State of the nations

Andrew Pearson offers a snapshot of some of the common themes and issues that building control bodies are having to overcome in fulfilling their professional duties.

We are in challenging times. The global Coronavirus pandemic has meant that, like all businesses, building control teams around the world have had to adapt quickly to continue to deliver the services that towns and cities rely on to ensure that buildings are safe, energy-efficient and accessible to all. 

At the same time, the regulations and building codes that building control professionals reference to ensure compliance are evolving in CABE’s various member nations. In the UK, the rules that regulate building control bodies and professionals are themselves undergoing radical reform, with an increased focus on accountability and competency within the profession. 

England

In Dorset, David Kitcatt PPCABE FCABE, Service Manager for Building Control, Economic Growth and Infrastructure at Dorset Council, says he is “grateful” in that building control has the full support of the council. Kitcatt’s planning team is relatively new. It was formed when Dorset Council was created from the amalgamation of six smaller authorities in 2019. “In the first year, I had to build a team and in this I have been fully supported by the senior leadership at Dorset Council, because they understand and value the building control service,” Kitcatt explains.

He says the new department’s growing reputation for delivering a professional service has enabled it to compete effectively for new business with private inspectors. “Through engagement with customers, we aim to understand a project so as to help guide and offer early advice to ensure it is built in a safe manner and in compliance with the Building Regulations.”

Tony Harvey-Soanes FCABE is Managing Director of Vantage Building Control, a private approved inspector operating in England. He agrees with Kitcatt that the profession is well respected, although he thinks it should be accorded the same respect as other construction professions. “We are lucky that the clients we work with understand the value that early engagement with building control can bring to a project. Generally, building control professionals are not held in the same high regard as an architect or a general practice surveyor, even though they are equally qualified and experienced,” he says.

Both Kitcatt and Harvey-Soanes say that the big issue dominating building control in England is changes to legislation following the Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety. “In my 30-odd-year career in building control, this will be the first time that we’ve had major new legislation and a change in the direction of travel,” says Kitcatt.

One proposed change is for building control professionals and organisations to be licensed in order to practise, with responsibility for competence under the control of the Building Safety Regulator or a designated body. Kitcatt says this should be a change for the better. 

Harvey-Soanes agrees that competence should be improved, maintained and demonstrated. He says the proposed changes “currently make it difficult to be 100% sure of the direction the industry is going”. He also has concerns that the new regulator “may rely more on Local Authority Building Control (LABC) for high-risk buildings”. 

Scotland

In Scotland, there are no private building control inspectors, so all 32 local authorities are solely responsible for the verification of building standards in their geographical region. Scott McKenzie, Senior Manager, Protective Services, at North Ayrshire Council, agrees that building standards practitioners in Scotland are protected to some degree from the commercial building control market. Although the building standards profession in Scotland is highly regarded, it is still affected by the wider construction and development market, which, McKenzie says, “can make fee income volatile and, therefore, make budget planning difficult for local authorities”.

Unsurprisingly, the coronavirus pandemic is the issue that McKenzie says is dominating building standards in the short term. However, he says all local authorities were able to react to this quickly to provide a building standards service by adapting processes and procedures to allow staff to work from home. “Verification was assisted by the use of photos and videos recordings to limit the need to visit sites,” he says.

Alongside the pandemic, the other major issue for building standards in Scotland is changes to the profession proposed by the Building Standards Futures Board, following failings including the construction of Edinburgh school buildings and the fire at Grenfell Tower, London. “The Building Standards Futures Board was set up at the beginning of 2019 to provide guidance and direction on the development and implementation of recommendations made by the review panels on compliance and enforcement and fire safety,” he says. 

The Futures Board’s remit is to advise on ways to improve the performance, expertise, resilience and sustainability of the Scottish building standards framework and services across Scotland. “Seven workstreams are currently being taken forward by the Building Standards Division (BSD) of the Scottish Government in collaboration with a range of stakeholders, including local authorities through Local Authority Building Standards Scotland (LABSS),” McKenzie explains.

