Is the UK ‘approved inspector’ model a more transparent system, with better outcomes? | The Engineers Journal
In this well-researched article in the Engineer’s Journal on 9th December 2014, author Tim O’Connor concludes that, although the changes to the Building Control System constitute an improvement, the bar has been set too low. Extract:
“There are issues surrounding the adequacy of the inspection and certification arrangement under the revised Building Control System. The opinion of experienced professionals points towards adopting a system similar to the arrangement that is in place in England and Wales. Under this arrangement, the building owner has the choice of having building works inspected and certified by an officer from the building control authority or by a third party ‘approved inspector’. Adopting the ‘approved inspector’ model in Ireland would most likely result in a more transparent system, with better outcomes, independent of any commercial relationship between the Building Owner and the person certifying the works.
…There is a possible alternative to independent certification. Under the current provisions, building control authorities are not required to perform technical assessments of compliance with building regulation at commencement or at completion stage. If a technical assessment of compliance were to be conducted by the building control authority, at commencement and completion stages for all projects, this would constitute a second level check to capture the vast majority of non-compliances. In order to implement such a system, however, there are a number of obstacles that would need to be overcome”.
Link to full article here: Building Control Regulations – a fire safety perspective
Building Control Regulations – a fire safety perspective
Prior to the introduction of the Building Control Act 1990, building control legislation, from a national perspective, did not exist in Ireland. While the introduction of the 1990 Act introduced a level of regulation to the construction industry, reform of the system, from the perspectives of design, administration, inspection and certification of works, has been long overdue. The amendments to the 1990 Act, introduced by the Building Control Act 2007, did not sufficiently address the issues associated with the design, administration, inspection and certification of construction projects.
The Department of Environment, Community and Local Government promulgated the Draft Building Control (Amendment) Regulations in 2012. Subsequent consultation with construction industry stakeholders including Engineers Ireland, the Construction Industry Federation of Ireland (CIF), Royal Institute of Architects of Ireland (RIAI) and the Society of Chartered Surveyors of Ireland contributed towards the publication of the Building Control (Amendment) Regulations 2013 (Heneghan and Byrne 2014).
A number of issues with the 2013 Regulations prompted a number of amendments and the 2013 Regulations were revoked when the Building Control (Amendment) Regulations 2014 (BCAR 2014) were written into law.
Fire safety certificates
The Building Control Authority (BCA) is responsible for examining fire safety certificate (FSC) applications, from a technical perspective, to ensure that the design is in compliance with Part B (Fire Safety) of the Second Schedule to the Building Regulations. If the BCA is satisfied that the design is compliant, it issues a FSC to the applicant.
The FSC certifies that only the design is compliant. There is no system in place for the BCA to issue certification of the constructed building being compliant. The only method of certifying technical compliance is the Certificate of Compliance on Completion, issued by the assigned certifier.
Building owners are usually driven by project cost. According to RIAI (2012), certain building owners and clients seek to ignore their responsibilities under the Building Regulations in order to save money. This could have the effect of building owners attempting to compel assigned certifiers into certifying a building that may not be fully compliant.
In order to display compliance with Part B, RIAI (2012) recommended a schedule of compliance documents that should be required for building handover at practical completion stage. Despite recommendations from RIAI to include these documents, BCAR 2014 does not require any certification, at completion stage, particular to fire safety compliance.
In fact, the Code of Practice for Inspecting and Certifying Works 2014 (CoP) remains quite silent on issues relation to compliance with Part B during the construction phase of a project. The only reference to compliance with Part B is a recommendation that the assigned certifier should make provision for inspection of work relating to fire safety.
Applications for disability access certificates (DACs) and FSCs are often compiled and submitted at the same time, by the same professional. The DAC and the FSC applications are interdependent, to an extent, but there are two distinct application processes. There are a number of building design considerations, such as corridor and doorway widths, where a particular design may be in compliance with Part B but not compliant with Part M (Disabled Access).
Perhaps a combined application process for DACs and FSCs would reduce the potential for such anomalies. This proposal was put forward by the RIAI and Engineers Ireland during the consultation phase of the draft regulations.
