Alarm is growing over the lack of robust quality control procedures in construction in the wake of the damning inquiry into the Edinburgh schools collapse.
Last week Kevin Stewart, minister for local government and housing in the Scottish Parliament, convened a summit of professional bodies – including CIOB and Institution of Structural Engineers – and construction experts at which he expressed his grave concern over the issue and challenged them to sort it out.
The summit comes as the engineering watchdog for structural safety is also sounding the alarm that poor quality control is threatening the safety of public buildings.
The Standing Committee on Structural Safety (SCOSS), a group comprising the Institution of Structural Engineers, the Institution of Civil Engineers and the Health and Safety Executive, is calling for the industry and clients to come together to tackle it urgently.
The City of Edinburgh Council commissioned the inquiry following the collapse of part of the outer skin of a cavity wall at Oxgangs Primary School in January 2016, and the subsequent strengthening required to 16 other Edinburgh schools built as part of the same Public Private Partnership contract. Defects included the poor quality of bricklaying, inadequate supervision of the bricklaying, and deficiencies in quality assurance processes on site.
The inquiry’s author, Professor John Cole, an experienced architect from Northern Ireland, said it was only luck and timing which prevented death or injury when nine tonnes of masonry fell on an area where children could easily have been standing or passing through.
“One does not require much imagination to think of what the consequences might have been if it had happened an hour or so later, he said when his 250-page report was published in February 2017. Cole presented his findings at the Edinburgh summit which focused on four key topics:
Alastair Soane, director of structural safety for SCOSS said: “There is no reason why this problem is just connected to Edinburgh schools, a discussion has got to take place across the industry, it is a major concern.”
Soane highlighted key aspects of the Cole report which he said worried the committee – the lack of quality control in construction and the fact that clients did not employ resident engineers or clerks of works to the extent they did in the past.
“The contracting and client community need to come together to look at procurement and whether they were putting cost cutting ahead of quality control and safety,” he said, echoing recommendations made by Cole.
Alastair Soane, SCOSS
Chief executive of the Institution of Structural Engineers, Martin Powell, concurred: “The report’s recommendations raise some important learning points that will be discussed with Institution members, and that opportunities would be sought to work with other built environment professional bodies to disseminate the important lessons to be learned in improving the safety of buildings.”
Speaking after the ministerial summit, CIOB president Paul Nash, who attended it, said: “The fact that the minister has convened this round table so soon after the publication of Professor Cole’s report is a measure of the importance being attached to its findings by the Scottish Government.
“The minster’s message was clear. We have to learn from what happened on these projects and act to ensure that it doesn’t happen again. That means looking at how we train our people from trade level up and how we ensure that the required standards of quality are achieved on site every time. I think there are some fundamental questions that the report raises that demand a response from the industry and those of us who represent it.”
Meanwhile, Edinburgh council is continuing to inspect all public buildings in the city and is working on an action plan to be published in June which will provide a detailed plan of how the council intends to avoid a repeat of the schools debacle in the future.
It is understood that the minister for local government has written to all the local authorities requesting that they give public building inspections priority.
Neil Baxter, secretary and treasurer of the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland (RIAS), which provided evidence to the inquiry, said: “We are absolutely going to sort this out in Scotland and it will fundamentally change procurement and the construction industry here. It’s something the UK government and those in England should be concerned about.”
Defects found in the first school were: wall cavities not uniform; variable cavity widths; lack of minimum 50mm embedment of ties in the mortar joints; and lack of consistent levels between the inner blockwork leaf and the outer brickwork leaf.
Investigations of the other schools using intrusive techniques found similar defects coupled with an absence of wind posts, lack of head restraints to steel frames, and in some cases a lack of specified bed joint reinforcement.
Part of the evidence provided to the inquiry was information that the inner blockwork leaves of cavity walls had been built prior to the construction of the outer leaves. The size of the problem was such that approximately 440 heavy steel wind posts were required to be retro-installed across the 17 schools.
To bring the walls back to the intended strength remedial works were undertaken by retro-fitting ties through both leaves using specialist subcontractors. A significant number of head and corner restraints also had to be retrofitted.
Quite separately a significant number of breaches of fire-stopping were revealed across all 17 projects ranging from minor gaps around pipes and cables to some larger holes or gaps in what were described as fire compartmentation. Most of the reported breaches occurred in the roof spaces of the schools.