The increased focus on health and safety for high rise buildings since The Grenfell Tower tragedy and as part of the Hackitt inquiry has shone a light on the number of significant changes in the construction industry over recent decades, many of which have had a negative impact on health and safety, in particular fire safety. These have included legislative developments, the introduction of design and build contracts, a decrease in the monitoring of quality and the adoption of value engineering. This has all contributed to the problematic system that we now have and the evident lapses in health and safety control. How has this occurred? How can it be resolved?
Design and build contracts hand greater control to the building contractor and tend, arguably, to lean towards design changes on the grounds of cost only. It also limits, or cuts out altogether, inspection by the building designer. Along with the reduction in the employment of clerks of works and the introduction of ‘value engineering’ exercises, the system has lost some of the natural controls and limiting factors that used to exist. This tends towards reduced standards and poorer quality.
In her reports, Hackitt demonstrates the complexity of the regulatory system very well with a flow chart that boggles the mind. Hackitt reviews the system, addressing all aspects of fire regulation and management, including construction and, importantly, the whole life cycle of the building. She acknowledges the problems that design and build contracts have introduced (albeit very briefly) and appears to believe that these can be addressed within a new regulatory framework. Hackitt states that the key roles for prioritising building safety are the same as those identified in the CDM Regulations and proposes these as new statutory duty holders, with separate responsibilities, overlapping with CDM. We will watch eagerly to see how this framework is developed as there are certainly many aspects to deal with, not least the complexity and cost that a new system addressing the whole life cycle of a building could introduce.
Whilst the government was quick to act following the fire by establishing a Building Safety Programme and setting about checking all existing high rise public building cladding, substantive changes were always going to take time. Hackitt’s review goes a long way to highlighting the underlying issues and suggests a regulatory solution, but it also needs the industry as a whole to understand that its level of self-regulation needs to improve massively.
The industry is actively responding; the Construction Industry Council has established many working groups to review competence and also, for example, procurement and contracts. The role of the building manager with respect to fire management is also being scrutinised; and RIBA is putting together a Plan of Work fire safety overlay.
There have been many reports from industry bodies, experts, public organisations and Government alongside Hackitts’. They throw light on the tragedy’s circumstances, make pertinent points and some make recommendations for change. The key to minimising future risk in high rise buildings is to find a method of tying the various strands together in a way that everyone involved in the design, construction and management of high rise buildings can agree on and adhere to.