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Ryan Walton May 9, 2024 3:51:57 PM 5 min read

NextGen Take On Building Safety Act: It's called doing the right thing


Ryan Walton – chair BESA NextGen Network

The Building Safety Act has been described as the most profound change to construction since World War Two, but there hasn’t been much evidence of real change…so far.

It is going to take time.

BESA launches NextGen Network image-1

The new generation of building services engineers – those aged 35 and under – will not just be the most heavily affected; we will also have the greatest weight of responsibility for making this crucial legislation work.

So, are we ready? Do we understand what is involved?

Answer: Probably not (for most of us), but where should we start? Well, let’s remember why the Act even exists.

It will soon be exactly seven years since that fateful night in West London when Grenfell Tower caught fire and 72 people lost their lives. The fire started just after midnight on June 14 and burned for 60 hours. It was the deadliest residential fire in the UK since the German air force bombed London more than 80 years ago.

The lengthy public inquiry into the tragedy is finally about to announce its findings, but our industry already knows what it needs to do. It needs to change. Specifically, it needs to take more responsibility for the long-term impact of its projects on the generations of people who live in the buildings it creates, maintains and refurbishes.

In short, it needs to do the right thing.

Many young people coming fresh to our industry should rightly be shocked that the generations before them haven’t been totally honest, transparent, and responsible. The amount of corner-cutting in construction is a national scandal and Grenfell was the tragedy just waiting to happen. Too many people had been getting away with too much for too long until that night.

During BESA’s recent podcast ‘Behind the Built Environment’, one of the UK’s most senior building control professionals told the Association’s CEO David Frise that the Act was an opportunity for the industry to “put right the wrongs we’ve had for so many years in construction.”

Lorna Stimpson, CEO of Local Authority Building Control (LABC) in England and Wales, added that all construction professions should “act with integrity”.

“It’s about doing the right thing, even when people aren't watching you,” she said.

We know a lot about why the Grenfell fire happened, technically, and we know quite a lot about the kind of skills, knowledge, and experience needed to make sure such sub-standard work is not repeated, but what do we know about “behaviours”?

That word is coming up a lot and it is one our generation needs to think about. You are not competent just because you know how to design, install, commission, maintain etc. That’s just part of it. You need to always be doing the right thing for the people who will live with the outcomes of your decisions – often for decades into the future.

You need to ‘behave’ with integrity.

Part of behaving in the right way is learning to say ‘no’. We often feel tempted or under pressure to try to fix something when deep down we know it will not be good enough. Iain Mcilwee, chief executive of the Finishes & Interiors Sector (FIS), talks about the concept of ‘The Responsible No’, which means being able to say ‘actually, I’m not competent’, or ‘I’m not insured to do that’.

“The Bob the Builder, ‘can we fix it? Yes, we can’ mentality needs to go. If you hit an issue on site, the answer to the question ‘can you fix it?’ might be ‘no, actually – you need to redesign it’,” says Mcilwee.

For younger engineers, it can be a bit daunting to confront more experienced colleagues or even clients and suggest they need to stop and re-think, but that is the new culture we are moving towards. The Act should be a line in the sand and from this time onwards we should all feel empowered to speak up and call out decisions and actions that we know are wrong.

Just say ‘no’.

This might sound a bit frightening, but it is also an amazing opportunity. Our generation of building services engineers can make an enormous difference to the quality of life of hundreds of thousands of people.

And that doesn’t mean just keeping them safe. Surely that should be a given. We can also make a major difference to their health, well-being, and productivity by ensuring, for example, that indoor spaces are comfortable, well ventilated, and have good levels of natural lighting.

People spend, on average, 90% of their time indoors, so it is the indoor environment that has by far the most significant impact on their health and well-being. Also, air quality is responsible for up to 1,400 excess deaths per 100,000 of the global population every year. Compare that with Covid-19, which accounted for 38 deaths per 100,000, smoking 180, and cancer which causes 278.1

There are also 3,000 new occupational asthma cases reported in the UK every year linked to the air quality in workplaces.

If we have learned one thing since 2017, surely, it’s that every building occupant deserves to live, work, and socialise in a safe, good quality space. That, after all, is the driving principle of the Act and needs to be enshrined as part of the Grenfell legacy.

And who will have the responsibility (and opportunity) to create that legacy?

The current, emerging generation of building services engineers represented by the BESA NextGen network. We have the knowledge, skills, and competencies to deliver a top quality built environment fit for the future – and by taking the right decisions for the right reasons, we can also show why this can be such an amazing and fulfilling industry…and why more young people should want to make their careers here.

The Network is also playing an active role in the Association’s Building Safety Act Advisory Group making sure our generation’s voice is heard and we can influence decisions made now that will have far reaching consequences for both the industry and building occupants.

Find out all about the BESA NextGen network here and learn more about building safety legislation by visiting the BESA Hub.

1Figures from Public Health Wales.