Malaysia

Change is set to come to Malaysia, too. The Managing Director of multi-disciplinary consultancy Pro Consort, Isacc Sunder Rajan Packianathan FCABE, says the role of building control as a regulator does not currently exist in Malaysia. Instead, he says legal liability for certifying that a scheme has been designed and built in accordance with codes and regulations lies with the scheme’s engineer and architect. “Currently, there is no third party to check compliance,” he says. He is, however, optimistic that the situation may change in the near future after being involved with CABE in promoting the advantages of moving to a model that is more reflective of the system operating in the UK. “That proposal is currently being assimilated by our local ministers,” he says.

United States

In contrast to Malaysia, all schemes in America are checked by local authorities. “The [building] code is very prescriptive here, so a code official has to apply the code by the letter of the book and is not allowed to waiver 1% in either direction,” says Darren Hobbs MCABE, Director of Regulatory Compliance for the State of Connecticut.

Hobbs moved to the US from the UK, where he had worked in building control at both a local authority and government level. He says that, unlike in the UK, US code officials (the US building control equivalent) are often viewed as inflexible and adversarial and that there have been no co-ordinated attempts to shift this perception. “I’m a member of both CABE and the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS), and I’ve seen the good work those organisations have done in raising the profile of building control officers in the UK; that representation is missing here,” he says. 

Speaking from his experience as an employee of the State of Connecticut, Hobbs says that, generally, the market in which US code officials operate is increasingly challenging, with officials under pressure from high workloads and a growing demand for specialist knowledge. He says that, in the past, teams were formed from people with a diverse range of expertise, such as electrical and plumbing specialists, but, as these workers retire, existing team members are increasingly expected to pick up that specialist work. “The consequence is that you now have one guy doing what three used to do – not just in terms of volume of work but also from a technical point of view – which can be very challenging,” Hobbs explains.


Addressing the needs of disabled and older people 

While Approved Document M sets out the minimum access requirements for disabled and older people in England, Vantage Building Control’s Harvey‑Soanes says it advises clients to consider aiming for compliance under the Equality Act. “If you’ve got an existing building, then, under the Building Regulations, all you are required to do is to make reasonable provisions for accessibility and inclusion, whereas, under the Equality Act, even if you’ve made reasonable provisions, someone can still make a claim if they feel a space is not accessible or inclusive, even if it is Building Regulations-compliant.” 

North Ayrshire Council’s McKenzie says that Scotland has “a fantastic track record” of ensuring that new and converted buildings reach a high level of inclusion and accessibility. “Every home built in Scotland over the past few years should now be capable of being a home for life, with mandatory features such as future stairlift provision, future ground-floor shower space provision, sanitary accommodation at entrance level and access externally.” 

In Malaysia, new buildings also include provision for disabled access, disabled toilets and allocated car-parking spaces. However, according to Sunder Rajan Packianathan, while new buildings might be accessible to all, the same cannot be said of the country’s infrastructure, which, he says, is not disability-friendly. “This makes it difficult for those with disabilities to actually get to and from a disability-friendly building,” he says.

In the US, accessibility standards are set by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which is a federal-level piece of legislation that applies across the whole country. “At a state level, we adopt standards very similar to the ADA standards to ensure parity,” says Connecticut’s Hobbs. In keeping with the majority of state building codes, these, too, are very prescriptive. “They are a lot more detailed than you’d see in the UK’s statutory guidance,” he explains. The practical application of the standards will be of particular interest to many code officials working to ensure their proper implementation: “Some code officials are working into their 70s, 80s and even their 90s.”


Recruitment issues

He says the problem is being exacerbated by salaries below market level, an ageing population of code officials and the challenge of recruiting and training replacements. “It is not a profession that many young professionals seek out,” Hobbs says. Instead, he notes that new code officials are often recruited from people who have retired from skilled trades and are looking for a second career, such as electricians and plumbers. “It is hard to plan for the future when your recruitment depends on people retiring from another career,” he says. 

On a more positive note, the lack of resources is forcing teams to become more efficient by working smarter and adopting new technologies. It is an initiative that appears to have accelerated under the impact of Coronavirus, with the use of electronic documents fast becoming the norm. Hobbs says: “Most building departments are now able to receive documents electronically and are able to review them electronically.” 

