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Is the UK’s Building Safety Act just about high-rise buildings? Think again

21 November 2023

This act offers an opportunity for civil engineers to reflect and learn from past systemic failures, says Dame Judith Hackitt.

Is the UK’s Building Safety Act just about high-rise buildings? Think again
Dame Judith Hackitt conducted an independent review of building regulations and fire safety. Image credit: Shutterstock

In 2017, in the wake of the Grenfell Tower tragedy, I was asked by the government to conduct an independent review of building regulations and fire safety.

My task was to determine how the regulatory system had failed and to make recommendations for improving it and rebuilding confidence so that people could feel safe in their homes.

Six years on, my recommendations have been put into effect and the Building Safety Act, which received royal assent last year, will take full effect from April 2024.

Thanks to a huge amount of work by civil servants and the new regulators – the Building Safety Regulator and the National Regulator for Construction Products – we’re now in the process of implementing the biggest change in building regulation for a generation.

Some say it isn’t really a big difference – that it’s merely making the built environment sector do what it should’ve been doing already. Others say it’s a huge change and it’s happening too fast.

However, given what we’ve learnt about what happened at Grenfell and the extent to which systemic failure was much more widespread, this change needs to happen – and at pace.

Resetting the system

This is a great opportunity to rethink and reset the whole system, to commit to building quality homes and raise construction standards across the board.

New standards must be implemented for new-builds and, particularly, for those buildings of highest risk.

The legacy issues of the race to the bottom that happened because of a weak regulatory regime need to be addressed.

It’s not for high-rise buildings only

Even now, it’s not uncommon for people to assume that the Building Safety Act applies only to high-rise buildings.

This isn’t the case – the main principles of the act apply to all buildings of all heights, but in a risk-based and proportionate way.

Just as the Health and Safety at Work Act applies to all workplaces, but is backed up by a tougher safety case regime for those that pose the highest hazards, the same is true of the Building Safety Act.

For those buildings of highest risk – with the greatest potential for loss of life in the event of fire or structural failure – the regulator will require a full case to demonstrate that the building is safe and fit for purpose.

Moving away from a box-ticking approach

Perhaps the most fundamental change in the act, which people are beginning to wake up to, is the shift in approach.

We’re moving away from compliance, in which prescriptive guidance is issued and the regulator is asked to ‘sign off’ that a building ‘ticks the boxes’.

Instead, we’re moving to a new regime requiring duty holders to demonstrate to the regulator that a building has been properly designed, and built in line with that design by competent people.

With the final result being that the whole building system is safe for occupation.

Changing behaviours

This shift in burden of proof is going to need a whole set of new behaviours from all of those involved in creating – and maintaining – the built environment.

It requires the breaking down of barriers between professions, and a move towards greater collaboration and information-sharing.

It will certainly mean the need for better record-keeping.

I referred to this in my report as the “golden thread of information” that needs to be recorded during design and construction. It then needs to be maintained throughout the life of every building.

Changing behaviours, along with increasing collaboration and transparency, won’t simply happen because people try harder.

In an industry in which contractual obligations drive many of those behaviours, it should be obvious that forms of contract will need to be revamped to reflect the new requirements.

The role of civil engineers

The arrival of the Building Safety Act provides an opportunity for all civil engineers to:

  • Reflect and learn lessons from the poor practices that were laid bare by the Grenfell tragedy and by my report.
  • Consider how much of what was found extends beyond domestic and commercial buildings – never assume it’s someone else’s problem.
  • Identify where practices are better within the profession and help colleagues in the built environment sector to get there faster.
  • Acknowledge, with humility, the part we all played in standing by when we knew there was poor practice going on, but failing to act until a tragedy happened.

We must commit to speaking up on moral and ethical grounds when we know things are not as they should be.

  • Dame Judith Hackitt, non-executive director at HS2 Ltd and chair at Enginuity