Industry's perception of the building inspector

Hands ticking windows on office building.Image credit | ikon

The role of the building inspector is set to change this month, but how is this change being perceived? Peter Crush investigates.

Arecommendation from Dame Judith Hackitt’s Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety saw the introduction of the Building Safety Regulator (BSR) and the requirement for all building control professionals in England and Wales to be assessed and certified by 6 April 2024.

For many, the change has been a long time coming. In 2007, in its The Future of Building Control paper, the Department for Housing, Communities and Local Government (now called the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities) criticised building control as being “broken” with “no clear and accepted vision of what building control is (and what it’s not for); what the roles and responsibilities are for different groups within it and how the system should operate”. Hackitt raised specific concerns about “the lack of a level playing field for approved inspectors and local authority building control”, demanding “important building control decisions” are “only taken by individuals who have demonstrated the relevant competence”. But while this change is broadly welcomed, there is one very important development that will now be ushered in. Inspectors will henceforth be known as ‘Registered Building Inspectors’ – and the emphasis is very much on the word ‘inspectors.’

So what’s in a word? Well, plenty. “Building control has increasingly shifted to being more consultative in nature, but inspectors shouldn’t be contributing design decisions to meet compliance,” says Kevin Savage, Managing Director of SOCOTEC Building Control. “It’s not right that they’re coming up with design advice to solve a problem,” he adds. “The building inspectors’ role is now being clearly redefined as a regulator. It’s making the lines of engagement much clearer.”

The retreat to approval-only is the new normal and the BSR now requires all competent parties to effectively sign off buildings through declarations of compliance and be legally culpable for them. Competency requirements apply to the industry and the raising of standards includes building inspectors. “Clients have never had to sign declarations before,” says Dale Anderson, Head of Building Control at Sweco. “It’s raising the bar. Interpretations of building regulations in the past resulted in different approaches to compliance. The new system will remove this level of judgement, and deviation from standards won’t be tolerated.”

One of the effects, Anderson admits, is that it creates a rather chicken-and-egg situation: “Developers have to sign a declaration that they’ve appointed competent people and that their work complies with building regulations even before applying for a final certificate from the building inspector to obtain sign-off. Developers are rightly saying, ‘How do I know that my building is compliant before I sign?’ This is why moving to an approval line in the sand is so important.”

But it is contractors no longer having a consultative relationship with building inspectors that is the big change. The consultative part was typically how any nasty final sign-off issues were avoided, because inspectors could informally suggest a change of action. There’s now a suggestion that by transitioning from what Anderson calls a “collaborative to a permissions-based” way of working, curtailing these friendly chats could result in contractors having costly problems later down the line.


The changing building inspector role:

  • building control professionals, working for both the private sector and local authorities, will need to have passed an independent competence assessment to operate, and they will be required to be registered on the BSR’s register of building inspectors; and

  • as part of the BSR-approved independent competence assessment schemes, candidates will be evaluated against the Building Inspector Competence Framework (BICoF) every four years.

STOP THE PRESS
As Building Engineer went to print, Philip White, Director of Building Safety at the GB Health and Safety Executive, announced a competence assessment extension period.

This will allow building inspectors who are registered at Class 1 and enrolled in one of the three recognised competence assessment schemes to continue to inspect building work for a further 13 weeks from 6 April 2024.

The extension means that building control professionals working through the process of assessment can inspect work at the class that they have applied for until 6 July 2024.

Read the announcement at bit.ly/HSE_arrangements


‘Our job is to check, not design’

Some may think it’s now churlish for inspectors to not alert contractors to potential issues. Both Anderson and Savage agree that, by registration preventing this, it is for the good of the sector overall.

“I think registration gives the building inspector role more respect and defines us as a profession,” says Anderson. “It ultimately makes it clear that our job is to check things, not design things, and I do think contractors use inspectors as a design crutch. Now we’re able to say: ‘I’m only competent to check, not give design advice.’ This will be for the better of the industry.”

