Design responsibility: it’s all ours

The construction industry has claimed it thrives on collaboration, and that partnerships drive better outcomes, for decades. But as soon as it comes to taking responsibility for an area that falls down or fails, suddenly everyone washes their hands of the part they played. And because there are so many grey areas in legislation within the contractual industry, people are actually better enabled to take this approach, rather than stick their head above the parapet and accept collective blame.

In the area of fire and smoke safety, it’s having a huge impact, particularly in terms of who is responsible for the design, installation and ongoing maintenance of systems that are used to save lives.

We were disappointed when, in September, the government voted down the recommendations from the first phase of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry. It has previously promised to make this grey area of fire and smoke safety a part of the law. There are currently several ways that the industry is failing to collaborate in a way that would better allocate responsibility in this field and without law, it’s hard to see how or when that might change.

One of the issues is around the communication that’s used in specification. Typically, contractors are hired for their specialisms and we assume that that sole area is their priority. Contractors themselves will admit that they think their role is the most important part of the process; as such they don’t take the time to understand or participate in most other elements. Yes, they’re part of a ‘collaborative’ supply chain, but their remit is clear. And if they deliver within the scope of the wider specification, it’s accepted that their role is complete.

But that shouldn’t be the case; every level of the supply chain should be equally invested in every step of the design, installation and maintenance process, from start to end. RIBA, with its golden thread, is trying to change this. By identifying the very common elements of specification, and working to achieve consistencies across every fire and smoke safety project, it is striving for a joined up approach which sees involvement from every specified party, from the point at which a building project is identified through to the ongoing management of the building.

Additionally, there is a real fear of owning up to a lack of knowledge in a certain area. People are simply too scared of highlighting that they don’t know the intricacies of every part of the supply chain. But rather than working with a likeminded partner to upskill themselves in a new area of construction, they simply sit back and stay quiet. It’s only when something goes wrong that we find out how little certain players did know about a piece of legislation, or technology or engineering. And it’s then, that finger pointing begins – even if two parties have worked in a supposed ‘collaboration’. To admit an upfront lack of knowledge is seen as a weakness, rather than as an opportunity to learn more from each other and make the industry a more skilled and comprehensive place to be.

Either the industry needs to turn on its heads, or specialists that are willing to accept complete design, installation and maintenance responsibility are going to begin dominating the sector. We’ve spent many years establishing ourselves as a manufacturer that takes ownership from cradle to grave; we have specialists in each area of the process that are able to seamlessly link in with all the other disciplines and contractors that might be present on a building site, to take control of the fire and smoke safety elements. We’re so confident in our approach, products and service that we’ll fully embrace responsibility for this part of the developments we’re appointed to work on. Clients who’ve worked with us explain they’ve had better peace of mind knowing the whole process is in capable hands, delivered by a team working under one roof with shared values and ambitions, rather than being seeded out to multiple agents who claim to collaborate but don’t actually ever join up their approach.

Better yet, we have really frank conversations about any areas of concern. If we think part of a project is at risk of landing outside of regulation, which might also lead to higher expenditure and risk to the building’s efficiency in the long run, we’re willing to make that known, then step in to replace an incumbent to avoid the problem happening. Because by getting it right first time, we’ll prevent anything going wrong in the future. We’re honest, about the good, the bad and the ugly, and we won’t hide behind a contract.

Of course, we’re taking these steps and making these decisions by choice; they aren’t being forced upon us because industry legislation is yet to change. Until there is a part of law that ensures owners take more responsibility for a building’s design and materials, the industry as a whole will remain stuck. To continue to put the cost of delivery of buildings – and the knock-on effect this would then have on rates of development across the country – ahead of preservation of life should never even be a discussion. The right choice is obvious, and we’ve made it on our clients’ behalf. In time, we may witness leadership which changes the law to make this normal practice but until there is, we’re here to take ownership.


Dan Ternent, Business Development Director