During the period 2001-2011, approximately 29% of all fires attended to by fire services in Ireland occurred in dwellings. A FSC is required for the majority of buildings in Ireland; however, single domestic dwellings are excluded from this requirement. RIAI, during the Draft Building Control Regulations consultation phase, recommended that FSCs should be required for single domestic dwelling houses on the basis that this is where many of the serious risks to life occur.
The National Consumer Agency and Grant Thornton (2008) recommended that the situation of domestic dwelling houses being excluded from the requirement for a FSC should be reviewed. Despite these recommendations, BCAR 2014 did not add this requirement. A key consideration in to include such a requirement may have been in order to avoid adding additional costs to the construction of new dwellings.
Registration of builders and building culture
“There is a need for a change of culture in the construction industry so that the key stakeholders are committed to achieving quality construction; the Regulations need to reflect and develop this change of culture” (RIAI 2012, p. 13). A particular development that brought building construction issues to a head in Ireland was the Priory Hall apartment development in Dublin in 2011. This development uncovered a plethora of breaches of Building Regulations, including very serious fire safety non-compliance issues, which could not be adequately addressed after the apartments were completed and occupied (Walsh 2011).
Walsh goes on to describe how shoddy construction practices and non-compliances became the norm because small-scale house builders suddenly became developers of apartment complexes without the appropriate experience and competence.
The Priory Hall development attracted significant national media coverage, as a large number of families were required to leave their homes because of the extent of the non-compliance. The issues highlighted by Priory Hall could be considered to be one of the main triggers to reforming building control in Ireland in order to improve compliance with building regulations. There are many who contend that the type of poor building practices that took place at Priory Hall were the norm rather than the exception.
According to the CoP (2014), the building owner should assign a competent builder to construct and supervise the works. However, there are no specific guidelines to determine whether or not the Builder is competent. The CoP (2014, p. 6) states that builders “included on the Construction Industry Register Ireland or equivalent may be regarded as competent for projects consistent with their registration profile”. However, registration is voluntary as there is no statutory requirement for the Builder to be registered and the building owner is entitled to appoint any builder that he/she deems competent.
Engineers Ireland, during the Draft Building Control Regulations consultation phase, recommended that registration of builders must be implemented to strengthen the Building Control System in order to provide the quality outcome from a building that the end user is entitled to expect. RIAI made similar recommendations elaborating that registration of builders is successfully in place in New Zealand, Australia and a number of European countries.
Self-Certification versus independent certification
Verification that buildings are constructed in compliance with building regulations, in the developed world, is generally achieved through either independent certification or by self-certification. Self-certification is the process whereby, typically, a builder, an engineer or an architect, employed by the building owner, inspects and certifies the works. Independent certification is whereby government officials, or government-approved persons, inspect and certify the works.
In the case of independent certification, the persons responsible for certifying that the works satisfy relevant legislation have not carried out the building work themselves; they are independent from those who carry out the actual building work. Where government approved or registered inspectors inspect and certify the works, this is referred to as third party verification (Consortium of European Building Control 2010).
The Building Control Authority is not obliged to carry out a technical assessment of compliance for documents submitted at commenced or completion stage. Isdell (2013) outlines that this issue, combined with the low inspection targets of 12-15%, results in a serious weakness in the revised Building Control System.
Private sector self-certifiers may become subject to potential conflicts of interest (Hodge and Coghill 2007). An additional layer of supervision or oversight may be required to monitor the private sector self-certification actors (Van Der Heijden 2008) as there is no certainty that those responsible for certification cannot be pressured or coerced by their employers to act delinquently (Nor 2008).
In England and Wales, the building owner has a choice of having the works inspected and certified by the Building Control Authority or by an independent ‘approved inspector’. The approved inspector is an independent professional who is engaged by the building owner, but paid by the Building Control Authority.
In an attempt to research the topic further, in as unbiased a manner as possible, the researcher interviewed professionals who, in their occupations, act as stakeholders in the building control process from different perspectives. The first group of stakeholders represented building owners or clients that would be engaging the services of professionals to construct and certify buildings or works. The second group represented the private sector professionals that would inspect and certify the works. The final group of stakeholders interviewed represented the public sector Building Control Officers responsible for the administration of the Building Control System and the enforcement of the Building Control Regulations 1997-2014.
▪ Respondent 1 is a marine services executive with Bord Iascaigh Mhara. His primary degree is in mechanical engineering and he has completed a postgraduate diploma in fire safety practice (buildings and other structures). He is responsible for the management of Bord Iascaigh Mhara facilities including ice plants and a variety of other building types.
