How my career evolved as building standards emerged

Although building control in Scotland has changed significantly over the past six decades, the willingness to collaborate, adapt and influence have been central to one surveyor's work


  • Bob Renton FRICS

27 February 2024

Scotland highlands countryside

Since I began work almost 60 years ago, I have been aware of the significance and relevance of building control, and the way the service influences design and construction to ensure health and safety and protect building users.

In July 1966 I started work for Berwick County Council, which was responsible for the county of Berwickshire in the Scottish Borders. I'd spotted an opening for an apprentice architectural technician while I was still at secondary school.

As I left school in the fourth year to take up the job I only had four O levels, so after starting work I also attended the local high school on a day-release basis to study for further O levels in physics and technical drawing.

Gaining these in 1967, I was able to study for a Higher National Certificate (HNC) in building construction as my job required – also by day release – completing this in 1971.

Assuming responsibility for major projects

The architects' office had three areas of work, namely architecture, building maintenance, and building control.

I worked under the county architect and was mentored by my architectural technician colleagues – in particular the departmental clerk of works, a man of considerable stature and experience. 

His advice and detailed knowledge of construction became the bedrock of my competencies.

From the outset, I was trained in the preparation of detailed design drawings for new-build housing and non-domestic projects, as well as construction specifications. 

I printed and coloured endless working drawings for distribution to the site contractor, the clerk of works and the quantity surveyor. The drawings were printed on linen to withstand handling by site operatives, a common practice in the days before computer-aided design.

During this time, local government reorganisation resulted in the county council being subsumed into the unitary authority that became Borders Regional Council.

At an early stage, I was also given responsibility for major projects such as the new-build social housing programme, which ran from around 1970 to 1975. This was a £2.1m programme, equivalent to around £13.9m in today's money.

My responsibilities included: 

  • preparation of design and site drawings and specification of works for tender purposes and for the subsequent construction phases
  • liaising with the external quantity surveyors in the preparation of tender documents
  • gaining central government financial support and sign-off
  • subsequent acceptance of contracts with the successful developer
  • once on site, coordinating inspections from commencement through to issuing practical completion certificates
  • obtaining statutory planning consent and building warrant approvals and issuing certificates on completion. 

Even at that stage of my career, it was clear that I had been given these responsibilities because I had proven my competency earlier than would otherwise have been the case. It was a small office and a small team, which thus necessitated multi-tasking.

It was these early responsibilities and scope of work that also enabled me to become a member of what was then the Society of Architectural and Associated Technicians, and is now the Chartered Institute of Architectural Technicians.

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Making the move into building control

The detailed work of an architectural technician and a building standards surveyor have much in common, and my training and experience provided a solid base for a career in building control.

As a building control surveyor, I needed to extend my knowledge of the field, including the statutory basis of the service and the essential processes and procedures. So I took a further HNC, this one in building regulations, law and administration, for which I received a commendation in 1977.

From 1976 to 1988 I served as an area surveyor with the grand title of area master of works for Borders Regional Council, and progressed to head of service as master of works. I then became head of building control with Scottish Borders Council after another local government reorganisation in 1996.

I used these experiences and abilities to become a member of both the Institute of Building Control and RICS. I was later put forward for an RICS fellowship in recognition of my contribution to building control surveying in 2001.

For these achievements, I remain hugely indebted to the mentoring, help and advice I was given on a daily basis by all my council colleagues.

'The work of an architectural technician and a building standards surveyor have much in common'

Profession organises and modernises

Over the course of my career, I have been involved with some significant changes to the profession as building control has evolved.

For instance, a few months before I entered the profession there was a meeting of senior officers in the service in Scotland in February 1976, at which the Scottish Association of Chief Building Control Officers (SACBCO) was established.

After I became a regular member and contributor to SACBCO in 1989, I was appointed honorary secretary in the early 1990s.

This was a pivotal role in the development of building control in Scotland, particularly with regard to:

  • the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (CoSLA), through its subcommittee the Scottish Building Control Organisation (SBCO)
  • the Scottish Type Approval Scheme (STAS)
  • closer working between local authority building standards and the government's Scottish Office Building Standards Advisory Committee (BSAC)
  • a restructuring of the building control system in Scotland following the introduction of the Building (Scotland) Act 2003

At this time, building control was jointly overseen by local government services and Westminster – politically, through CoSLA and procedurally through the BSAC. When SBCO was disbanded, primarily because of other demands on CoSLA, SACBCO stepped in to take a lead on many of the strategic needs of the service at a national level.

For example, I led the development of the national type approval service STAS from 2000 onwards. STAS allowed developers to apply to SACBCO – which has since become Local Authority Building Standards Scotland (LABSS) – for an assessment of their standard designs, to check that these complied with national standards.

All of Scotland's 32 local authorities agree to abide by these national decisions when considering specific building warrant submissions in their respective areas. The system ensures consistent decisions for standard designs replicated anywhere in Scotland, assuring developers that their designs will be warranted more quickly.

