On the 24th of March I attended the Build UK members meeting where we were given a Grenfell Briefing and a presentation on ‘Building A Safer Future’ by its chief executive Amanda Long.
It is almost 4 years since the tragedy and much in the construction industry has changed since then. The enquiry still goes on and although it appears to have uncovered some unsettling truths, we still await the final report. We saw the immediate impact of the change to the building regulations requiring all components of cladding system used in buildings over 18m in height to be non-combustible. We saw the publication and recommendations of the Hackitt report. The resulting fire safety bill is currently undergoing its passage through parliament, and with it the planned introduction of a new Building Safety Regulator with real teeth to impose fines and custodial sentences. The government has committed £5 billion pounds to replace unsafe cladding on what could amount to up to 12,000 high rise buildings. Due to the pandemic, it is difficult to assess how all this has impacted on the industry and whether there has been a shift in its culture. But apart from everybody reading the specifications and product certifications a little more carefully, I suspect very little.
It is now believed that in the past there has been too little regulation of construction. Although it rubs against the grain for a conservative government to regulate it, it has had little option as the construction industry has been found wanting in its self-regulation. Regulation is one thing but is it sufficient to change the culture of our industry? A culture in which we try to build as cheaply as possible to a weak and ambiguous set of building regulations. If the main contractor makes a mistake in their costs, they squeeze the subcontractor who in combination with his suppliers, very often are already cash flowing the project. The subcontractor who unable to offer little resistance, also ends up with most of the liability for the completed works.
The new regulator may be a ‘game changer’ and help to shift this culture, or will the subcontractor continue to be crushed between a rock and a hard place that is the large main contractor for whom they are dependent on for their livelihood and multinational material manufactures and suppliers.
To assist change the ‘Building A Safer Future Charter’ has been created to promote positive and cultural behavioral change in the safety of the built environment. The Charter was originally conceived and created by a group of ‘Early Adopters’ comprising Local Authorities, Contractors, Housing Associations and property developers, with the support of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG). It about putting safety first, and ahead of all other building priorities. It is focused on driving up standards, changing culture and behaviors, and raising the bar in relation to building safety, from design through to management and maintenance.
In my opinion we need to make fundamental changes to the way we work. Construction should be about partnerships and corporations; currently far too adversarial. The root cause of this is the nature of contracts. We need a system in which the architect regains more power, the main contractor takes on more responsibility and we reduce the need for self-employed labour. This will drive up safety and quality at financial cost but surely this is a cost worth paying to get a built environment that is safer and more inspiring.
If you want to engage with the Building A Safer Future, then sign up to the charter and get involved in molding the future of our industry. https://buildingasaferfuture.org.uk/
Mitch Gee 1-04-21