▪ Respondent 2 is an architect and has been the principal of a highly commended and award-winning firm of architects, in Dublin, for the past 18 years. His primary degree is in architecture and he has completed a postgraduate diploma in fire safety practice (buildings and other structures). The respondent’s firm has a wealth of expertise and experience in the fields of residential, retail, commercial, leisure and mixed-use architecture, urban design, conservation and sustainability.
▪ Respondent 3 is a chartered engineer and has completed a master’s degree in technology (safety, health and ergonomics). He spent 22 years as an engineer officer in the Defence Forces, four years as a fire and safety officer in the Southern Health Board, two years as assistant chief fire officer (prevention) in Cork County Council and two years as assistant chief fire officer (prevention) in Cork City Council. For the past 10 years, he has been working in private practice as fire safety consulting engineer.
▪ Respondent 4 is a civil engineer and has also completed a master’s in engineering science as well as a postgraduate diploma in fire safety practice (buildings and other structures). He spent 10 years as an engineer officer in the Defence Forces and 10 years as a housing inspector in the Department of the Environment. For the past two years, he has been working as a district inspector for the Office of Public Works.
▪ Respondent 5 has been working for the past six years as a fire officer (prevention) in a building control authority in Munster. His background is in manufacturing and his primary degree is in science.
▪ Respondent 6 is a civil engineer and has completed a master’s in emergency management. she worked for a number of years in private practice in London and subsequently worked as a fire officer (prevention) in a building control authority in Munster. For the past 12 years, she has been working as assistant chief fire officer (prevention) in another building control authority in Munster.
▪ Respondent 7 is qualified as a building surveyor. He worked for five years in an architectural design practice and has been working as assistant chief fire officer (prevention) in a building control authority in Leinster for the past six years. He is a part-time lecturer in the area of building regulations and building control regulations.
▪ Respondent 8 is a self-employed chartered engineer who has been running a successful engineering consultancy in Limerick for the past eight years. He previously worked for seven years as an engineer officer in the Defence Forces.
▪ Respondent 9 is an associate director with the Cork branch of an international firm of designers, planners, engineers, consultants and technical specialists offering a broad range of professional services. He is a chartered engineer (civil/structural) and has been working at this firm for over 16 years.
Building Control System and improving fire safety performance
All respondents interviewed agreed that the revised Building Control System, in its current form, should have the effect of improving the construction of buildings when compared with the system that was in place prior to 1 March 2014. However, all respondents had issues with some aspects of the system and felt that improvements could be made.
Respondents 7 and 8 highlighted that a lot of stakeholders are expressing concern about difficulties in meeting particular requirements of the building regulations under the revised system. “The building regulations were always there; it’s only the enforcement of them that has changed and people are panicking about them now. If people are worried now, what standard of work were they undertaking 12 months ago? (Respondent 8).
Five of the nine respondents indicated that there has not yet been sufficient experience of the revised system to determine how much of an effect it has on the fire safety performance of buildings. Respondent 3 states that the system is not yet mature enough and a lot of the issues have not yet been encountered.
Over half of the respondents identified that ensuring compliance with the FSC during the construction phase, and the subsequent Certificate of Compliance on Completion, represents a very positive outcome of the revised Building Control System. “The key component of the 2014 regulations is the Certificate of Compliance on Completion. For the first time this is a statutory requirement. This is the first time we have closed out the loop on FSCs, DACs and construction.
“The document must be on the register before the building can open or operate. We should see an improvement of compliance with FSCs. In my experience in the past, after many FSCs were granted, they were binned and they weren’t implemented. They must be implemented now because the full statutory requirements must be met for the Certificate of Compliance on Completion to go on the register” (Respondent 7).
Respondent 7, in his experience as a building control officer, claims that since the revised system was introduced, improvements can already be seen in terms of design and comprehension of building regulations. He goes on to propose that the design approval process for all parts of the regulations should improve compliance, as was achieved with the introduction of DACs 2010.
