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A look back and forward

Matthew Williams of Stratton Creber Commercial considers the Building Regulations in the light of the Hackitt Report

I just about remember coming across “The 1976 Building Regulations” on my architect father’s desk, set in an attractive plain brown cover and a cover price of £4.75. The Regulations would provide you with much of the information you needed to put together a building. For example, turning to schedule 6 (table 2) allowed you to work out that a 44×150 ceiling joist at a 450mm spacing would span the 3.42m you needed for your design.

As a youngster, I was amused that Part “P” of the regulations dealt with Sanitary Conveniences and that someone in the drafting may even have had a sense of humour.

These days in a new-build house you are more likely to find metal-web-floor-joists rather than traditional timber joists, making the old schedules redundant. Time has moved on and so has regulation, but I do remember that simplicity with some fondness.

The current building regulations 2010 are themselves a relatively brief document but are supported by guidance in the form of 15 Approved documents.  These are identified by letters A to R, have various subsections and an approved Document 7 (which details standards of materials and workmanship required by Regulation 7). They set out guidance on how to comply with the regulations in the most common buildings. They are available for free on the Gov.uk web site, even cheaper than the £4.75 my father would have had to pay.

Instead of span tables to design your ceiling joist you are now referred to the “Timber Research and Development Association (TRADA) document Eurocode 5 Span tables or alternative guidance in BSEN1995-1-1:2004. Pursuing the TRADA route allows you, after logging on to their web site, registering and paying your £35, to access the table to work out the joist size.

Part “P” now deals with electrical safety.

The May 2018 report by Dame Judith Hackitt DBE FREng Cm identifies 825 “other documents” referred to in the building regulations including Standards, Government Guidance and Industry Advice.  It has been widely publicised that this pile of documents would stand over 2 feet (609mm) high.

The report by Dame Hackitt is entitled “Building a Safer Future” and is subtitled “Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety”. The report arising from the fire at Grenfell Towers, follows on from an earlier, interim report by Dame Hackitt, which described how the current system of building regulations and fire safety is not fit for purpose. Although her report is initially aimed at tighter control over the construction of Higher Risk Residential Buildings 10 more stories high (HRRBs) its eventual reach will be far further with proposed major reform of the building regulations and supporting documents.

By the 17 May 2018 the report by Dame Hackitt had been welcomed by the government and they have committed, amongst other matters, to:

  • Consult on the use of combustible materials in cladding of HRRBs
  • ensuring residents have better mechanism for blowing the whistle on landlords who do not maintain safe buildings
  • changing the law to achieve meaningful and lasting reform of the building regulatory system, with strong sanctions for those who fail to comply
  • inviting views to inform how the government could implement major reform of the regulatory system
  • restructuring building regulations fire safety guidance to ensure it is clear.

Dame Hackitt identifies key issues underpinning the system we use to deliver our buildings, and concludes: “The above issues have helped to create a cultural issue across the sector, which can be described as a ‘race to the bottom’ caused either through ignorance, indifference, or because the system does not facilitate good practice. There is insufficient focus on delivering the best quality building possible, in order to ensure that residents are safe, and feel safe.”

The report goes on to set out and address this stinging criticism of the construction industry. Amongst other matters, there are recommendations for an oversight of HRRB’s including:

  • a ‘Joint Competent Authority’(JCA) This should comprise Local Authority Building Standards, fire and rescue authorities and the Health and Safety Executive, working together.
  • a new over-arching Approved Document, describing the system and a holistic-analyses that must be completed when undertaking building work, to define the interactions of the system and its comprising subsystems.
  • a system of mandatory occurrence reporting for HRRB’s to the JCA, similar to that employed by the Civil Aviation Authority, for key identified dutyholders on a no-blame basis

Do things have-to change? Yes, in the light of Grenfell, the full tragedy of which is likely to unfold in the enquiry over the next few months, there can be no doubt something has gone badly wrong with the way buildings are being constructed.

The opening of the Grenfell Tower enquiry, with the memories of relatives of the people who died, is a stark reminder that buildings and building safety is at the end of the day about people, and we need to get it right. I am sure most people involved in the building industry, even when wanting to earn a living, do want to do their task right, do a good job, sell suitable products, or deliver a building of the correct quality. However, I suggest, we do need to accept the report, examine our approach to projects and welcome a changing industry and regulation.

Matthew Williams is a Chartered Building Surveyor from Stratton Creber Commercial providing Building Surveying and Consultancy services across the South West.  If you would like to talk to Matthew about your project, or other commercial property matters, he can be contacted on 07834 996419.