Culture change on compliance

The Building Safety Act is forcing culture change across construction. Ross Finnie of Accuroof (formerly SIG Design & Technology) shares the effects on the building envelope sector and the implications for architects

While it became law in 2022, the Building Safety Act is only just beginning to have an impact. We are still at the stage where people are theorising about how the Act will bed in, what cultural changes will be required and how this will affect procurement, roles, responsibilities, and risk sharing.

While the Act doesn’t just affect higher risk buildings, Tier 1 Main Contractors who work on major projects are moving first; not just on housing but schools, commercial buildings, and hospitals. Having seen the risk of late-stage design, Tier 1s are working to bring design decisions forward and some are taking on the role of principal designer from RIBA Work Stage 3.

At a round table we hosted last year, there was plenty of discussion amongst architects about the death of design & build and an end to the ‘race to the bottom.’ I’m not entirely convinced, but I think a change in responsibilities is on the cards. In our work on major projects, contractors are also pulling in more of our specialist roofing advice earlier and requiring greater collaboration within the team.

Fire & insurance

Two of the major influencers on this change are fire engineers and insurers. Clients require fire strategies to be developed earlier, setting prerequisites for the envelope and changing the specification process. Developers are talking to insurers early too, and each has its own approach, which needs to align with the fire strategy. Some insurers will insist on entirely non-combustible materials, even when the regulations do not require it.

The client and main contractor need their insurer and fire engineers to engage with the supply chain early, to ensure specifications are developed in alignment. Non-combustible insulation, for example, can have a lower k-value, requiring a greater thickness to achieve the same U-value. Changing specifications later in the project can produce difficulties with upstand heights, door thresholds and more. You can understand why design decisions need to develop earlier – and more collaboratively.

Information & the Golden Thread

Information management is another key factor in the implementation of the Act. Information must be accurate and up to date, but also effectively maintained during design and construction phases and through handover to the operation of the building. This is to ensure tenants remain safe and owners can manage the building safely.

There is currently no agreed standard way to structure and share building safety information, including product information, and the manufacturing sector has spent 15 years trying to agree key attributes for product data that would be required. This isn’t surprising given the complexity involved, but live projects cannot wait. 

All designers need to contribute, demonstrating from concept to working drawings what decisions were made, why they were made and the evidence for this. Information needs to be stored digitally and freely exchanged. As a supplier, we operate a Product Information Management system to which our external supply chain contributes. 

The architect role is changing

With this change in procurement and culture comes a change in role for architects. As we write this, only 11 architects have joined the RIBA’s Principal Designer Register, which isn’t surprising. Becoming a principal designer may require more resources than some practices can provide. As more design decisions are taken earlier, working relationships with some of your Tier 1 contractors with change and communications will need to improve. If design & build remains, you may be novated much earlier in the process. 

The architect needs to contribute towards the Golden Thread for the project, in a format that is easy to access and share and useful to the construction team and the building owner and operator. Liability is key, so know the building design inside and out, keep an audit trail and understand management in use.  A good project team will meet all key stakeholders early to ensure both information sharing procedures and design principles are understood and adopted.

The answer is working collaboratively

The building envelope is a critical element of the safety of any building. Between them, the design team will need a level of knowledge about the compatibility of products and systems which in the past might have been delegated to others. Many manufacturers are happy to provide information about their systems, but if they don’t have an appropriate system in their portfolio, they may be reluctant to recommend it, leaving the architect to do their own due diligence. An alternative is to work with a supplier that is ‘system agnostic’ and can provide technical advice based on significant experience working on major projects.

The Joint Competency Initiative for the Building Envelopes Sector is at the forefront of delivering post-Grenfell competency in respect of fire and structural safety. As members, Accuroof is collaborating with its 12 Tier 1 contractor members, the NFRC and trade associations such as SPRA and LWRA to develop a competency test for flat roofing design that can be third party verified. This isn’t a small piece of work but will give architects confidence that they can accept advice on roofing and cladding from a competent consultant.

Ross Finnie is sales director at Accuroof (part of SIG Roofing)