New law looks set to shake up UK construction

buildingsFor those who want to, the government will help industry build better, but a regulator with sharper teeth awaits those seeking to abuse the system, says Richard Waterhouse, Chief Strategy Officer at NBS.

Last month saw the new Building Safety Bill published, trailed as a once in a generation opportunity to improve how buildings are designed, built, and operated. The legislation has a focus on taller residential buildings, those over 18m are considered high risk, yet reforms go far beyond this.

Architects will see a sharper focus on ongoing professional development, with new registration requirements, and construction products will be subject to a new regulatory framework, including a statutory list of ‘safety-critical’ items.

The way buildings are approved, and construction projects inspected looks likely to be subject to a shake-up.

The new legislation will act as a catalyst in the move to digital transformation, with specific requirements around collaboration and a focus on digital record-keeping, using the golden thread. The statutory weight is important. In an industry known for its inertia to change, this is the lever that will get the ball rolling. The result will be high-quality digital data being used throughout the design, construction and operation phases.

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While architects and structural engineers have led the transition, compelled by the government’s BIM mandate, not everyone has gone digital.

It is somewhat disappointing as the benefits are clear and wide-reaching: digital tools improve standards, reduce mistakes at every stage and improve record keeping and auditing. Driving up safety, keeping costs down and builds on schedule.

Transforming the regulatory environment

There will be a new regulator, part of the Health and Safety Executive, responsible for overseeing the design, construction, and operation of high-rise residential properties. Currently, buildings falling into the high-risk scope are those structures taller than 18m, however the height requirement is expected to drop to 11m, and other types of homes look likely to be incorporated too.

The new regulatory environment will closely follow that of the Construction Design Management, (CDM) regulations. There will be, five new ‘duty holder’ roles created: Client, Principal Designer, Principal Contractor, Designer and Contractor.

These people will have a duty to collaborate and share information, especially with the new building inspection and approvals roles.

This new law not only supports a true digital future for construction, it takes is a pragmatic approach. As this is a seismic shift, it cannot happen overnight. Starting with buildings of eighteen metres in height or six stories upwards, then widening the scope, will allow the industry to adapt. If it were more ambitious, it would simply fail.

As part of the new Building Safety Regulator, there will also be a new construction product regulator, focused on strengthening materials regulation. Its responsibilities will include market surveillance, manufacturer enforcement and advising both the industry and government.

Better decision making

 When it comes to design decisions, creating accurate specifications can be a headache, with some projects needing thousands of choices to be made. Under the new regime, product manufacturers will have to provide data and performance accreditation, use standardised systems, and take a more collaborative approach.

This includes adopting a transparent attitude to data sharing. All this can be done effectively using digital methods and will no doubt make specification less of a challenge.

This legal framework will result in less substitution and, as ‘value engineering’ combines with rigorous record-keeping and sign off procedures, construction culture will move from being cost-focused to quality-driven. Product stewardship and collaboration will lie at the heart of this new approach.

The new regulator will assume responsibility for the oversight, competence and performance of building inspectors and the local authorities in which they work.

The timings are all wrong

Only time will tell if this will transform the industry. It will rely on new digital processes (the golden thread), cultural change and robust enforcement. There is also going to be a raft of ‘secondary legislation’ clarifying some of the bill’s intent. This will take time to draft and implement.

Yet, time passes. There is no expectation for the regulator to certify buildings before 2023, 1,200 of the buildings in scope are high risk, with a further 7,800 medium risk ones. Many of the high-risk properties will not be tested against the new laws until 2024. Additionally, there are thousands of mortgage prisoners, with their homes assessed as worthless. For these people, the timescales are untenable. Things have to speed up.

However, the broad-brush strokes of the bill are positive. For those who want to, the government will help the industry to build better and more safely. For those that try to abuse the system, there will be a regulator with a keener eye and sharper teeth.

Richard Waterhouse is Chief Strategy Officer at NBS