Practitioners and experts investigated the implications of the Building Safety Act and what we can learn so far from Gateway 1, at a RIBAJ/Hilti seminar which aimed to prepare architects to navigate the new regulatory waters that lie ahead
The new building safety regime seems to put architects between a rock and a hard place. On one side is the prevailing construction industry culture and legislative environment. On the other is the emerging safety framework, placing new duties and responsibilities on the principal designer and demanding additional time and resources to demonstrate the fire safety of higher-risk buildings at three gateway check points, providing a golden thread of information. So how can architects navigate their way? Expert speakers had a few – but not all – of the answers at the seminar, The Building Safety Act 2022 – Preparing architects for change, organised by RIBAJ in association with Hilti in London last November.
With the first of the three gateways in place and the Building Safety Act confirming the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) as the Building Safety Regulator to oversee safety across the built environment and regulate higher-risk buildings, the transition is becoming real; so too are its challenges. Early HSE analysis of Gateway 1 (planning), which was introduced in August 2021, found that around 60% of planning applications where HSE was a statutory consultee had a concern relating to fire safety in terms of land-use planning. The two most common issues in those applications were unsuitable or insufficient fire brigade access, or concerns over linking single staircase buildings to other areas.
For their part, architects attending the seminar expressed frustration that Approved Document B: Fire Safety references so many standards and documents. It is, said one delegate to audience applause, ‘completely overwhelming for any designer to follow through’. Equally overwhelming for practices, especially smaller ones, is the cost of buying those standards, which are not all freely accessible. Others in the audience questioned how they could steer a new course against the strong currents of construction culture and recessionary market pressures.
Gateway 1’s feedback has emphasised the need for the right early input on fire safety. ‘We are advocating that attention should be paid earlier – at RIBA stage 1 to 2 – to get the key components right in terms of fire safety design,’ explained Colin Blatchford-Brown, operational policy lead for gateways and building control at the HSE. He was sympathetic to audience complaints about the cost of standards, suggesting that written representations were made to HSE via RIBA and other organisations.
But Blatchford-Brown was forthright on who should be carrying out fire safety design. ‘The duty holder regulations say you should have competent persons employed to undertake design work. If the project – whatever size it is – requires a specialist consultant, that’s what should be employed. If you don’t have the competence, you don’t want the liability,’ he stressed. Gary Neal, head of fire at Skanska, echoed that: ‘I can’t think how you can deliver a project without a fire engineer. Even for a small extension on a school, or something of that nature, you need a fire technical note.’
Advice and challenges
When it comes to passive fire protection, Hilti is providing technical advice, specification support and professional services for architects in the selection, design, and modelling of passive fire protection and firestopping. ‘There are challenges across design, product selection, installation, maintenance and recording of passive fire protection,’ explained Khadije Bah, northern European head of the engineering marketing and engineering design team at the company. ‘It’s important to identify the right product with the right testing for the purpose, to think about the whole system and work with contractors and regulators to ensure products are designed and installed properly. Early engagement allows stakeholders to focus on these areas and give them the best chance to install firestopping correctly.’
Paul Bussey, senior technical consultant at AHMM and the RIBA’s representative on committees and working groups planning the new regime’s integration, accepted that questions still remain. Legislation has been described by chair of the post-Grenfell fire safety review, Dame Judith Hackitt, and others, as not fit for purpose, and Bussey said it had left the industry working with ‘vague, ambiguous target setting’. But at the same time, he argued, the industry had to drive its own culture change, adding, ‘We can’t keep saying we did it that way in the past so we have to keep doing it’.
The Building Safety Act also has tools to force change. ‘The regulator will hold designers/contractors to account for a block of flats with poor detailing or construction because we will not issue a completion certificate. If we don’t have the evidence to support what was done and whether it’s been done correctly, it will end with a building with no people in it,’ warned Blatchford-Brown.’ There are things in the Act that are quite harsh and it will change the way in which everyone has to design and construct.’