Wednesday, April 27, 2016

School closures shine light on hidden failings

David Frise, BESA Head of Sustainability

So what possessed someone to leave out the header ties that should have secured external walls to the steel frame of several Edinburgh schools?

This catastrophic quality failure has taken 10 years to emerge, but has now resulted in 17 schools across the city being closed on safety grounds and the education of 7,000 primary and secondary pupils disrupted – not to mention the knock-on effect on their families.

The cost of these critical components is a miniscule proportion of the overall project, but their omission at Oxgangs Primary School (leading to a wall collapsing during Storm Gertrude in January) is hugely symbolic. It betrays a systematic failure to grasp how a complete building hangs together as an integrated whole.

It is a symptom of an industry that regards itself as an assembler of components into something approximating a complete design – not the provider of a quality, complete ‘product’.

Oxgangs was part of a wider programme that saw 17 schools built or refurbished following a £360m deal between the council and a private finance consortium under the Public Private Partnership 1 (PPP1) scheme – all were eventually closed.

Defective building work used to be regarded as something of a ‘victimless crime’. The work is a bit shoddy, but nobody dies (usually) so nobody cares…and somebody saved some money. Often the end user is not even aware there is a problem and the industry doesn’t volunteer information to help. When did you ever hear of a product recall in construction?

It is unusual for such a quality control breakdown to affect such a large group of victims, but the Edinburgh experience is being replicated right across the country – there are lots of problems lurking in the shadows. This incident shines a light on the ‘performance gap’ that everyone acknowledges, but nobody does anything about. You order one building, but the industry delivers you a different one – that doesn’t work properly.

Many individual building owners suffer in silence because they don’t know who is responsible. The flat dweller next to a fast food restaurant subject to nasty smells and a noisy extract fan; if they complain to their local council is any action likely?

Innovate UK recently published research showing that most supposedly modern buildings are routinely using 3.5 times the amount of energy they should. Just before the Zero Carbon Hub had its funding withdrawn, it produced a report into the failure of domestic ventilation systems contributing to a legacy of long-term ill health.

Who cares? Who picks up the tab? Usually the current occupant – and the taxpayer for funding the repairs and also to build the extra electricity generation we need to power poorly performing buildings.

We have largely depended on the Building Regulations to ‘regulate’ quality, but all these ‘performance gaps’ prove that, at best, all they deliver is lowest common denominator standards and, at worst, no real regulation at all.

We need a new system so that someone is held responsible from the point where they are granted planning permission until beyond the point they have handed over the completed project to the community. We need a system built on a ‘Social Contract’.

When a developer puts in a planning application they are, in effect, making a promise to the community to deliver the building in that planning application.   They should not be able to break that promise. However, with a few notable exceptions, most developers are not concerned about the final outcome because they are not liable for future failures and they are not paying the energy bills. Their primary focus is on delivering the product to budget and on time – and ensuring their saleable asset retains its value…to them and does so as quickly as possible.

Contractors start work on site with precious little design information because the project is going through the process of ‘value engineering’, which is a euphemism for reducing cost and substituting design products with cheaper versions. These products are then put together in something that resembles the original design. At Oxgangs School, it looks like they just left some important things out completely!

As a result, most projects fall into a destructive pattern of ‘build and design’ that means the people on site are making things up as they go along – taking too long and making lots of mistakes. If you put a car together like that – it probably won’t be drivable; and certainly will break down all the time.

So the social contract alternative works like this: The local authority grants planning approval to the developer on the proviso that no work can start on site until a very large proportion of the design is complete and signed off – say 75%. The developer still has security of knowing the project can progress, but this compels them to ensure the project is properly designed first.

The developer pays for an independent professional to certify the design work is complete and that there is a coherent programme of works in place. If it is not followed, financial penalties will be incurred to pay for the costs incurred by us as tax payers and which are significant enough to be a deterrent to corner cutting and to keep the project to schedule. This has the added bonus of reducing disruption and distress to surrounding homes and businesses by ensuring standards are met and the project proceeds to an agreed schedule with orderly work processes, deliveries of materials etc.

The project is completed, handed over and then monitored to ensure it meets the original design specification. The developer pays for the post-occupancy evaluation and if it hits its targets – great – if not the team come back in to sort it all out and fulfil their promise in line with their social contract.

Would a social contract have saved the ill-fated Edinburgh schools scheme? It would certainly have given it a better chance of success and focussed the building teams on delivering a complete, fully functional product for the long-term – with all components in the right place. Producing projects on time, to budget and that work might even improve the industry’s tarnished image.

What we are likely to see now, instead, is a lengthy and painful legal battle over the small print of numerous commercial contracts that will keep lawyers happy, but do little for the real victims – the building users.

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