Building engineers conference puts standards, responsibility and compliance under the spotlight

Responsibility, public confidence and competency was echoed across the full complement of speakers at last week’s Chartered Association of Building Engineers (CABE) Annual Conference. With the construction industry at a quality crossroads, it became clear that professionals of the future need to deliver a standard of practice which exceeds expectation and deserves public trust.

With a diverse membership covering design, construction, evaluation and maintenance professionals, more than 200 people from across the industry gathered for the two-day conference at Chesford Grange in Kenilworth. Themed around pathways to excellence and how building engineers can help the sector deliver more than simply compliance, the hotly-debated event covered the technical issues related to the golden thread of design, construction and handover as well as regulatory compliance, construction, and building operations.

In her keynote speech, Dame Judith Hackitt, author of ‘Building a Safer Future: Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety’ told the conference about the need for a joined-up regulatory process that goes hand-in-hand with a tougher regulatory regime, with real penalties and sanctions for those that don’t perform. She also called for an end to value engineering, a phrase she would be “happy to never hear again. It is anything but value; it is cutting costs and quality”

Reflecting on how buildings are designed and built, architect Simon Bayliss spoke to the conference about the architect’s role in delivering more than compliance, and how he sees modular, off-site construction to be the much-needed panacea for the UK housing crisis. Offering architects more control over detailed design, he said, “off-site construction is an opportunity to reclaim build quality and could revolutionise the way we build homes”.

Commenting on Dame Hackitt’s ‘golden thread’ of design, he added:

“There should be at least one organisation, one person who has understood, documented and followed the building from the very beginning to the end, and throughout its lifecycle.”

Trust, responsibility, education and the need for better policy were the key points from a talk by Bobby Chakravarthy, Past President of the Association of Product Safety (APS). On the theme of skills and competency, he said: “We need to ensure that the future professionals we train and educate have the right ethics and understand that buildings are not just for clients but also for people.”

Clerk of Works, Jerry Shoolbred, outlined the role and importance of the clerk of works and building quality. On competency, he said

“It’s about educating not just the professionals, but also the clients who want the buildings in the first place. It’s about educating them so they don’t take too many shortcuts”.

On building to regulations, an insurance perspective was provided by Tom Roche, Senior Consultant at FM Global. He spoke about risk and the meaning of success on projects, highlighting the case of a recently-opened multi-million pound garden supplies centre that will need to be rebuilt following a catastrophic fire. “If you wanted to comply with regulations you could say this was a success,” he said. “But what does compliance mean? Is it simply regulatory minimums?” He brought this into sharp focus, saying that nearly seven out of ten (69%) businesses were unaware that current building regulations in the UK did not adequately prevent and protect against the devastating effects of fire.

An inspiring and motivational keynote speech on day two from the Reverend Kevin Fear, Health and Safety Strategy Lead at CITB, continued the theme of compliance and also focused on ethics, respect, integrity and responsibility. He encouraged members to think differently and said that more than compliance can only start from a position of personal beliefs and values. He posed the question: “Do we only comply with this when there is a chance we might not get caught?”.

Industry regulation with regard to fire safety was discussed by Jamie Davis, Head of Fire Risk Management at BB7 while Susan Lowrie, Property Risk and Compliance Manager at Royal Mail, emphasised the need for a smooth transition from design to operation, along with the full support of designers and contractors, in order to fine tune a building and eliminate the gap between design intent and reality. The final speaker of the day, Dr Andy Dengel of BRE Environment, echoed the theme of the day about getting it right and putting people at the centre of a project’s design.

In summing up, CABE President David Taylor said:

“Collectively as an industry we must have the confidence to move forwards, raise our standards, be safer together and collaborate. A culture change has to happen in order to instill both the public and industry’s confidence and trust. To make this change we must influence behaviour and shape our current culture. The whole industry needs to revisit its core values with a focus on competencies, compliance, enforcement, design, technology, manufacturing processes, procurement and continuing whole life maintenance and management, and involvement of the end users.”

It is clear that action is required to help re-establish confidence and public trust in our sector. While at this stage no one knows what this new legislation will entail from CABE’s perspective, the industry should be prepared for the system of regulation, enforcement and management of building safety to undergo significant ‘end-to-end’ reform and increased regulatory oversight.

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