Building control becomes building standards

The transition from control to standards had to an extent begun in 1991, after the introduction of the Building Standards (Scotland) Regulations 1990. This saw a change from prescriptive regulation to the introduction of compliance with mandatory standards.

The principle was to allow more designers to innovate in their proposals without the constraints of prescription. These mandatory standards are supported by guidance in the domestic and non-domestic technical handbooks.

Following this change of emphasis in deemed compliance, there was a review of the whole building control system. This concluded that it was not the role of local authority building control itself to control design, but instead to check compliance with mandatory standards strategically defined by current legislation.

Given this change in emphasis, the primary legislation – the Building (Scotland) Act 1959 – needed to be updated. This entailed major consultation that involved SACBCO from the outset. The process culminated in the Building (Scotland) Act 2003 supported by the Building (Scotland) Regulations 2004, which remain current.

There were further significant changes because the 2003 Act required the Scottish government to appoint building standards verifiers, who could come from either the private or public sector. In exercising this power, the ministers nevertheless appointed each of the 32 local authorities to run building standards services.

Such appointments were conditional on these services meeting the aims of prescribed frameworks defining operational arrangements and performance outcomes, which were introduced in 2005.

Association changes to align with policy

Following implementation of the 2003 Act, SACBCO also decided to modernise by recognising the change from building control to building standards, aligning itself with the strategic and operational aims of the Scottish government.

This resulted in the change from building control officers to building standards managers, hence the organisation became the Scottish Association of Building Standards Managers (SABSM).

SABSM members were likewise modernising by recognising that all building standards staff in Scotland have a role to play in the way the service operates, and consequently the association evolved again from SABSM to LABSS.

During these transitional phases I was privileged to receive an honorary life membership of SABSM in 2003, as well as being appointed honorary president in 2006. I subsequently assumed this role for LABSS.

Developing a hub to support practitioners

As part of the ongoing evolution of building standards service provision in Scotland, a further review began following the implementation of the Building Standards Board in 2019.

This review was in part prompted by incidents such as the Edinburgh schools masonry gable collapse, and the poor construction of the Dumfries DG One leisure complex 1, as well as the Grenfell Tower fire.

The review resulted in the development of a central building standards hub to support Scottish local authority building services. My work for LABSS allowed me to be part of a team developing the framework for this hub, and I drafted the options appraisal paper in 2020 to scope out its remit.

The hub will begin work in May to: 

  • provide support across the service and additional resources for specialist activities
  • monitor and manage training needs, working with professional institutions, including RICS, CABE and CIOB
  • consider validation and accreditation of competencies. 

With the introduction of the hub and the ongoing commitment to improve competence, my view is that the future for building standards services in Scotland could be a bright one. However, the opportunities presented must be taken and should not be undermined because of a lack of resourcing, engagement or vision.

Reduction in central government funding for local authorities could severely affect their ability to provide services. Building standards should be adequately supported, resourced and funded because of their vital role in ensuring buildings are energy-efficient, accessible and safe to use.

'The future for building standards services in Scotland could be a bright one'

Looking back on lessons and landmarks

As I reflect on more than 57 years of involvement in construction, I have had the pleasure to work and engage with people who have become very good friends.

In that time, I have learned to listen, watch, and copy and adopt. 

  • Those with hands-on professional or trade experience generally have the skills and awareness to produce good-quality buildings. They also have a genuine willingness to pass on their skills and knowledge if you have an open and receptive mind.
  • Seeing is believing, so exposure to work on site and other environments is absolutely crucial from an early stage. Never be afraid to ask about what you see, to seek answers, to challenge – and to get the best advice.
  • Copying good practice is a huge compliment to those you are following. When you see it, adopt it.

By learning and applying these lessons, I've accomplished a number of career milestones as well as helping to establish the standards hub. I believe these have all contributed to the service over the years. 

  • I saw the opportunity that a type approval service offered to expedite building warrant approvals for projects and enable consistent decision-making. I took forward the administration for this from the CoSLA in 2000 on behalf of SACBCO.
  • In 2010 I was able to frame the case for reappointing local authorities to run services rather than private verifiers, councils being the only bodies in Scotland capable of meeting the primary objectives of the 2003 Act in terms of competency, accountability and independence.
  • I took on the role of providing a national building standards website for Scotland in 2018 on behalf of LABSS.

I also framed the national building standards competency assessment system adopted in 2020, to provide for the first time: 

  • a set of consistent competency checks for all 32 local authority building standards services
  • an assessment of skills gaps wherever they arise
  • an accountable knowledge base for a national learning management system managed by LABSS.

Of course, I did not do all of this by myself. Help, understanding, ideas, prompting and cajoling from colleagues and friends were essential for all these achievements.


Bob Renton FRICS is a consultant to LABSS
Contact Bob: Email

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