do the job,’ said Caleb Smith, Hilti Northern Europe engineering marketing manager – fire protection and facade. He advised design teams: ‘make sure your experts support you. Ask the question, is it compliant?’ By asking specific,focused questions of manufacturers, design teams could ensure their work was not only compliant but also met other priorities such as sustainability.

This was part of what should be a collaborative relationship between design team and manufacturers, he said, with the latter giving support in sourcing the right product, with design and selection, and in providing training, which could all build overall competence and confidence. ‘To use experts properly, you have to integrate them at the right time: early,’ advised Smith. ‘If we can get involved early, we can make that design process efficient.’

Ultimately, the new regime is about changing construction’s culture and making buildings safer. ‘While it is painful to start with, this can be the incentive needed to change approaches and put trust back into the buildings and places we’re creating,’ said Judith Schulz, director, fire safety on the UK fire safety leadership team at Arup.

The problem with having poor quality information come to us is that almost inevitably that leads to delays

Safe and efficient

In the meantime, the industry has many questions. There’s concern about how consistent the BSR’s interpretation of the Building Regulations is, which, Moore admitted, ‘won’t happen right away’. There’s also a fear that the regime will add cost and time to projects, which Moore firmly rebutted. ‘I don’t think there’s strong evidence to suggest a quick start on site necessarily means quicker, cheaper buildings. Fluid design often leads to lots of changes, and changes often introduce hidden costs, unspecified costs and often lead to unrealistic client expectations,’ he said. ‘I personally believe that when the industry as a whole gets to grips with the new regime, it will lead to efficiencies – as well as the obvious safety benefits.’

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