Questions are being asked about why so many of the high-rise tower blocks in England, reclad over the past couple of decades, have been found to be defective and yet, so far, none have been found in Scotland. Could this be because we have a different and, dare I say better, set of Building Regulations or system of Building Control, it being vested in Local Authority control rather than in the private sector as in England & Wales?
It’s too early to say what role Building Regulations may have played in the Glenfell Tower Fire tragedy or indeed why, in its immediate aftermath, so many refurbished high rise buildings have failed testing in England.
And certainly, we don’t know enough at this stage to understand the part, if any, the difference in Building Regulations and system of Building Control in Scotland plays.
However, what is clear is that Scotland isn’t immune from its own building failures. Although thankfully not as tragic, the parallels between the recent Edinburgh Schools Failure, the Glenfell Fire Tragedy and the apparent widespread failure of cladding system tests on other high rise buildings in England, are quite marked and raise a lot of very similar questions.
Who is investing in quality?
For a long time now we’ve failed to invest in the quality of our buildings – their construction, maintenance and repair.
This failure starts with client organisations – public sector and private. As we drive for ever cheaper buildings built ever faster, client organisations seek ways of passing over risk. This results in procurement strategies that favour contractor led design and construction (Design & Build) and relegate the professional, regulated design teams to a much reduced and secondary role. But do these clients understand what they are doing?
Who now is looking after their interests or in the case of public and large residential buildings, the public interest and ultimately public safety? You cannot delegate your Statutory Duty of Care.
Whether the regulations were sufficient or not, whether they were adhered to or not, who was checking to make sure what was designed, specified and consented was actually built?
If we are going to have regulation, we must have effective independent scrutiny to make sure of compliance. But we seem to be driving ever further down the ‘self-regulation’ route.
In the wake of the tragic events at Grenfell, other specific questions need to be asked, such as:
Were these cladding systems contractor or architect designed?
Who was responsible for their specification and detailing?
Did the contractor change something and did the design team know about it, accept it or overlook it?
Where was the professional design team in the process?
Was the architect, surveyor, engineer etc engaged to oversee the construction process or were they cut out of this phase by a reluctance to pay fees for professional services?
Was the contractor left to certify what they had done?
This is certainly what was found in the wake of the Edinburgh Schools Failure where Professor John Cole found significant shortcomings in the oversight of construction and in the failure of the Quality Control systems.
Essentially, the contractor was left to mark his own homework and the professional team were relegated to a subservient role with no contractual link to the client and little or no responsibility for checking on site for compliance with design, specification and building regulations.
This is something about which we in the profession have been concerned for many years. Professional consultants, be they designers, surveyors or engineers are being squeezed out of the construction process by the unwillingness of the client to pay for expert professional input throughout the construction process preferring the one stop shop offered by the least regulated party in the process, the contractor.
We see the folly of this now with a failure of the quality control process.
Regulation and compliance; design and specification; client understanding, expertise and responsibility; professional oversight; independent certification and scrutiny; and procurement strategies are all now under the spotlight.
Sadly, it won’t be a simple case of restoring the professional design team to its key role as the client’s principle advisors and relegating Design & Build (D&B) to just one of a number of procurement strategies and not the automatic or preferred route. This prolonged period of inappropriate, even lazy, procurement which has seen the ballooning of D&B, frameworks, bundling, PFI, PPP and now Hub, has hollowed out the experience of a generation of design professionals who no longer see their designs come to fruition on site and no longer have a ‘voice’ to raise their concerns if and when they see a deviation from their design, specification or the regulations.
I fear now that the consequences of public outrage and political uproar, will be to swing the pendulum heavily in the opposite direction to one of over regulation and scrutiny rather than a more balanced position presided over by engaged, informed clients, properly funded professional consultants with clear responsibility to oversee their designs, onsite quality systems independently certified and an industry that puts build quality, durability and public safety ahead of building costs and contractor profits.
To achieve this will need a significant change in attitudes and a massive investment in the industry but in the long run it will be a better use of money than to appease public opinion with knee jerk regulation, knee jerk reorganisation of building control and fire inspection processes and over-reaction in the form of ill-conceived remedial works.
Unfortunately, unless we get some unexpectedly joined up government, it’s not likely to result in better procurement, more technically trained and informed people in decision making roles, improvements in technical education, nor is it likely to result in more professionalism and professional leadership in the design and project delivery of buildings and building refurbishment projects.
Ian McKee FRICS
Images courtesy of : The Guardian and STV.