Taking control of envelope quality
After the failings with the Edinburgh schools, and then the Grenfell Tower disaster, the envelope sector has come under close scrutiny for the quality of its work. Neil Gerrard examines how it has responded.
Dame Judith Hackitt was unequivocal in her assessment. Ignorance of regulations, a motivation to do things as quickly and cheaply as possible, a lack of clarity on roles and responsibility, and inadequate regulation – all of this had conspired to create a culture issue in construction that amounted to a “race to the bottom”, she asserted in her final report following her review of Building Regulations and fire safety.
“There is insufficient focus on delivering the best quality building possible, in order to ensure that residents are safe and feel safe,” she said.
It was a damning conclusion and another stain on the reputation of the construction sector, already reeling from the faults uncovered in 17 primary schools across Edinburgh after the collapse of a wall at Oxgangs Primary School in Edinburgh in January 2016, and growing disquiet about the high level of defects in the housebuilding sector.
It has also spurred the government into action. Not only did it last year announce a technical review of Approved Document B, which closed in March, it also opened a consultation on a “radical” new regulatory system for building and fire safety last month, which closes on 31 July.
But how well has the construction sector – and the envelope sector in particular – responded to quality concerns since Edinburgh and Grenfell?
Not well enough, if you ask CIOB past president Paul Nash, who is chair of the body’s Construction Quality Commission, whose work is shortly due to result in the publication of a new Construction Quality Code (see page 11).
“Do I think we could have another Edinburgh schools today? Yes. It is a shame to say it three years on,” says Nash. “What shocked me with Edinburgh schools is that we were talking about basic building technology. This was not a complex cladding system.
“Do I think we could have another Edinburgh schools today? Yes. It is a shame to say it three years on.”
Paul Nash, Construction Quality Commission, CIOB
“Grenfell is a much more complex problem because it was a refurbishment of an existing building and one of the wider issues is what happens when people go in and make alterations to existing buildings. The external envelope of a building has multiple functions that it has to perform, from aesthetics, to keeping the weather out, to keeping the heat in, acoustic performance and performance in fire.”
Mark Beard, chairman of Beard Construction and vice president of the CIOB, agrees that not enough progress has been made on the issue of quality but does see business leaders finally waking up to its importance. “Since Grenfell there has been a renewed focus, particularly when it comes to the external envelope, because of the public health issues around it. The issue of quality is rising up the agenda in boardrooms and in general dialogue within construction organisations,” he says.
Nash sees competence in the construction supply chain as key to delivering the required level of quality on building envelopes. Indeed, competence in two key areas – design and the workmanship involved during installation – is critical in his view.
While architects have traditionally had the competence on the design front, facades are now often such complex systems that the skills required to design it correctly are held in other disciplines, he argues.
In his eyes, that strengthens the case for earlier involvement of contractors and subcontractors. “There is a question mark over how we get the right skills around the table early enough in the process to ensure that what we design meets all the performance criteria. Very often those skills exist further down the supply chain with specialist subcontractors,” Nash says.
The issue of workmanship is a somewhat simpler issue, he contends, and it hinges on having a high standard of inspection and verification processes. “There is an issue in terms of whether the individual installers are competent, who is ensuring that what they are collectively doing meets the right standard?” he asks.
That’s a point echoed by Keith Laing, head of facades and cladding, at specialist envelope contractor Guildmore. “Legislation to improve construction quality has been welcome but there are still steps the private sector can take itself to ensure better practice,” he says.
“That can mean making sure that our quality inspection processes are constantly reviewed, having a clerk of works and making sure all managers and relevant people are trained to the highest level about which materials are the best in class.”