Construction work will fundamentally change following the recommendations from Dame Judith Hackitt’s final report on Building Regulations and fire safety.
The proposals call for enhanced rules for employers, designers, contractors and landlords, who will be held accountable for the safety of completed buildings. The proposals would apply to new-build and refurbishment projects, but could be limited to residential blocks over 10 storeys and some other properties.
Contractors will play an enhanced role under the proposals and will make arrangements for the planning, management and realisation of key objectives.
An important part of the recommendations concerns design changes and value-engineering proposals, which will be closely scrutinised to ensure they do not compromise a building’s original safety design. Relevant information will then form part of an audit trail to confirm that a building has been built safely.
Practical completion inspections will change radically. The principal contractor will lead a demonstration that the works satisfy new principles-based Building Regulations, so the employer and principal designer can then co-sign compliance. How completion demonstrations will work in practice remains to be seen.
The reference to the principal contractor leading the process suggests each part of the subcontract supply chain could be required to demonstrate compliance for their own works. However, other parts of the report call for a more integrated approach, particularly on design-and-build projects, with a greater emphasis on the contractor ensuring that subcontracted work is delivered to the required standards.
“These proposals offer little assurance to those in smaller blocks that their homes will be safe”
Whatever the final approach, it is clear that all contractors must have a greater understanding about what they have actually built.
The report is strongest where it calls for a coherent approach to safety. For example, oversight is proposed from a new joint competent authority comprising Local Authority Building Standards, fire and rescue authorities, and the Health and Safety Executive.
Principle part undercooked
Parts of the report require more work, particularly around the principles-based approach to regulation. The industry has been criticised for having a culture of ignorance and indifference to safety, but would now be given discretion on a case-by-case basis for specifying solutions that satisfy safety standards.
If the new principles are drafted too broadly, the industry could be unclear how its discretion should be exercised safely and the public might have little confidence that it will do so. There must therefore be an ongoing role during all stages of design, construction and maintenance for detailed codes of practice giving guidance on safe construction, with codes being regularly refreshed to reflect new technologies and techniques.
“Regrettably some of the more difficult questions have simply not been addressed by the report”
Another area that requires work is the two-tier system for Building Regulations that would result from the proposals. Cladding tests following the Grenfell Tower fire were required on blocks over six storeys, given the difficulty of using firefighting equipment over that height.
These proposals offer little assurance to those in smaller blocks that their homes will be safe, and residents on floors six to nine might feel particularly uneasy. The extent to which the proposals should apply has been left for the government to determine.
Difficult points dodged
Regrettably some of the more difficult questions have simply not been addressed by the report. The government is now consulting on whether flammable cladding ought to be banned after the report failed to recommend it.
Parties have until the end of July 2018 to comment on the proposals, and further clarifications to the current Building Regulations fire safety guidance are expected around that time. That further guidance is required shows the inadequacy of the current system.
It is widely acknowledged that the construction industry must start changing its culture and practices with regard to fire safety if we are to prevent another Grenfell.
Dame Hackitt’s proposals are a roadmap for what an improved industry culture might look like, but they are no more than a start. Much work is still required to make them feasible, particularly around the principles-based approach to regulation.
Criticising the construction industry but then leaving it to specify its own solutions, possibly in the absence of proper guidance, is unlikely to lead to the change this report seeks to deliver.
Barry Hembling is a partner in the construction and engineering team at Fladgate