It is on-site, however, where Hobbs says the real changes are occurring, with inspections being carried out using remote video: “The team I manage now probably does 90% of its inspections by remote video.” The resulting efficiency savings and environmental impacts are significant, he says.

Safety first

The role of building control is fundamental to building safety. “The big difference between the way building control works in the State of Connecticut and the UK is that in the UK the code is functional, whereas here it is very prescriptive,” says Hobbs. Any deviation from the code has to be approved by the state, which comes under his remit. “Because local code officials have zero latitude, everything should, in theory, be safe, because it is built exactly to the code,” he adds.

In reality, Hobbs says no building is ever built in full compliance with the code, because “there are a million things in the code” and no one is going to inspect that every one of those things is exactly in accordance with the code. In recognition of this, Hobbs says buildings are deemed to achieve substantial compliance, which delivers a “pretty robust building”. 

In the US, a major impact of using highly prescriptive codes is that it is much harder to adopt new technologies and methods of construction. A significant change to the 2021 code is that it now explicitly recognises engineered timber buildings for the first time. Hobbs explains: “We’ve been a little slow to adopt this technology, because the code is so prescriptive. A code official is reluctant to accept a brand-new technology, because the code does not say on what basis it can be accepted.”

He doesn’t think significant differences exist in building safety between the UK and the US, just that the means of achieving safety differ. For example, “in the US, they typically default to having sprinklers in buildings to deal with fires, whereas, in England, more reliance is placed on passive fire protection to divide a building into compartments to stop a fire getting too big”, he explains. “In theory, both buildings are equally safe – they’ve just gone about it in very different ways.”


Addressing the needs of disabled and older people 

While Approved Document M sets out the minimum access requirements for disabled and older people in England, Vantage Building Control’s Harvey‑Soanes says it advises clients to consider aiming for compliance under the Equality Act. “If you’ve got an existing building, then, under the Building Regulations, all you are required to do is to make reasonable provisions for accessibility and inclusion, whereas, under the Equality Act, even if you’ve made reasonable provisions, someone can still make a claim if they feel a space is not accessible or inclusive, even if it is Building Regulations-compliant.” 

North Ayrshire Council’s McKenzie says that Scotland has “a fantastic track record” of ensuring that new and converted buildings reach a high level of inclusion and accessibility. “Every home built in Scotland over the past few years should now be capable of being a home for life, with mandatory features such as future stairlift provision, future ground-floor shower space provision, sanitary accommodation at entrance level and access externally.” 

In Malaysia, new buildings also include provision for disabled access, disabled toilets and allocated car-parking spaces. However, according to Sunder Rajan Packianathan, while new buildings might be accessible to all, the same cannot be said of the country’s infrastructure, which, he says, is not disability-friendly. “This makes it difficult for those with disabilities to actually get to and from a disability-friendly building,” he says.

In the US, accessibility standards are set by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which is a federal-level piece of legislation that applies across the whole country. “At a state level, we adopt standards very similar to the ADA standards to ensure parity,” says Connecticut’s Hobbs. In keeping with the majority of state building codes, these, too, are very prescriptive. “They are a lot more detailed than you’d see in the UK’s statutory guidance,” he explains. The practical application of the standards will be of particular interest to many code officials working to ensure their proper implementation: “Some code officials are working into their 70s, 80s and even their 90s.”


 

Licence to practise

Kitcatt says that, in the US, you have to be a licensed professional in order to practise as a code official. He welcomes proposals for a similar system in England, put forward under the government’s reform of the building control sector as part of the Building Safety Programme. “It is a good idea for England to move into the remit of having to be licensed to practise, because it recognises the competence of staff, whether private or local authority, to deliver that service.” 

Kitcatt believes that team members should be licensed professionals and part of a professional association in order to ensure their knowledge is up to date. “It was a requirement for all of my team to be qualified in one of the professions and to be a member of an association, whether that be CABE or RICS or the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB), in order to maintain their continuing professional development (CPD) and professional standing,” he says. 

Vantage Building Control’s Harvey-Soanes also welcomes the requirement for proof of competence as a means of improving safety in England – but only if it applies equally to both public and private sector building control alike. “The latest from government is that it would only be individuals who work for private approved inspectors that would be required to be licensed, not those that work for a local authority,” he says. “It would be nice if everybody in the profession was on a level playing field, but I’m not sure that will happen.”

