Impact of changing building safety regime to be felt by architects and designers

The implementation of the new building safety regime has revealed a series of potential challenges around building design requirements and the role and responsibilities of “principal duty holders”.

As reported in the RIBA Journal by HKA’s Technical Director, Paul Jolly, under amendments to the Building Regulations etc. (Amendment) (England) Regulations 2023, principal designers now hold greater accountability in ensuring that design work carried out on a building project has been “co-ordinated to demonstrate compliance with the Building Regulations”.

Under the previous Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2015, the principal designer was primarily involved in the planning, management, and monitoring of the pre-construction phase as well as coordinating “matters related to health and safety”. The new rules however, dictate that in addition to managing and monitoring the design phase, the principal designer must also “coordinate matters relating to the design work comprised in the project so that all reasonable steps are taken to ensure that the design is such that if the building work to which the design relates were built in accordance with that design the building work would be in compliance with all relevant requirements”.

The changes see one party take responsibility for coordinating the activities of all other parties involved in the design phase, ensuring that compliance is met throughout the process. Additional responsibilities are also required under amendments to the Building (Higher-Risk Buildings Procedures) (England) Regulations 2023, including regular inspections of the design work of higher-risk buildings, a “competence declaration”, and a “Building Regulations compliance statement”.

As RIBA’s expert team explains, “All designers are responsible for ensuring that the design they undertake is completed to meet the relevant requirements of the Building Regulations and that they provide sufficient information and evidence regarding the design to the relevant building control authority to enable the building control authority to approve the same.”

RIBA adds that the principal designer must “provide a declaration at completion of the construction phase of a project", which “confirms the Principal Designer has properly discharged their duties under the regulations. The declaration is not certification of the compliance of the design or construction.”

As Paul Jolly notes, the new role appears to be well-suited for architects, who already hold the position of lead designers; however, it will result in “increased liabilities and tougher sanctions”, something that architects may not want to take on. In the past, under the CDM rules, the role was frequently filled by health and safety or non-design professionals. One of the foreseeable challenges, Paul adds, is professional indemnity insurance.

Andrew Mellor writes in Building Design that the “new Principal Designer role presents risks to those undertaking it, especially as some of the legal duties are likely to be uninsurable. So, architects and other consultants undertaking it will need to ensure that their new service and the associated quality assurance process is fully developed prior to launching their service offer.”

It is expected, however, that the changes will encourage better collaboration between designers and organisations, where typically individual parties working on a building project may not have interacted with each other.   

The amended regulations still pose some uncertainty around specific types of building design, such as open plan and duplex-style residential flats in medium- and high-rise buildings. Engineering and architecture consultancy Sweco has recently published a standards guidance note for open plan/duplex flats in residential buildings that are over 4.5 metres in height, which “specifically relates to situations where the proposals do not meet the narrative guidance given in Approved Document B or BS 9991”. As Sweco states, the design process requires an “engineered approach” to ensure compliance:

Currently there is no definitive approach, and this can lead to difficulties when the checking engineer disagrees with principles employed by the design engineer. With the lack of definitive guidance, these disagreements can be subjective in nature and outside of the Building Control Surveyor’s competence to arbitrate.”

You can access the guidance note here.