December 3, 2020

Is the UK Building Industry just paying ‘lip service’ to Building Control?

Simon Green, Managing Director of Green Building Design Consultants, is concerned that businesses are only focussed on box-ticking and not upholding safety standards.

Building Control Inspection - upholding safety standards?
Building Control Inspection - upholding safety standards?

Building Control and health and safety is of paramount importance, and never more so than following some of the recent tragedies such as Grenfell. However, has the construction industry learnt their lesson? Unfortunately, in some cases, it would appear not.

There seems to be a worryingly high number of projects where contractors, Building Control and professional advisers are not working cohesively – merely box ticking and paying lip service – which has the potential to result in disastrous consequences.

Currently in the UK, contractors can choose between a Local Authority or Private Building Control Officer. Local Authority officer tend to have a reputation for being more independent and thorough and typically conduct more on-site inspections than Private Building Control. This lighter touch from Private Building Control, which can mean fewer and less thorough inspections, may not always be in the best interest of the client.

A case in point is a recently refurbished hotel that had been open to the public for the last 2 years. During the first lockdown in March 2020, certain faults came to light and Green Building Design Consultants were approached to inspect the hotel.

Alarmingly, upon inspection, there were several life safety issues that were apparent and over 100 breaches were seen. In reality, this would have meant that a fire in the hotel would have spread smoke throughout the entire building before the fire alarm even sounded. People would have been trapped in their rooms, emergency services wouldn’t have been automatically notified and when they did arrive there would have been a major incident with a fire spreading more rapidly than designed throughout the fire zones and floors.

Simon comments “In my 25 years’ of business I have never seen anything like this. The danger and potential loss of life was significant and I couldn’t understand how this hotel had been allowed to operate for the last 2 years. It highlights the worrying chasms that can exist when all the professionals involved aren’t working closely together and responsibility isn’t apportioned to just one party.”

So how was this possible in 2020? It could be suggested that there are a number of factors at play here. The client may have appointed professionals based on competitive costing and ability to complete the project quickly. Huge reliance and trust may have been placed on the contractors to design, install, test and sign off their own works. Building Control may not have visited the site as frequently as they should have done. It is not the fault of the individuals – ultimately, it is the system that is letting us down.

As it stands, Building Control can produce a certificate signing a building off on the basis that the contractors have confirmed the installation complies with the British Standards and Codes. It is an example of box ticking paying lip service to crucial health and safety. Reforms and improvements need to happen and they need to happen now.

Simon believes there is a solution, and one that needs to be adopted quickly. “It is vital that clients stop focusing only on cost and the race to the bottom. Contractors must stop offering free designs, and Building Control needs to be truly independent and have a fuller role in inspecting every phase of the works for themselves. The whole construction industry must stop focusing on constructing quickly, and instead pride itself on quality and correctly designed, built and commissioned buildings.”

With the ongoing impact of Covid-19, and the subsequent lockdown restrictions and social-distancing measures, there is the potential risk of more buildings falling short of the standards required. It’s an area of concern for the Government who, earlier this year, released new guidelines to urge Building Control bodies to continue undertaking regular site inspections and check building work being carried out.

The Ministry for Housing and Local Government (MHCLG) stated that for all types of building work being carried out, building control bodies should check regularly with those carrying out the work.

It said: “Given the exceptional challenges from the coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak there may be an ongoing need to erect new or temporary accommodation to provide medical care, treatment, or for other supporting services. There may also be other types of urgent building work being carried out. It is important that this can proceed at pace without undue administrative burden.”

This is a matter of key importance for the entire construction industry, and one that must be taken seriously to avoid simple lip service and ensure the eradication of anymore poorly designed, installed and commissioned buildings across the UK which pose a danger to life.

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