Manchester @ UKREiiF Interview: Hydrock on the Future of Building Safety

Hear from Dr. Georgina Williams, Principal Fire Engineer, Fire Safety at Hydrock, now Stantec, a Manchester @ UKREiiF Partner about the future of building safety in Greater Manchester and Beyond.

At UKREiiF (The UK's Real Estate Investment & Infrastructure Forum), property professionals will gather in Leeds to discuss the biggest topics and challenges facing the industry. This ranges from sustainability in placemaking to solving the housing crisis. By bringing together changemakers from over 250 local authorities, over 1,500 developers and 750 occupiers, the programme of activity hopes to spark discussions that can lead to real, meaningful change.

Ahead of UKREiiF 2024, we sat down with Georgina Williams, Principal Fire Engineer at Hydrock, now Stantec, to discuss her presence on the panel “Enhancing Building Safety: Delivering Cladding Remediation under the Building Safety Act”.

Below, Georgina shares some insights about what the panel will discuss, how the Building Safety Act will affect property professionals across our region and how data is the key to improving building safety and communications in future.

Dr. Georgina Williams, Principal Fire Engineer, Fire Safety, Hydrock

Why are Hydrock, now Stantec, attending UKREiiF and what do you hope to achieve from the event?

The key thing for us is getting a wider range of people involved. By hearing from all the different stakeholders, with their own ideas and priorities, we get a much better picture of how projects actually come together. It also helps guide our future learning and knowledge sharing.

For me, the specifics around fire safety, and what it means to safeguard communities, need solid development and improvements and should be a priority for the industry.

You’ll be speaking on a panel about Enhancing Building Safety under the Building Safety Act, can you tell us a bit more about this and why is this act so important?

The Building Safety Act is about keeping all the buildings in the country safe. It’s really important because buildings have long lifespans so whatever they were designed to do often deviates over the life of the building. Parts of the building that were designed have lifespans that don't necessarily correlate to the same lifespan of the whole building. You must develop the knowledge and understanding of the building as a complex system.

Buildings are currently being treated as multiple components and not a whole system. As an industry, we need to get better at understanding the whole system. The Building Safety Act aims to make the monitoring of all the different parts and the knowledge of the buildings, particularly higher-risk buildings, clearer for those responsible for designing, constructing and maintaining them. This gives you a good basis to maintain a particular level of safety over the lifespan of the building and an understanding of the critical interdependencies between elements of the building.

Society’s appreciation of risk changes over time. The kind of risks we thought were tolerable in the 1960s aren't necessarily tolerable now, or even the same for that matter.

Thanks to laws like the Environmental Health and Safety Act, when we're building our knowledge base, we can also keep our safety practices up-to-date. After all, what we consider a risk and how we handle it changes over time. The more we learn, the better we can manage those risks.

Lastly, the Building Safety Act makes resident engagement as a priority, which has historically been neglected. This stuff is incredibly important for the people who will actually use the building, but it often gets overlooked during design, construction, and even fixing things later. That's why it's great that it’s now mandated for people to have a say.

Do you think society is getting more cautious around risk and safety in the built environment?

In some areas, yes. And in other areas, no. And I think that develops with a wider knowledge of science and technology and our understanding of how we can address particular risks. There also tend to be variations based on time since the last incident. Risk tolerance is like a roller coaster. After a big accident, everyone gets super cautious for a while – and risk appetite plummets. But the longer it goes between bad events, the more comfortable everyone gets, and risk appetite starts to creep back up. It's all about how fresh the memory of danger is.

Our buildings and communities would be safer if we move towards quantifying risk better so that it's not subjective but quantified holistically against set metrics.

What changes are vital to implement if we are to create a safer more secure built environment for all?

Currently, even for the more substantiated assessments of risk, where we have surveys and use metrics, we still tend to have a qualitative endpoint. It's still subjective depending on the person doing the assessment rather than a fully quantitative approach. It would be much better if we move towards a quantitative assessment of risk across the board, as it reduces the impact of people's internal biases.

A big part of the Building Safety Act is collecting and maintaining building information. As an industry, we need to be more creative with the technology available to us and how we collect and share that information. A building project requires a lot of information to be kept and maintained but our industry needs to think about how end users can access it. We need to deliver the detail in a format that’s accessible, and understandable, to all the people who need to use it over the lifecycle of the building. This might mean having different methods of presenting and interrogating the information and, also, having varying levels of complexity available for different users.

