Appointing a principal designer

The Hackitt report stresses the principal designer's importance in construction work on high-risk residential buildings

Author: Michael Appleby

21 April 2020

The prosecution of Paul Humphries Architects in 2018, over increased fire risk during building of a large timber-frame extension on a care home, is one of the few examples of enforcement action against a principal designer (PD). However, the Health and Safety Executive's (HSE's) business plan for 2019/20 warns that construction sector inspections will in future focus on duty-holders providing PD services, who will thus be more exposed to enforcement action.

The PD role was introduced by the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2015 (CDM 2015), replacing that of CDM coordinator under the 2007 regulations. A PD is appointed, in writing, by the client of a construction project involving more than one contractor, and is required to:

  • plan, manage, monitor and coordinate health and safety in the pre-construction phase, identifying, eliminating or controlling foreseeable risks and ensuring designers carry out their duties
  • prepare and provide relevant information for other duty-holders
  • liaise with the principal contractor to help plan, manage, monitor and coordinate the construction phase.

A contractor in this case refers to any person or company who carries out, manages or controls construction work, including subcontractors. Therefore, as soon as there is more than one contractor – including any subcontractor – a PD will be required.

Who can be a PD, though? The definition in CDM 2015 is wide, and covers any person or company who prepares or modifies a design, or arranges for or instructs any person to prepare or modify a design. According to HSE's guidance L153, Managing health and safety in construction these include: 'architects, architectural technologists, consulting engineers, quantity surveyors, interior designers, temporary work engineers, chartered surveyors, technicians or anyone who specifies or alters a design'.

A PD can therefore be an individual with the right mixture of skills, knowledge and experience, or a body with these as well as the necessary organisational capability. The HSE has said the PD function was created because its forerunner, the role of CDM coordinator, was not working. That role was often assigned to an individual rather than an organisation, but the HSE prefers the PD function to be performed by organisations, as the principal contractor's role is.

A PD does not have to be a designer on the project, and L153 does not say whether a PD even has to be an active designer – that is, one who still engages in design work, rather than one with the competence but who no longer carries out such work.

In a presentation to the Association for Project Safety in 2016, HSE head of construction policy Simon Longbottom acknowledged that, in the early days of CDM 2015, PDs would often be former CDM coordinators who were non-active designers. However, he hoped that in time active designers would, with some support, assume the role, and eventually lead designers would automatically be the PD without support.

Dame Judith Hackitt's report Building a Safer Future, commissioned by the government following the Grenfell Tower fire, stresses the importance of the PD in construction work on high-risk residential buildings. It lists the key responsibilities as:

  • identifying how core building safety requirements will be fulfilled during the pre-construction phase
  • ensuring that those who are supporting the PD are competent
  • compiling full plans documentation for the regulator to show key risks have been considered and managed
  • ensuring that information management systems are properly updated
  • confirming in writing, along with the client, that the Building Regulations requirements have been met at the completion of works.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that there is a long way to go before lead designers automatically accept the PD role.

Mike Appleby is a partner and solicitor at Fisher Scoggins Waters  appleby@fsw-law.com

Related competencies include: Design and specification, Health and safety

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