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Architects will have to take control of the construction process to improve safety


The post-Grenfell review of Building Regulations calls for a ‘golden thread’ of safety, which architects will need to stitch into projects, writes Richard Harrison of the Association of Consultant Architects

The Grenfell Tower fire demonstrated that the current procurement system for construction projects does not generate best safety, value or quality, due to its universal focus on capital cost. The industry is now in agreement that this focus is flawed and must be fundamentally changed.

Building a Safer Future, the Hackitt review of Building Regulations and fire safety, raised a number of issues in this regard. One broad area of change we can expect is a clarification of roles and responsibilities for ensuring that buildings are safe. As Judith Hackitt said in her interim report: ‘There needs to be a golden thread for all complex and high-risk building projects, so that the original design intent is preserved and recorded, and … any changes go through a formal review process involving people who are competent and who understand the key features of the design.’

What is also now being questioned is the relevant skill and competence of those who carry out the procurement. They need to consider whether the project contracts encourage the ‘golden thread’. Are the chosen forms of contract appropriate for the nature of the project? Are they adversarial or collaborative? Do they encourage social value, as well as economy and innovation? In future, it would seem, the procurement process must integrate the security of this thread from design commencement to construction completion and thereafter in occupation.

It may be that CDM regulations should be extended to include life safety for occupants and a whistleblower facility incorporated

So what else should a robust and effective procurement process achieve? To begin with, the process needs to ensure the required performance. This puts performance specification in doubt when seen as a means of saving on consultants’ fees, because it often results in specialist contractors’ design development not being adequately and independently checked for compliance. It’s likely there will be a drive to raise levels of competence in the specialist design and construction sectors. Procurers will be seeking to ensure these new industry standards are demanded and achieved.

It may become a requirement for Building Regulations approval before commencing site work on each element. This will need to be set out at project procurement, along with adherence to approved designs and discouragement of change during construction. Procurers will need to ensure that design changes are referred back to the original design team for acceptability of the proposed change. Regarding safety, it may be that CDM regulations should be extended to include life safety for occupants and a ‘whistleblower’ facility incorporated.

Under this improved form of procurement, handover should only occur when all ‘life safety’ systems are complete and, to ensure this, procurement would need to more clearly define ‘completion’ and appoint an individual or organisation with professional independence from the contractor to certify completion. This is the key to achieving the ‘golden thread’ and, on traditional contracts, it is the role of the architect. The consequence of the Grenfell disaster, the end of PFI and the collapse of Carillion should be to re-establish this role for all contracts, however large.

It follows that this new procurement process will require more time and resources. It will take time to be thoroughly developed and may extend project programmes. Fast-tracking of projects will continue, but should only be used with experienced teams, ideally with collaborative forms of contract such as the ACA’s PPC2000 and FAC1.

As part of the procurement process, the industry will have to mandate adequate quality control by all parties including designers, site managers, clerks of works, architects and engineers. It will have to be built into procurement from the outset. It may not fix lowest-cost procurement entirely, but the independent full-service role of the architect can do a lot to fill the gaps.

Richard Harrison is the immediate past president of the Association of Consultant Architects (ACA) and its representative on the Construction Industry Council reviews into the Grenfell Tower fire.

The ACA is the national professional body representing architects in private practice in the UK. Membership for eligible practices is free. For further details go to www.acarchitects.co.uk


Readers' comments (2)

  • Chris Roche

    'Golden Thread" is not the appropriate language required and demonstrates unequivocally in my mind that muddled thinking will continue. We need legislation, accountability, and enforceability - any less is to deny justice to the residents and families of the Grenfell Victims and their families.

    Chris Roche / 11.04 Architects

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  • John Kellett

    Well said Chris.

    Does the phrase "it’s likely there will be a drive to raise levels of competence in the specialist design and construction sectors" mean that the Government proposes banning unqualified people from practicing, something that is currently legally allowed?

    The use of the word 'competence' is worrying as it too is not the appropriate language required. Competence cannot be checked or defined or policed, qualifications and legislation can.

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