The construction industry is readying to unwrap the government’s Hackitt response.
Expected imminently, the implementation plan will have wide-reaching repercussions beyond fire safety.
This is particularly true of the joint competent authority (JCA), a new body that will bring together the expertise of the Health and Safety Executive, Local Authority Building Control, and fire and rescue services to assess fire safety in high-rise buildings at three ‘gateway’ points – planning application, design finalisation, and project completion.
In the wake of the Grenfell Tower tragedy it would be difficult to deny the need for these additional safeguards.
However, even the scant specifics we have about the JCA’s operation have raised concerns about achieving compliance without adversely impacting build programmes.
Requiring a duty holder to present detailed plans before a project breaks ground is unrealistic, where plans are often developed throughout the process to serve speed and cost requirements.
It’s not unusual for specialists to work with ’standard detail’ drawings, which are then modified on site to match the actual conditions.
This reflects the difficulties in achieving the very high level of co-ordination required to enable design details to be drawn out prior to construction.
Learning from older lessons
Instead, the requirement to present more detail at an earlier stage is reminiscent of the way build programmes operated some decades ago, when contractors’ post-tender design activities were far more limited.
Re-adopting these processes will change procurement practices and necessitate earlier engagement with specialist contractors.
It may also create new practical considerations at the design stage. For example, a concrete structure has integral fire protection without the need for additional safety measures that would be required for steel and timber structures, minimising reliance on specialist subcontractors.
“These benefits will only be realised if the JCA’s independence and authority can be assured”
Despite the additional upfront costs required for clients in consultants’ and contractors’ fees and the complexities of negotiating pre-construction agreements, earlier prioritisation of fire safety in the design process can only be a positive step.
Buildings are not jigsaws. Bringing the supply chain closer together – and sooner – will help us to move beyond compartmentalised construction for buildings and appreciate them as complex systems rather than individual packages of works.
It may also guard against isolated value-engineering that can then compromise safety by affecting the performance of the building as a whole.
Crucially, meeting the JCA’s requirements will also require a more actively engaged client than has often been the case under typical design-and-build contracting, where clients have remained responsible for a building but given up overall control and a strategic view of its construction.
Dame Hackitt’s ’golden thread’ of design intent and fire safety detail extends beyond the completion of a building, once the quantity surveyors and contractors have departed.
Coupled with the prospect of ongoing checks to ensure continued compliance, a greater understanding from clients of their own assets and the built-in risks will be vital.
Fire protection is not a constant but can be compromised through in-service damage or alterations, particularly where structural materials without integral fire protection are used.
We shouldn’t forget that, particularly in the current climate, fire safety provision is, albeit secondarily, a commercial consideration for insurers.
Greater oversight will therefore help clients to make safe and commercially sound decisions based on knowledge as well as costs provided by the supply chain.
These benefits will only be realised if the JCA’s independence and authority can be assured. The government, like clients, will have to invest money up front to ensure that this new asset functions as planned.
Tony Jones is principal structural engineer at The Concrete Centre