New Laws Will Lead to a Digital Future

For the last few years, the construction sector has been high on the Government’s agenda, particularly around the subjects of fire and building safety. Recently thrown into sharper focus through the publication of the Hackitt Report and industry reaction, 2020 has seen an assertive drive towards the establishment of new laws and a dedicated regulator to improve building safety. Importantly, the new legislation will also act as a much-needed catalyst in the move to digital transformation, which has started to stagnate following an initial flurry of activity, writes Richard Waterhouse, Chief Strategy Officer at NBS.

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Richard Waterhouse

is the Chief Executive Officer of NBS. He is an Architect and BIM specialist

The construction industry as a whole is under-digitised, yet we’re rapidly approaching a time when digital will be a ‘must-have’, not a ‘nice-to-have’. While architects and engineers have led the transition, compelled by the Government’s BIM mandate, not everyone has gone digital. However, the benefits are clear and wide-reaching: digital tools improve standards, reduce mistakes at every stage and improve record keeping and auditing. This keeps costs down, builds on schedule and standards high.

New regulator

The Government asked HSE to establish a new building safety regulator following recommendations in the ‘Building a Safer Future’ report by Dame Judith Hackitt.

The new building safety regulator will be part of the Health and Safety Executive. Clear, transparent, unambiguous; it will have a significant impact throughout the building process. Not only will it be able to impose sanctions and instigate prosecution at any stage of construction, but its remit will also cover in-use. Beyond this, its scope will also include revoking building safety certificates and levying unlimited fines for non-compliance.

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

At the NBS Construction Product Leaders’ Summit earlier this year, John Carpenter, Associate at architectural practice Allies and Morrison, said: “Specifiers require highly accurate product descriptions using the most relevant and up-to-date industry standards. We need to be able to compare similar products, and product information has to be clear. Are we comparing apples with apples or apples with oranges? All too often, the product information is unclear, and performance data ambiguous.”

He adds: “This is unnecessary, taking up a huge amount of our time while we try to work out if a product is genuinely compatible and if it meets the specification brief. It’s all too easy to see how this can lead to mistakes.”

Under the new regime, 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 of 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 will lie at the heart of this new approach. The increase in oversight doesn’t stop there. ARB has announced a consultation with a view to career-long competency assessments.

New laws

Early in April, Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick announced a series of measures comprising what he called “the biggest change in building safety for a generation”. This is the Government’s response to ‘Building a Safer Future’ (Hackitt, 2018), the Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety.

The changes will initially apply only to multi-occupancy buildings of height 18m and above, or six storeys, whichever is reached first. For buildings in-scope, a duty-holder regime will apply. The client, principal designer and principal contractor will have to demonstrate that the building is safe. Crucially, the ability of the duty-holder to choose which building control body oversees construction/refurbishment will be removed.

There are gateway points at various stages, requiring evidence-based sign-off from the regulator before the project can move forward. The three gateways are: pre-planning, before construction and before occupation, each focusing on people’s safety and the quality of record-keeping. Design changes will need to be properly recorded and notified. Before occupation, full digital documentation has to be provided, including drawings and a dataset of assets.

Sewing it up

The Building a Safer Future report identified a need for a ‘golden thread’ of information. Updated throughout a building’s life and in use from design through occupation, it will be an accurate and real-time record of what has gone into a building, how it was installed and maintained. This encourages transparency and accountability.

Right now, the golden thread is an aspiration, and a major sticking point is around having consistent standards and interoperability. As we all know, technology can be frustrating. Files need reformatting, cut and paste is part of the grind. It’s still too hard to move information without losing data, thus risking costly mistakes.

The Centre for Digital Built Britain recently released its report on interoperability, which was overseen by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). This is a welcome look at a real sticking point.

Changing ways of working

It’s clear the future is both digital and safety-first. This requires true collaboration and making the people who will live in the buildings you create a focal point.

This will no doubt lead to a wholesale revolution around working practices, contracts and approaches. The regulations, coupled with new technologies, provide a fantastic opportunity for the industry to use digital collaboration to focus on creating safe homes for all.

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