Builders and building culture in Ireland
Of the nine respondents, seven felt that mandatory registration of builders would result in better building construction. One respondent was undecided and the final respondent felt that mandatory registration would not lead to improvements. Respondent 2 discussed that the system that existed in the past, where anyone can set themselves up as a builder, leads to bad practice and is unfair on those who are correctly set up from the perspectives of health and safety, competence, pension contributions for employees and tax clearance.
Four of the respondents highlighted that it would be very unfair if the CIF was to have a monopoly on registration of builders. Respondents 3 and 6 argue that a list of suitable registration bodies should be identified so that there is a choice for builders. All respondents put forward the view that any system of registration should be based on competency. However, no consolidated view could be reached in relation to measuring such competence.
In the view of Respondent 8, there is no suitable body in Ireland, at present, which is in a position to decide whether or not a builder is competent. There are no guidelines on how competence can be measured or displayed and this must be addressed. Respondent 9 claims that qualifications alone should not be used to determine the competence of builders. This would discriminate against experienced builders who are capable of demonstrating their experience and competence. A significant amount of further research is required to propose a system of determining competence of Builders for the purposes of the revised Building Control System.
Respondent 2 claims that the biggest investment an average Irish citizen makes in his/her lifetime is the purchase of a house. He argues that it is unacceptable that someone, who is not properly educated and has no previous experience, can build a house off the plans, and the client will end up paying for the defects if and when they come to light.
Respondent 3 maintains that we should learn from the experience of the system in place in England and Wales and ensure Builders register with credible accreditation bodies; these Builders must then perform in accordance with that body’s rules and regulations. Respondent 9 suggests that if there is a chance of getting away with sub-standard work, or finding a loophole, there will be builders out there willing to take advantage of this.
Respondent 2 contends that, before the introduction of the revised Building Control System, there had been a culture of cutting corners and there was little if any requirement for proper certification. Although he argues that the new Regulations will be problematic in their implementation, he suggests they will lead to a significant improvement in terms of the culture of compliance and the necessity to comply.
Respondent 9, on the other hand, believes that although the Builder having responsibility for signing the Certificate of Compliance on Completion is a positive step, there are a number of existing Builders that would sign anything. He suggests that independent, random inspection of work by builder accreditation bodies would discourage bad practice among builders. A system of ‘three strikes and you’re out’ would compel builders to adhere to better standards.
Domestic dwelling houses
The majority of respondents did not feel that the requirement for a FSC would improve fire safety in dwelling houses. Three of the respondents contended that the addition of the FSC requirement would simply constitute another unnecessary, bureaucratic hurdle and cost that would ultimately be borne by the homeowner. Four of the nine respondents felt that the revised Building Control System, currently in place, would sufficiently address the issues that arose in the past because the necessary controls are now in place from the design, inspection and certification perspectives. It was highlighted that on-site inspection of fire safety provisions, during the construction phase, is essential.
Four of the respondents outlined that the most prominent fire safety risks associated with domestic dwelling houses are with the older building stock and that introduction of FSCs would do nothing to address this. Respondent 2 suggests that the fire detection and alarm system is the ‘big ticket’ fire safety provision in a domestic setting and that fatalities due to fires, in buildings where people are sleeping, can often be attributed to not having a properly functioning fire detection and alarm system. Respondent 6 emphasises that Building Regulations do not insist on a maintenance scheme for a Fire Detection and Alarm System.
In order to attempt to address some of the issues highlighted, Respondent 3 proposes that a retrofitting initiative, supported by a financial incentive, should be introduced to improve the fire-safety performance of existing dwelling houses. Such retrofitting could involve, for instance, the installation of modern fire detection and alarm systems in existing dwellings.
It was proposed that the requirements of Technical Guidance Document B – Fire Safety (TGD-B), in relation to single domestic dwelling houses, should be addressed by way of a stand-alone document outlining best practice. This arrangement is currently in place for TGD-L (Conservation of Fuel and Energy – Dwellings). Such a document would increase the level of education of practitioners because currently, even the simplest of concepts are not fully understood. The requirement to display compliance with the stand-alone TGD-B, at commencement stage, would result in a significant improvement in the design of dwellings, from a fire safety perspective.
Disabled Access Certificates and Fire Safety Certificates
For many years, there has been a statutory requirement to apply for a FSC prior to the commencement of construction of a building (other than dwelling houses). The requirement for a DAC came into effect on 1 January 2010 for new buildings (other than dwellings houses) which commence on or after that date.
