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Rachel Davidson Dec 12, 2023 10:08:16 AM 7 min read

Why the Building Safety Act is not just about safety


Rachel-Blog-BannerWhile some companies are clearly getting to grips with the implications and the responsibilities of the Building Safety Act, many are not. Some find the whole thing rather overwhelming, and others seem to think it has nothing to do with them, writes Rachel Davidson*.

While the early focus of the Building Safety Act is on higher-risk buildings (HRBs) which are primarily high-rise multi-use and residential, this does not mean all other work can carry on as before. The Act applies to ALL building work and Tier One contractors are already driving the changes through their supply chains.

Following the first meeting of BESA’s newly formed Building Safety Act Advisory Group (BSAAG), members agreed that the requirements of the legislation would transform all aspects of project delivery and business management.

And, while Tier One contractors are in the frontline, they will expect all members of their project supply chains to adopt new ways of working. They will not be operating two separate models – one for HRBs and one for everything else – that would be commercially unsustainable, and it would also be morally wrong.

“This is transformational legislation that will impact everyone working in building services engineering,” said the group’s chair Nick Mead. “The Regulator’s eye is now firmly fixed on HRBs but that does not mean we can ignore the implications for other projects.

“The Act has already led to fundamental changes to other regulatory standards including Approved Document B, which applies to all projects, and there are a lot more to come. It is also influencing competency requirements across the board, so this is not something that anyone can avoid whether they work on HRBs or not.”

While safety is the priority, there is no doubt that the comprehensive nature of the legislation will gradually come to affect all aspects of our industry’s work. Dame Judith Hackitt noted this when she spoke about “links and compatibilities with the other agendas, whether that be quality, sustainability, [or] resilience”.

“All of those things take us down that path of doing better and ensuring that we meet multiple outcomes and purposes, all at the same time,” she told a recent industry event. “It is not about one or the other, we must do them all. That is a fundamental cultural shift, and of course, the regulators will help to hold that in place.”

Claire Curran BESA President officialBESA President Claire Curran echoed that message when she urged delegates at the Association’s recent Annual Conference to “make buildings better…not just to meet climate change and safety goals” but for a wide range of social economic reasons.

She said that improving the built environment should be a priority as it was critical to “the hopes and aspirations of this and future generations”.

“The buildings we live and work in are crucial to our well-being and quality of life – and there is nothing more fundamental than that.”

There was considerable debate at the BESA Conference around the new competence requirements that came into force under the Act in October. However, Neil Hope-Collins from the BSR pointed out that “if you were competent before the Act, you are still competent now”.

He said that it was the principal contractor who had the ultimate responsibility for making sure buildings were planned, managed, and delivered in accordance with the Building Regulations. “If they don’t give you the time and the resources [to get things right] that’s on them…if you told them. You can push back.”

He added that competence requirements were not just about which “card or a piece of paper” somebody holds, but “the skills, knowledge, experience and behaviours for doing the job”.

Hope-Collins also explained that the Act placed greater emphasis on having more complete design information earlier in the process and that this would make it easier to secure a completion certificate at the end.

He urged the industry to “understand and own their risk” and not expect the Regulator to tell them what to do. “We expect you to bring us your homework for marking…not ask us to do it for you. It’s your job, you’re building so you should understand it and be able to come to us with your argument and your rational.”

The Golden Thread of information is crucial, but Hope-Collins said it was up to the project team to work out what they needed to help them deliver a compliant building. “What do you need to be sure that this building will meet the functional requirements?”

Supply chains
It was clear from the first meeting of the advisory group that Tier One contractors would drive the process of change through their supply chains – including the specification of compliant construction products verified by the Code for Construction Product Information (CCPI).

Firms of all sizes will, therefore, need to start thinking about how they can provide evidence of their competence and compliance. They must ensure they are gathering data about completed work and why decisions were made, especially if there is a change to the original design as this could well be scrutinised at some unforeseen point in the future.

BESA is keen to reinforce the message that this is the start of a new era during which members can thrive. Those firms who invest in their workforces and have a robust competence culture will find themselves in greater demand than ever because not everyone can step up quickly to adapt.

So, as well as being a ‘once in a generation’ opportunity to reform a critical industry, this is also an unmissable opportunity to embed best practice into everything we do and enjoy the commercial benefits that follow. Better processes will also enhance the delivery of improvements in the specialist areas covered by building engineering firms like indoor air quality, low carbon heating systems, building services maintenance etc. etc.

It can also open the door to finally addressing deep rooted financial and productivity issues that undermine our industry’s ability to deliver outstanding projects. Another speaker at the BESA Conference put her finger on this when she talked about the “toxic culture” that prevents us from doing our best work.

DSC04712Dr Jo Jolly, head of project futures at the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA), called for delivery teams to be more “courageous and honest” to achieve sustainability goals and avoid the continual “race to the bottom” on quality and cost.

In her keynote presentation, she said that many members of project teams felt afraid to call out poor working practices and pointed out that construction productivity had “stagnated for decades” with just one in every 200 projects coming in on time and to budget.

“Projects go wrong because people feel they can’t speak up when they know something isn’t right. Of course, there are cost issues, but we need to ask if we are doing the best we can.”

At BESA, we often hear from members who are frustrated that they are not able to deliver their best work because of these cultural issues around project teams. The changes that will become embedded in our supply chains thanks to the new legislation and intense scrutiny on competence and compliance can change all of that because it will make it easier to call out toxic and unproductive behaviour.

This has positive implications for the running of projects, management processes, transparency, payment etc. which is all good. However, it also has significant commercial and legal implications. Contractors of all sizes need to prepare themselves for changes to contract terms that reflect the new responsibilities defined by the Act and their relationships with major contractors, so they may need to take legal and commercial advice.

Contract law
They can also take advantage of a new 'Contract Law' training course developed by BESA’s legal team that can help them unpick some of the details and be ready for the changes. The BESA Academy also provides access to a wide range of the skills-related training that can help contractors meet new competency requirements.

This will all be part of the industry working out how to ‘own’ its responsibilities, improving communication and collaboration, and embracing the new culture. So, rather than having it imposed on us, let’s embrace it and get on with making it work.

*Rachel Davidson was recently appointed to the new position of Director of Specialist Knowledge at the Building Engineering Services Association (BESA) with a particular focus on the Building Safety Act and its implications for BESA members and the wider specialist building services sector.

She has worked at BESA for more than 30 years in a variety of roles most recently as Director of Certification. She was also Head of Technical Schemes and Knowledge for 10 years until 2013 and served as a board director of Piper Insurance, which provides critical illness cover for the building engineering industry.

For regular updates about the Building Safety Act visit the Association’s Building Safety Act Hub