Finally, we also need to treat the building safety case as a living thing. It contains all the information about the buildings. The owner of the building needs to maintain this over time, but the building owners need to be proactive about that and conduct a gap analysis to find out what information they don't have and should be collecting. Once the Building Safety Regulator requests their Building Assessment Certificate (BAC) application, they've only got 28 days to submit the safety case report. So, if that's the point where the Principal Accountable Person finds out that they're missing information, then it’s extremely difficult to meet this deadline. Also, as the Building Safety Regulator charges for the certification reviews, it’s going to cost more in the long-term if you have to resubmit missing information. People have to be more aware of what information they don't have, otherwise they could face costly and lengthy project delays.

Do you think this act has the potential to change behaviours and attitudes in the industry?

A big part of the act is changes to accountability, enforcement and sanction partners. So there are now more consequences for not performing as well when we design and construct buildings. The Building Safety Regulator can now take action against various factors, like providing false and misleading information, contravening the Building Regulations and failing to comply with that compliance or stop notices. They have the power to take criminal action in some cases. There's another good thing – the defect period for removing offending work has been extended to 10 years. This gives people way more time to notice any issues with the building.

The Building Safety Act is definitely making people in the construction industry sit up and take notice. After all, the penalties for messing up are a lot harsher now. It's important to remember though, even though the law applies to all buildings, right now the big focus is on higher-risk residential buildings. That said, we’re seeing some contractors and architects taking the lead and applying these principles to all of the buildings that they work on, for example hospitals and buildings across university campuses. They're taking the same approach to knowledge collection, the same approach to the robustness of checking the competency of everyone in their work chain, applying that regardless. So, even though they're not likely to be challenged by building safety regulators, they're just doing it as best practice.

In your experience, are attitudes surrounding The Building Safety Act in the industry positive, or is there still a lot of uncertainty?

There’s still a lot of uncertainty, especially around the formal applications to the Building Safety Regulator. Nobody can provide total certainty because we haven't got enough experience interacting with the processes yet. That makes it harder to design buildings, no doubt about it. When buildings are very complex, and we are doing performance-based or risk-based design approaches, you rely on that engagement between the design team and the authorities having jurisdiction (AHJs) in order to demonstrate the building performance and ensure all of the AHJs are satisfied with the design and approaches.

What do you think will be the biggest challenges for Manchester property professionals when considering the Building Safety Act?

I think just changing their expectations about the level of involvement for a start because, ultimately, the developer or client of any building is the Principal Accountable Person. They cannot delegate their responsibilities. They can appoint people to undertake them, but they can't delegate the actual responsibility. If that appointed person isn't competent or doesn't deliver to the required standard, it’s still on the Principal Accountable Person from the perspective of the Building Safety Regulator. So understanding that, that they are kind of stuck with them, and making sure that they're confident in their teams. But also changing their expectations about what to keep records of and how they go about implementing that across throughout the lifecycle of their projects, I think is probably the biggest change.

The focus right now is on high-rise and higher-risk buildings, but would you like to see the Building Safety Act rolled out further?

I'd like to see the spirit of the Hackitt review rolled out further. I definitely encourage industry professionals who are applying it as best practice to keep doing that, because I think it is helpful as it allows us to maintain a building for longer, which is important in achieving sustainability and cultural heritage goals. The more information we get about buildings that we're working on, especially historical buildings or existing buildings, the easier it is to design specifically for those buildings rather than things that are hypothetical or not well quantified. But also, I don't think we need some sort of gateway approach to every single building. The bottom line is we need the right people on the job, doing what they promised, and making sure buildings work the way they're supposed to and that all of that information is available to future end-users or design teams. That's how we establish better standards and raise the bar for construction across the board.

How will ensuring our built environment is safer create a better and fairer future?

When we quantify risk better, and we have all the building data we need, we can then tailor our approach. When we have a good quantification of risk, it also means we can quantify the best interventions to mitigate those risks. Take a building with a specific issue, for example. There might be several ways to fix it, but if we don't fully grasp the problem or have the data to understand it well, we have to take a more general approach to just lessen the impact and apply more safety factors to account for the uncertainty. If we have a lot of information, we target our responses very specifically to the risk, because it’s well-quantified. Once we truly understand the problem, we can target our resources way better. Imagine sharing those resources in a smart way, making the building safer for everyone who uses it. That's how we protect communities!


To hear more of Georgina’s thoughts on the future of building safety and risk management, don’t miss “Enhancing Building Safety: Delivering Cladding Remediation under the Building Safety Act” at UKREiiF in the Royal Armouries Pearl Suite, Thursday 23 May at 1.30 pm.

To chat with Hydrock, now Stantec, about their current projects and how they can support your development project, visit them at The Manchester Stand, The Canary throughout UKREiiF.

View more of the Manchester programme at UKREiiF here.