Savage adds: “It’s important [building inspectors] are professional. We are accountable and so we have to be independent. There are consultants who can assist and help if design advice is needed.”

Taking a more defined ‘approver’ approach, however, may still not come easily to those who have worked in the sector for many years. And what Savage predicts could be a problem is inspectors suddenly having to change their ways, when they probably do just want to be helpful.

“The new lines drawn will probably take time to get used to,” he concedes. “It’s likely there will be some hybrid way of working for a while because it is quite a change in people’s modus operandi. But I don’t think inspectors will suddenly become officious or abrupt – and we don’t want to be unhelpful. It will be about how we present this information.”

One of the big issues, though, is the imminent registration process itself and how the ‘switch’ to being authoritative occurs after the April deadline – especially on commenced projects. As recently as February, Nigel Hunt, Head of Devon Building Control Partnership, said only 20% of local authority or private sector building inspectors would be licensed in time for April, and that morale was at an “all-time low”. Lorna Stimpson, CEO of Local Authority Building Control (LABC), also warned government and regulators that swathes of building control professionals would not be certified to practise before the April deadline.

In fact, in a recent letter to the regulator, Stimpson wrote: “The impending 6 April deadline is causing a critical level of stress in the building control profession.” She added: “We have already started to see an exodus from the profession of the vital expertise that we need in the coming months as part of the new regime – and this in itself is adding to already increased workloads for a severely limited number of building control professionals.”

She continued: “We are hearing worrying reports of individuals in crisis, suffering extreme stress, anxiety and depression. The short timeframe allowed between final clarity from the BSR on the independent assessment bodies and their assessment criteria has meant that the profession has had insufficient time to prepare for such a significant impact.”

Building control and loss of talent

There are grounds for these concerns. All told, the number of building control surveyors employed by local authorities fell by more than 27% between 2010 and 2020; Stimpson has called on a delay of “at least” six months. Registration only opened in October 2023 for two of the three assessment bodies to start managing this process (CABE and the Building Safety Competence Foundation), which most agree is not long enough.

“The CABE assessment is not an easy process to get through,” says Anderson, who is himself undergoing the process. He argues stage 1 takes around 20 hours of study, followed by stage 2, which requires 40 hours of additional work. “I do think the date needs to move,” he says. “The industry is losing people to other sectors – such as fire safety – because professionals are saying it’s just not something they want to do at their age. Others are simply choosing to retire rather than go through it. They don’t want the added pressure of what the changes place on them.”

Savage adds: “There is anxiety from some about the responsibilities they have about signing off a building.”

Practically, this anxiety may only be perceived. “Building inspectors’ main role and responsibility hasn’t changed and their relative legal immunity from civil claims for defects or contraventions of building regulations will probably remain unchanged,” says Jonathan Carrington, Senior Associate at RPC, which specialises in construction law. “This is because they are not responsible for the design and construction of buildings and they don’t owe the public a statutory or tortious duty of care. They are only responsible to their clients to carry out their contractual obligations and they can limit these obligations in their written appointment.”

But is the evolving role, at least, of the building inspector a welcomed one? The consensus seems to be that it is.

“Following Grenfell, there has been a need for confidence to be brought back into the system,” says Savage. “Individuals are now accountable for the decisions they make on projects, but that’s only right, because we shouldn’t be putting people on projects that they aren’t competent to work on. They need to be competent to assess the work they’re looking at, but it’s also right building control are independent arbitrators.”

Anderson agrees: “You need people in our sector with the right skills and experience. The regulator wants to be seen as setting the right standards. By doing my own preparation for assessment it has revealed that I need to stay connected to the sector to stay competent. This has to be a good thing.”

He concludes: “It’s a positive step. If you’re a contractor, you have to appoint competent people. It’s only right and proper that the people checking it are competent too.” 

Image credit | Ikon

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