Traditional methods of construction need to change

Increasing pressure on contractors to deliver bigger, quicker and cheaper builds can result in mistakes sometimes costing lives. Construction is an industry that shoulders much responsibility, the importance of making fundamental changes to methods of working is immeasurable. Glyn Coates, Zeroignition, looks at flaws in traditional methods of construction and offers solutions.

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Afinished building should be fully compliant and fit-for-purpose. It’s essential projects are designed, specified and constructed by accredited professionals. Instead many contracts are awarded to the lowest bidder opposed to well researched and vetted companies.

More than the bare minimum

Generally, product specification stems from the required performance and suitable qualification in relation to BS/EN or ISO testing. But who monitors this and how can we be certain a building meets the architect’s or designer’s performance specification?

A specifier may complete the list of products required for a project, but contractors have the license to use inferior products to cut costs. This is a major issue, particularly in the UK, and should be abolished.

The impact of failing to follow specifications

Following the disastrous fire at Grenfell, it was reported that the intumescent cavity closers, installed as part of the external elevation, were the wrong way around. This meant the under-fire barrier could not react to the fire in the right way and close the cavity to prevent it from moving upwards throughout the building. This mistake throws into question how it actually happened.

There’s a glaring problem in the industry: insufficient policing of what’s being installed and how it’s being done.

Does the responsibility lie with the project or site manager, sub-contractor or main contractor? The truth is nobody knows. Liability dodging, cost cutting and lack of organisation in the chain of command between specification, installation and maintenance are the biggest challenges our industry is ignoring.

Where knowledge falls short, standards do too

There’s a lack of understanding of fire control and requirements to reach minimum standards. Few know the differences between reaction to, and resistance to, fire or understand that specifying a Euroclass A.1 does not mean it will achieve a 60-minute performance. More education is needed.

Currently fire protection considerations lack the priority they deserve. It should be thought of as an essential building foundation, and built into initial designs and within products, not just an after-thought near the end of the process.

Industry interrogation

Two parts of the build program require immediate attention. First, the overall design, in particular ensuring the priced project with the ‘equal and approved’ reference meets the performance requirement on all levels, especially against fire. Second, the necessity to supervise and police the construction program so the right products are installed and maintained in the correct way by qualified contractors.

It’s a huge task for a reactionary industry. The situation could be improved with a few simple alterations. Greater levels of control are needed across:

Materials – ensuring they’re part of an umbrella accreditation and testing system to guarantee consistency and compliance from manufacturers.

Cost shouldn’t come first – this goes for material substitutions and contractors.

Quality control – there needs to be a clear chain of authority on builds to ensure there is a central role overseeing products, installation and construction methods.

Traceability – all components in fabricated systems need to be marked and logged to ensure if the worst happens, the sub-contractors and manufacturers involved are held accountable.

Flexibility in design – Architects and clients need a greater understanding over the limitations of materials and their costs so there’s less chance of specifying something that will need to be altered later.

Offsite activity for quality assurance

Offsite manufacturers provide an important lesson with their use of monitored and checked components to ensure products meet performance specifications.

By introducing quality checks and tests during component assembly in the factory environment, it’s simple to develop and implement industry-standard certifications. When taken to site for installation, the workforce is qualified and have up-to-date knowledge of the products and the building as a ‘system’.

Cutting costs compromises on safety

Material substitutions chosen to reduce cost should never be considered if safety is compromised, yet this happens in the construction industry. This cost-down focus isn’t present in other industries that are just as essential. It’s unlikely the aviation industry would contemplate component specification changes based on a low-cost option over passenger safety.

The global construction industry needs to make a change to the way projects are thought about from the early design stages. One change would be to introduce third party material accreditations from a body like the BBA, rather than relying on manufacturers to self-certify.

Looking to the future

Offsite manufacturing seems to be heading in the right direction. Expanding this into all construction market sectors is possible, but measures need to be taken so that quality control over components being manufactured develops ahead of the game. Clients and specifiers need peace of mind when buying.

When it comes to construction, the lowest cost shouldn’t be the first consideration. Cost-effectiveness is important but shouldn’t take precedence over building safety, quality or performance. Research and due diligence are key to helping the industry improve its standards. So is refusing to work with sub-quality contractors and manufacturers.

We know what needs to be done. Drawing inspiration from more modern methods of construction and similar industries, particularly where manufacturing and installation is present, means that we can translate the same high standards and way of working to move away from being driven by cost, to being driven by quality and safety. Let’s go back to basics and change the foundations of how we work.

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