Respondent 1 believes that the applications for DACs and FSCs should be kept separate because they are two distinct areas and each requirement should be met independently. This view was supported by two of the other respondents, who argued that one requirement could get submerged in the other and that due consideration may not be then given to fire safety or disabled access.
Respondent 6 outlines that there are particular situations where a DAC may be required but a FSC may not and that such a situation may make a consolidated approach difficult. Respondent 7, a building control officer, contends that both applications should be kept separate so that the technical requirements are at the foremost priority for each individual area. He was of the opinion that if they were merged, there would be no priority or precedence for one over another.
However, he goes on to state, “You cannot build the same building in two different ways so consideration should be given for both documents to match.” He explains that making DACs and FSCs consistent with each other is only possible where fire safety and building control are covered by a single organisation. The building control authority and the fire authority operate as one in some but not all local authorities. Almost half of the respondents interviewed emphasised their frustration with the issues associated with the disconnect that exists between the fire authority and the building control authority in some local authorities.
Four of the nine respondents emphasised that many of the issues surrounding DACs and FSCs can be attributed to conflicts between the Technical Guidance Documents (TGDs). A building design may be in compliance with Part B but may not be in compliance with Part M. A FSC may be then granted for such a building. For example, the minimum allowable doorway width under Part B is 750mm but the minimum allowable width under Part M is 800mm.
Many of the requirements of Part K (stairways, ladders, ramps and guards) are also relevant to the DAC and FSC; four of the respondents argue that Parts B, K and M should be assessed together. Respondent 2 goes so far as to argue that full approval with all parts (A-M) of the Building Regulations should be required as is the situation in the United Kingdom and Australia.
Certification of Works and building control authorities
The issue, of the appropriateness of the assigned certifier being employed by the building owner to inspect and certify buildings or works, has been a central theme in discussions and submissions relating to BCAR 2014 and the associated revised Building Control System. Respondents were divided in their views relating to this matter.
Four of the nine respondents felt that mandatory registration of the assigned certifier, with a professional body, is a sufficient control measure to ensure that he/she will act independently. Respondent 9 feels that because of the way the certificates are worded, it’s pretty onerous on the assigned certifier to carry out his/her duties correctly. He contends that, irrespective of money, it’s not in the assigned certifier’s interest to sign his/her practice or professional standing away.
Four of the respondents feel that the current system, where the assigned certifier is employed by the building owner, is inappropriate. each of these respondents believes that an independent, third-party system, based on the model used in the England and Wales, should be implemented in Ireland. Although Respondent 2 agrees that the revised Building Control System should lead to an improved culture of compliance, he suggests that the approved inspector system, used in England and Wales, would make the Irish system more objective.
In England and Wales, the building owner pays a fee to the building control authority, in proportion with the scale of the development, and the approved inspector is then paid by the building control authority. He suggests that such a system would end up in better outcomes, and ultimately in better, safer buildings.
Under the revised Building Control System, the building control authority is responsible for validation and registration of documentation both at commencement and at completion stages of construction projects. However, the building control authority is not required to perform any technical assessments at any stage. Eight of the nine respondents felt that it should be compulsory for the building control authority to perform technical assessments.
Respondent 2 proposes that a technical assessment of compliance would introduce an element of negotiation with a fellow peer on the building control authority side; this would facilitate coming to an agreed basis of compliance. He maintains that this is a much better system than assigned certifiers working in isolation, uploading information onto an electronic platform where there is only a limited chance that the building control authority will assess the drawings and documents for compliance.
Respondent 3 implies that not all designs submitted will be fully compliant and a third party assessment would constitute a double check to capture most examples of non-compliance. Although the vast majority of respondents agree that the building control authority should conduct technical assessments, six of the nine respondents emphasised that the building control authorities do not have sufficient resources to conduct such assessments.
CoP (2014) outlines that building control authorities are required to carry out a level of inspection equivalent to 12% to 15% of new buildings for which valid commencement notices have been received. All respondents agreed that this is far too low a target. The majority of the respondents proposed that the building control authority should inspect all buildings during the course of their construction. Respondent 8 contends that if the likelihood of the building control authority inspecting the building is low, shortcuts will be taken.
