The following opinion piece was submitted on July 16th 2014 by Vivian Cummins, architect in private practice and Eastern Region Member of the Council of the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland (RIAI).
Are small architectural practices under threat from S.I.9?
There are three people employed at my architectural firm on the Kildare/Laois/Carlow county borders. At the moment the work load is made up almost entirely of private residential work. This is not a complaint as this work seems to be more profitable for us than most public sector projects and much more interesting from a design perspective than, for example, speculative commercial work. Over the years I have been fortunate to be able to negotiate reasonable lump sum fees (country clients hate percentages) that enable me to provide a high level of service to my clients. However professional fees for residential work undertaken by rural/registered/RIAI architects have a ceiling that is directly proportional to what the local draughtsman or woodwork teacher is charging for “doing up plans”. Someone who approached us recently to inquire if we would take on the role of Assigned Certifier for a self-build advised us that the drawings and documents for his grant of planning permission for a 4-bed detached house had been obtained for €500 (five hundred) “all in”. Unfortunately that amount would not even cover our VAT charges!
Accordingly there is very little wriggle room to manoeuvre our fees in any upward direction. Our overheads for PI insurance, CPD, Public and Employers Liability, Light and Heat, Practice membership, and printing cartridges…………. remain constant. Any additional legislation that we are obliged to comply with means we have to do more work for more or less the same money. This is becoming a real threat to our ability to sustain the level of service that I believe our clients need compared with what they can afford to pay us for the required labour. In a recent overview of the regulations involved in the design and construction for an average dwelling prepared by Wexford-based RIAI architect, Zeno Winkens, 29 different stages of work were identified that must be completed: (Link:) Absorbing the additional labour costs of Health + Safety legislation and Part ‘L’ compliance to date was just about manageable. However the, as yet, unidentified cost implications of the additional administrative workload brought on by BC(A)R S.I. 9 may be the tipping point for many small rural practices (and urban) towards being unable to earn a basic livelihood.
It would have greatly assisted my job if the Government had undertaken to inform building owners of the rationale behind the new laws, their obligations under same and why they should be willing to pay more for the statutory professional services. As it is I am left to explain the whole thing (with great difficulty I might add). It is an instant turn-off for most clients who want to discuss exciting designs not design certifier expense. Inevitably the € 500 chap “doing up plans” looks like a more attractive option.
I have yet to turn a pre-BC(A)R fee proposal into a post BC(A)R one that will pay extra for the extra work. It is very upsetting to lose clients at a post-planning stage but I cannot afford to take on work at below cost or indeed at the minimum wage. For fee proposals after 1st March I have not automatically assumed the role of either the Design or Assigned Certifier. I have allowed for the possibility that these roles could be undertaken separately by being sub-contracted to third parties at a considerably reduced rate than what I feel I could undertake the work for and by those who may have the necessary skills. However this is not an ideal situation for every project and it is certainly not what was envisaged by those who supported the introduction of this legislation. I also wonder if there is any one individual in the entire country who has the required skills, competence, training, qualifications and experience to ‘design, specify and certify’ compliance with each of the Building Regulations from ‘A’ to ‘M’. Call me if you are out there!
I have had the huge privilege of sitting on the RIAI Council for the past six months and thereby having access to a lot of relevant S.I.9 information. This has amounted to a Masterclass in the new legislation even if opinions on Council vary widely. The recent RIAI ‘Peer’ review of BC(A)R documents is one such example. The concerns being raised in the industry about alternative interpretations of the legislation and documents is extremely confusing and worrying. I also know that the largest architectural practices in the country are struggling with the legal and insurance implications of the new legislation. For a small country practice to try and address these issues on its own has, I fear, become a bit of a shot in the dark and a form of ‘Rural Roulette’.
“Let’s hope we don’t all shoot ourselves in the foot!”
Vivian Cummins | Vivian Cummins + Associates | Levitstown Lock, Co. Kildare