BUILT ENVIRONMENT JOURNAL

Raising the bar interim report

An interim report from the Industry Response Group recommends competence requirements for those working on higher-risk residential buildings to ensure fire and life safety

Author:

  • David McCullogh

01 February 2020

Following the tragic events at Grenfell Tower, Dame Judith Hackitt’s interim report made significant criticisms of the government and property professions. The issues she raised included: unclear regulation; poor enforcement systems; the sector’s failure to accept responsibility for ensuring compliance; poor testing and product marketing regimes; and the lack of scope for stakeholders, especially tenants, to have their say.

But a particularly strong message was the lack of clarity over the competence of those involved in the design, construction and management of a building. In the interim report, Hackitt wrote: "Despite many who demonstrate good practice, the means of assessing and ensuring the competency of key people throughout the system is inadequate. There is often no differentiation in competency requirements for those working on high-rise and complex buildings". There is thus a need to raise levels of competence and establish formal accreditation for those engaged in fire prevention when designing, constructing, inspecting or maintaining complex or high-rise residential buildings (HRRBs).

Challenges

Hackitt’s final report went on to issue several challenges: "There is clearly more to do to achieve the longer-term improvement in competence levels that is necessary to fix the current broken system. However, the review welcomes industry’s commitment, and in the immediate term, the review would expect industry to begin developing and delivering on the actions and proposals in a coherent and joined-up way".

She signalled that, in the established built environment professions, there was evidence that competence was more assured; but even here it was often difficult to demonstrate that specific competence. Hackitt does not necessarily question the competence of professionals per se, but she is concerned by the fact that specific and relevant competence to deal with the particular issues presented by projects such as HRRBs cannot be evidenced.

Regulatory mechanism

In the system that seems to be emerging following the review and the government’s response to it, there is likely to be a regulatory or quasi-regulatory mechanism that will require competency for the task in hand to be demonstrated. This would form part of a new gateway process, requiring not only that design proposals meet the Building Regulations but that the project has the means to ensure and evidence compliance once it is complete. It will involve demonstrating that compliance management processes are being followed, and that the people involved are competent to carry out their assigned tasks.

This system is unlikely to involve a detailed approval of building designs, because this is currently leading to an abdication of responsibility by designers and contractors, who tend to regard the regulator’s sign-off as sufficient. It will instead entail that designers and contractors gain permission to pass through gateways between different phases of a project – say, from design to construction and from construction to occupation. Permission would be granted on the basis that processes give confidence that professionals are capable of managing compliance both at design and through to completion. Demonstrating adequate and applicable competence will be a key part of this.

“There is likely to be a regulatory or quasi-regulatory mechanism that will require competency for the task in hand to be demonstrated”

Professional response

In order to meet Hackitt’s competency challenge, the Construction Industry Council, the Construction Products Association and Build UK established the Industry Response Group (IRG), with support from the Local Government Association and the National Fire Chiefs Council.

A steering group was then formed, on which RICS was represented by global building standards director Gary Strong, as well as working groups involving a number of RICS members and staff that would look at competency matrices for various built environment roles. A further working group was later formed, to consider the potential for a body that would manage any competence system. Together, these groups represented a huge amount of work by 300-plus volunteers from 150 organisations.

The resultant IRG report, Raising the bar, was put out to consultation from August to October. If you are involved in the design, construction or management of complex buildings, especially HRRBs, I advise you to familiarise yourself with the recommendations of the working group relevant to your role.

The working groups were:
  • overarching competence body (WG0)
  • engineers (WG1)
  • installers (WG2)
  • fire engineers (WG3)
  • fire risk assessors (WG4)
  • fire safety enforcing officers (WG5)
  • building standards professionals (WG6)
  • building designers, including architects (WG7)
  • building safety managers (WG8)
  • site supervisors (WG9)
  • project managers (WG10)
  • procurement (WG11)
  • products (WG12).
The work they carried out included:
  • appraising current competence frameworks and qualifications
  • developing additional competence frameworks for general construction and operation
  • developing additional frameworks for those working on HRRBs, where required
  • setting out how frequently professionals need to be reassessed, and by whom.

Life safety

Although the two Hackitt reports focus on fire, the IRG has always taken the view that safety is about much more than this, so each working group considered a far wider range of topics that all play a part in ensuring life safety in buildings. Likewise, the Hackitt challenge focused on design, construction and management of HRRBs, but several groups extended their work so it could be easily applied to all building types.

The working groups looked at a range of current mechanisms, finding in the established built environment professions quite advanced competency management systems that require only relatively small adjustments. These would include particular focuses on, for example, HRRB-specific issues, and a level of disclosure to third parties such as UKAS by professions that have traditionally self-regulated. RICS – along with the other similar institutions – is happy to make such adjustments.

Building safety manager

In other areas, though, there are no mechanisms, and therefore these will need to be developed from scratch. One such is the proposed new role of building safety manager or, as suggested by WG8, building safety coordinator; although I suspect this may well develop into the area currently served by facilities managers.

RICS members are required not to work outside their competencies, and those with the relevant competencies are required to keep up to date with emerging information and changes in regulations. RICS offers constant updates to help with this, and of course there are regular CPD opportunities including the RICS Fire Safety Conference 2020 in London on 11 February, which will be repeated in Manchester on 17 March.

But it is recognised that the IRG’s work is only the start when it comes to meeting the Hackitt challenge, and it may be some time before anything formal is set up. Her main message – that built environment professionals should not wait for the formalities to be concluded before they act – remains particularly relevant here, as it does for improvement in all other areas.

Hackitt’s high-level messages, to which Raising the Bar responds, are quite clear: anyone involved in procuring HRRBs and anyone subsequently appointed to design, build or manage these assets should select only people whose competence can be demonstrated. It would not be unreasonable to apply this approach to buildings other than HRRBs as well.

david.mccullogh@balfourbeatty.com

Related competencies include: Ethics, Rules of Conduct and professionalism, Fire safety

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