Review Of Building Regulations Needs To Go Far And Fast

Posted in The Industry on September 14, 2017


The most significant fallout from the Grenfell Tower fire tragedy has been the decision to conduct a full scale review of the Building Regulations. This is urgently needed – in fact it has been needed for some years.

The commissioning of Dame Judith Hackitt, chair of the Engineering Employers Federation, to lead a review that is independent of government is a truly significant development.

All responsible firms involved in fire safety in buildings should welcome this 'root and branch' process. The fact that Dame Judith is planning to go beyond fire safety and take a look at the regulations in a wider context should also be viewed as a positive step.

It is expected that the review will present an interim report before the end of the year, and that the final report and recommendation to government will be completed next spring. The government department responsible – DCLG – has promised to "act swiftly on any recommendations".

Dame Judith's group will, of course pay particular attention to tall buildings, but they will also be looking at compliance and enforcement right across the board because the Grenfell tragedy highlighted that the existing regulatory regime – and how it is applied – is not fit for purpose. Part B is the section of the regulations covering fire safety and was supposed to have been reviewed some years ago following a previous tower block fire at Lakanal House back in 2009. However, a general lackadaisical attitude to the whole business of regulation meant the recommendations from that earlier review were never implemented.

Dreadful

This is symptomatic of a wider problem with building regulations in the UK and the systemic problems that can allow such dreadful events to take place. Sadly, it usually takes some sort of serious incident to bring about change, although even the fatalities at Lakanal House did not prompt proper action.

A complete failure to apply and enforce Part L, which covers energy efficiency, is further evidence that the regulations, in general, are not taken seriously. As a result, we have a national problem with buildings failing to meet energy targets and leaving their occupants with unacceptably large bills and poor sustainability reports.

Dame Judith's review intends, therefore, to examine:

  • the regulatory system around the design, construction and on-going management of buildings in relation to fire safety;
  • related compliance and enforcement issues;
  • international regulation and experience in this area.

She has already said that her group will be looking "to see what changes can be made for the future to make these more effective".

"I am keen to engage widely with industry and the public to inform the recommendations from the review. I want the recommendations to lead to any necessary improvements in the system being made."

It is significant that the government has seen fit to appoint someone from an engineering background to lead this process because it is the engineering community that has been telling the government for years that the Building Regulations are little more than a 'tick box' exercise with only basic technical merit.

Dame Judith, as a much respected fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, has the necessary understanding of the details and vagaries of how regulations influence engineering projects. Her investigations will include examining how building components achieve compliance with the regulations; possible ambiguity in supporting guidance; and whether testing regimes are sufficiently rigorous and consistent.

Weaknesses

While the focus after Grenfell has been on the external cladding that helped to spread the fire so rapidly, the mind set has to be that the failure of a single building component is usually symptomatic of wider weaknesses in the process as a whole.

Missed energy efficiency design targets should warn us that other things – including safety critical elements – may also be wrongly specified; badly installed or not properly maintained. A number of industry experts have pointed out that the approved documents, which provide the technical details needed to comply with the Building Regulations, leave lots of room for interpretation.

As a result, the approval process tends to be more like a series of negotiations rather than a rigorous enforcement of a quality regime. With so much leeway in the system, project team members are free to try and find the cheapest way to be seen to comply rather than actually ensuring the final outcome is the best one for the people who will live and work in the completed building.

This is not always the case and the industry should be proud of many of the projects it completes. However, to ensure quality projects are the norm and not the exception requires a properly developed and enforced regulatory regime that holds all parties involved in the project to account.

That, hopefully, will be the outcome of this review.


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