The first Technical Expert Panel meeting was held – fortuitously – on the same day as the government’s publication of the draft Building Safety Bill. It was also a time when the continuation of the Grenfell Inquiry, brought each day yet another jaw dropping revelation.
The need for technical capability across the industry could not be more relevant. The panel’s task is to set up lines of enquiry: forming the basis of themes that we cover in subsequent Panel meetings, supporting the NLA’s programme to consider current best practice, research and thinking, the government’s proposed regulatory changes and key issues that affect how we design and build.
It’s a strange thing to state, but it is high time that technical competency amongst clients, designers, contractors, the supply chain, building managers – is not seen as an afterthought but an intrinsic part of a professional industry. Many residents currently suffering the fall out of poor building quality, quite apart from the Grenfell tragedy will expect no less, and nor should they. There is much trust that has been lost and for good reason.
So where to start?
Building safety was at the forefront of the panels thinking and a quick glance through the 300+ pages of the Bill raised many questions – most importantly: Will the Bill actually resolve the industry’s systemic issues and make buildings safer? Well, we won’t find out until 2024 when the Bill is intended to be passed.
What can we do in the meantime? In the interim, the panel intends to critically review the proposed Bill and initially ask a lot of questions.
- Why the focus on buildings over 18 meters? Surely, we all want all buildings – irrespective of height – to be safe. The new PDR rules for additional storeys for example should fall under the remit of the Bill, but as it stands will not.
- Whilst the focus of safety in the Bill is fire related, what about other public health issues like ventilation and pollution? These are especially relevant in the post-COVID world.
- Lots in the draft Bill about severe penalties – including jail – which does add weight and seriousness, but whether this will translate to a collective and joint legal responsibility for the whole industry remains to be seen. Will misleading manufacturer technical guidance lead to a jail sentence? Do Fire Engineers have a legal duty of care? Can architects be jailed for simply not having enough experience?
- Great that residents will be involved, but how are they to wade through detailed technical information? For tenants and residents to have a voice in the futuresystem the Bill setsout a means to raise concerns about the safety of their buildings and to receive feedback. If this to be a meaningful dialogue, residentswill need clear and understandable advisory notes and fact sheets which tenants can feed into – for example user friendly FRAs, like a surveyors report when buying a house.
These questions and perhaps proposed amendments to the Bill will be one task the panel will tackle. The panel’s lively discussion highlighted many others; education, BIM, Design for Manufacturing (DfM), Sustainability, procurement and design responsibility as themes to follow.
Whilst not an obvious technical capability, clarity of communication and the means of collaborating led to a wider discussion about an urgent need for a cultural shift in technology that will make a difference today. BIM needs to be tool for better ways of working; the way in which information is shared, what we produce and how it is used. This has critical implications on DfM, managing buildings, leveraging data to create more sustainable buildings, coordination during construction. There is no shortage of the implications this could have on how we build, retrofit and use buildings.
But not everything is about new tools. Sometimes traditional ways of learning on the job, handling materials, practical learning makes for a better equipped profession. Education of a vocational sort and lifelong learning is central to capability and the way to ingrain best practice. The panel’s intention is to look at education and training and comment on what the industry requires of its professionals.
Finally, if the Grenfell Inquiry confounded the lay public about anything it is this: who is responsible? In a fair world, all involved would put their hand up. But our industry is not set up in that way. The panel will ask how we can better define the responsibility – collective and individual – of the whole chain of people involved from start to finish and beyond.
By Arita Morris, Director, Child Graddon Lewis and Chair, NLA Expert Panel on Technical Competency