building a safer future

Outcry over Hackitt’s Building Regs review is shortsighted

The Grenfell-prompted inquiry into the Building Regulations may have lacked stridency over inflammable cladding, but its holistic approach has much to commend it, writes the ACA’s Brian Waters

Dame Judith Hackitt’s Building a Safer Future report on the Grenfell Tower fire has been greeted with a simplistic outcry criticising her failure to demand a blanket ban on inflammable cladding on high-rise buildings. The minister responsible has bowed to public and media pressureto look into this proposition. But this is to disown the thoughtful nature of her inquiry and her more fundamental scrutiny of the issues, which go to the heart of the failures of government procurement processes in the construction industry.

Government inquiries, despite their length and cost, rarely result in holistic responses. It is always easier to grasp for a big knee-jerk reaction, run with that and assume the job has been done.

So it is disappointing that the RIBA has gone along with the outcry. Of course the inappropriate use of flammable materials in the insulation and upgrading of tall buildings has to be addressed through the Building Regulations, though in the case of Grenfell Tower it seems the original specification was simply not followed and that the Building Regulations as they stand were not complied with.

The key issue is the examination of the process which allowed this to happen. Among Hackitt’s conclusions we read:

Creating a golden thread of information by:

  • Obligating the creation of a digital record for new multi-occupancy higher risk residential buildings from initial design intent through to construction and including any changes that occur throughout occupation. This package of building information will be used by the dutyholders to demonstrate to the regulator the safety of the building throughout its life cycle.
  • Tackling poor procurement practices including through the roles and responsibilities set out above, to drive the right behaviours to make sure that high-safety, low-risk options are prioritised and full life cycle cost is considered when a building is procured.’

ACA council member Alfred Munkenbeck comments: ‘I have worked with the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and can fully understand the background that allowed that poor-quality refurbishment to take place.

‘I found they were obsessed with demonstrably saving money and following the book letter by letter, but to do no more. They were deeply suspicious of architects and a major way to save money was to limit their involvement.

‘They stood in a long queue of current “project manager” types, who now assume 2 per cent fees for architects, while architects’ construction-stage usefulness has been ignored for many years. This both saves fee money and avoids the inevitable pressure for quality control that architects apply. Recent governments are right behind this as a form of “deregulation”, as they have been demonising professionals and experts in general.

‘With this model of Design and Build, independent professional quality control is ignored. Many contractors treat design requirements as a wilful extravagance. Builders can never be trusted to police themselves – it is a contradiction in terms. Economic motivation needs surveillance and whoever is designated for quality control has to be trained in design, independent, and embedded throughout the process. No one is more naturally motivated to maintain standards than the original architect.’

Traditional contracts put the architect in what used to be termed a ‘quasi-judicial’ role, standing between the owner and the builder. Given the complexity of modern construction and procurement, especially for larger public works, collaborative arrangements established through the ACA’s PPC forms of partnering and Alliance contracts can maintain the architect’s independent role alongside other members of the team.

Either way, Dame Judith’s ‘golden thread’ of responsibility can be achieved without having to introduce a new layer of process and bureaucracy. And it does not need to be limited to just ‘new multi-occupancy higher risk residential buildings’.

Brian Waters is president of the Association of Consultant Architects, the national professional body representing architects in private practice in the UK. Membership for eligible practices is free.