Competency and responsibility

Harvey-Soanes also welcomes the proposal to give the client, principal designer and principal contractor formal responsibility for compliance with the Building Regulations through the use of project gateways on high-rise and multi-occupied residential projects. At a gateway, the duty-holder will have to demonstrate to the Building Safety Regulator that the requirements of the Building Regulations are being met and that risks are being appropriately managed in order to progress to the next stage of development. “Having the proposed gateways and building control in place at an earlier stage in a project is going to be a benefit, but, at the moment, I’m unsure how the new regulator is going to approve compliance at each gateway,” he says. 

In Scotland, improvements to building safety are being driven by the work of the Building Standards Futures Board, says North Ayrshire Council’s McKenzie. “Given the constraints that building standards services are under, I think they are as effective as they can be, but the work of the Futures Board will take this to next level to ensure we have a first-class building standards service in Scotland.”

Alongside the work of the Futures Board, LABSS has started to deliver an online building standards module to students on construction degree courses at Glasgow Caledonian University to increase their safety awareness. “This initiative has only just started, but we see this as a way of instilling the legal and regulatory requirements to those professionals who have a responsibility for safety but who often haven’t had adequate training or knowledge,” explains McKenzie. “It’s a small step, but one in the right direction to bring change to regulatory and safety culture.” 

Addressing climate change

“For a number of years, Scotland has been very proactive on the climate change front,” says McKenzie. He says the Building Regulations have been shaped by various documents, including the Sullivan Report, which provided recommendations on how the building standards system for Scotland should be improved to combat climate change.

When it comes to ensuring that buildings are fit for the future as the climate changes, McKenzie jokes that “the climate is already challenging in Scotland”. He does, however, acknowledge the need to ensure that both designs and regulations continue to evolve to suit future needs and challenges, and says that “more encouragement” should be given to designers to think about future-proofing for climate change. 

In the US, Connecticut’s Hobbs says the existing codes on resilience are “very good” and are key to how buildings are going to deal with a changing climate. He explains that states take the model codes and amend them to reflect their geographic situation, so, in states like Florida, hurricane-proofing of buildings is critical, whereas, in others, seismic or snow loads will take precedence. 

However, Vantage Building Control’s Harvey‑Soanes says that, in England, the role of building control is enforcement to ensure new buildings can deal with climate change. “Because of the complexity involved in Standard Assessment Procedure (SAP) and Simplified Building Energy Modelling (SBEM) calculations, it is very difficult to give advice on single aspects of the construction. The building control role is a quality check on-site to ensure construction has been carried out in line with the design, otherwise advice will need to come from the energy model and the SAP/SBEM assessor.” 

Dorset Council’s Kitcatt says the recent review of Parts L and F of the Building Regulations will be important in enabling buildings to minimise their impact on the climate. While new housing stock will comply with the new regulations, he says that, when it comes to tackling climate change, “the challenge remains on how to get existing properties upgraded”. 

Compliance challenges

According to Hobbs, current legislative structures in the US are fit for purpose: “In the US, we typically adopt model codes published by the International Code Council and the National Fire Protection Association; these two bodies pretty much publish all the codes used by all states.” 

The model codes are updated every three years as a suite of books, and a state typically adopts the suite of model codes for that three-year cycle to ensure cohesiveness. “You cannot use the 2018 version of energy and the 2015 version of plumbing,” explains Hobbs. The state-by-state adoption means that some individual states might work from different revisions. “Some states might be on the 2015 version, others on the 2018 version, so there will be little differences, but, because they are the same code, it is relatively easy to handle cross-state issues,” he explains.

The speed of change inevitably places additional demands on code officials. “We need to educate code officials to a level where they can perform competently,” says Hobbs. The State of Connecticut’s innovative solution is to use part of its fee income to fund an education programme. Those looking to carry out a building project apply to a town or city to obtain a permit, for which they pay a fee. “A portion of that fee is allocated by the state to fund a free education programme for code officials,” Hobbs explains. “It means we can mandate that code officials have to have 30 hours of education a year, which they can get for free from our programme.” 