Conclusions and recommendations
Overall, the research findings suggest that the introduction of BCAR 2014 constitutes a significant improvement on the Building Control System that existed in the past. The overall sentiment, among the research participants, is that the changes to the Building Control System will have the effect of improving building construction, and consequently improving the fire safety performance of buildings. However, the Irish construction industry has not yet had sufficient experience of the revised Building Control System to quantify the extent to which the regulations will impact on the fire safety performance of our buildings. There are particular areas where significant gains have been identified. However, areas have also been identified where further improvements are required.
The research concludes that the mandatory requirement for the Certificate of Compliance on Completion finally addresses the issues associated with constructing a building in accordance with a Building Regulations-compliant design, approved by the building control authority. Heretofore, the FSC was merely certification that the design of a building was in compliance with Part B of the Building Regulations.
Under the revised Building Control System, a statutory certificate is kept on file, signed by the assigned certifier and builder, confirming that the building or works have been constructed in compliance with the Building Regulations and with the FSC. This will undoubtedly have the effect of instilling added confidence in the fire safety performance of new buildings in the future.
The current voluntary system of registration of builders is a noteworthy weakness of the revised Building Control System. In order to address this weakness, a number of reputable, credible accreditation bodies should be identified as being acceptable for builders to register with. It is essential that competence assessment be central to any proposed system of registration. A method to measure competence will need to be agreed for such a system to work. Simply paying a subscription to be a ‘member of the club’ is not an acceptable solution.
It has been determined that the fire safety risks associated with the existing stock of domestic dwellings is a cause for concern. In accordance with the proposal put forward by Respondent 3, consideration should be given to introducing an incentive scheme for dwelling owners to upgrade fire safety provisions in their private dwellings.
There are issues surrounding the adequacy of the inspection and certification arrangement under the revised Building Control System. The opinion of experienced professionals points towards adopting a system similar to the arrangement that is in place in England and Wales. Under this arrangement, the building owner has the choice of having building works inspected and certified by an officer from the building control authority or by a third party ‘approved inspector’. Adopting the ‘approved inspector’ model in Ireland would most likely result in a more transparent system, with better outcomes, independent of any commercial relationship between the Building Owner and the person certifying the works.
There is a possible alternative to independent certification. Under the current provisions, building control authorities are not required to perform technical assessments of compliance with building regulation at commencement or at completion stage. If a technical assessment of compliance were to be conducted by the building control authority, at commencement and completion stages for all projects, this would constitute a second level check to capture the vast majority of non-compliances. In order to implement such a system, however, there are a number of obstacles that would need to be overcome.
In order to address the conflict issues associated with the current parallel arrangement of applying for FSCs and DACs, the TGD-B, TGD-K and TGD-M should be reviewed and harmonised with a view to addressing conflicts that currently exist in their requirements. Furthermore, the disconnect between the building control authority and fire authority, that exists in some local authorities, must be tackled. The recommendations outlined above demonstrate that, although the changes to the Building Control System constitute an improvement, the changes should have stretched much further.
This sentiment has been supported by much criticism of the revised system, from all sides, since its introduction. In a letter that Eoin O Cofaigh, former RIAI president, wroteto The Irish Times on 16 March 2014, he describes BCAR 2014 as “a huge missed opportunity, from a Government who knew the proper solution and who ignored it”.
The research has indicated that, in the past, there has been a culture of cutting corners in the Irish construction industry, which has led to many unacceptable outcomes, of which Priory Hall is a sobering example. Bringing about a change in such a deep-seated culture must be managed with care and such change can only be brought about by sincere buy-in from all major stakeholders. It is up to the Department of Environment, Community and Local Government, the building control authorities and the professional regulatory bodies to demonstrate leadership and manage the change effectively without promoting resistance among actors involved.
The introduction of BCAR 2014 constitutes a significant improvement on the poorly maintained Building Control System that existed in Ireland for many years. After a reasonable trial period of the revised Building Control System, the structure and management of the Building Control System, and associated legislation, should be revisited once more, with a view to implementing some of the recommendations proposed in this paper.
However, until such time as a review is appropriate, the stakeholders should embrace the revised Building Control System and exploit its positive aspects in an attempt to improve building construction and promote an improved culture of compliance to provide better, safer buildings for all.
References available on request
Tim O’Connor is a chartered engineer with 14 years’ experience in engineering/construction.
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