To help speed the approval process, another Connecticut initiative being considered is the idea of licensing third-party building inspectors for hire by contractors and developers. Hobbs says that, “while this may sound like the approved inspector system that operates in England, the difference here is that inspectors would be licensed to carry out inspections and submit their reports to the city code officials, who retain ultimate jurisdiction on the project”. 

Key to the success of this initiative are the parameters under which third-party inspectors could obtain a licence. “My office is going to develop these parameters if this becomes legislation,” Hobbs says.

The advantage of this proposal to the state is that it could help ease the workload of busy code officials and provide additional technical expertise for specific projects. It will also enable a contractor to hire a licensed inspector if they thought it would help get a project approved quickly. Hobbs says: “Market forces will decide whether the cost to a contractor and time saved will make the expense of hiring an inspector worthwhile.”


The Future of Building Control Working Group 

CABE was one of the eight organisations with interest across the building control sector that have come together to develop a series of recommendations
for the future governance and reform of the sector in England as part of the Future of Building Control Working Group. Reform of the building control sector was one of the recommendations in the Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety. 

In response to the review, and in discussion with the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government, the group developed a series of 11 proposals to improve regulation of the building control profession and improve competence amongst professionals and organisations. Key recommendations include:

  • steps to simplify and unify building control legislation, process and procedures
  • an independent designated body to oversee professional registration and organisational audit 
  • introduction of a new competence framework to cover all persons working in building control, including those working on higher-risk buildings in the scope of the new regulator
  • a unified pan-industry code of conduct for all building control bodies and professionals
  • a unified pan-industry career structure to set clear expectations of competence across the building control sector.

In a joint statement, the Future of Building Control Working Group said: “We look forward to engaging more widely in the sector to discuss these recommendations. We are also keen to move to the next stage of dialogue with government and the Building Safety Regulator to work up proposals for reform in more detail.” 

 View the building control regulation proposals on the Building Engineer website at bit.ly/RegulationProposals


Industry improvements

In England, Kitcatt says the changes to building control following the Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety will help address some of the historic issues with the current system. “The challenge will be in raising awareness of the new legislation and having everybody buying into it to ensure compliance.” 

However, Vantage Building Control’s Harvey‑Soanes would prefer to improve the current system: “I think the current legislative structure would work if all the other issues – such as with materials testing/certification, defining responsibilities, improving fire safety – were addressed, which would make the job of the designer and the regulator much easier.” While he fully supports the need for industry improvements, his concern is that the new legal structure is going to make things more complicated and long-winded and put a lot of obstacles in the way of developments. 

If the proposed changes do go ahead as planned, Harvey-Soanes expects that some private practices could switch from being regulators to client advisers. “I think there is the potential for private approved inspectors working on high-risk projects to become consultants to architects and developers in order to assist in getting a project through the fire safety gateway,” he says. “This could see quite a few competent, experienced surveyors moving from the regulator side to the client side.”

Futures Board workstreams

In Scotland, McKenzie says the challenge over the coming years will be completing the work of the Futures Board and implementing its recommendations. “The challenges are many and varied, and mainly revolve around ensuring adequate resources for the education and skills of our tradespeople, adequate client and contractor supervision, practical design and construction methodologies, well resourced building standards verification, and making sure that everyone knows their particular role in achieving compliance.”

Despite the pandemic, McKenzie says that, over the past year, the building standards profession in Scotland – including local authorities, LABSS and the BSD – has made fantastic progress on a number of Futures Board workstreams, while also remaining open for business. “This work will progress for a number of years to come, and I am excited by the prospect of an enhanced building standards system that is already starting from a high baseline.” 

Across some of the key building control markets where CABE members operate, it is clear that competence, compliance, training and education remain priorities. Systems vary from prescriptive to functional to non-statutory, and are in varying stages of evolution. Most building control employers are dealing with a skills shortage, exacerbated by an ageing workforce, which is a worry, as building control professionals have a vital role to play in dealing with building safety and sustainability issues. It is clear, though, that the profession remains committed to high standards even under pressure and in response to significant change.  

We regret that we were unable to get a Welsh or Irish commentary in this piece. If you have knowledge of this area and would like to contribute, please email [email protected] 

Image Credit | iStock | Alamy | Shutterstock

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