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Building Safety Act: how one small architecture practice is adapting to the new regime

Learn more about how small and micro architecture practices working predominantly on domestic projects have responded to the new regime.

14 March 2024

After checking in with a large practice and a medium-sized practice, it’s time to end our series looking at how architects are working with the secondary legislation of the Building Safety Act (in England) after six months. This time, we go to the other end of the scale, a sole practitioner, to discuss some of the key impacts of the new regime.

Small practices have had their own concerns over how the new Building Regulations will affect them and their clients, especially in the early months of the new regime (the transitionary period ends on 6 April). In respect of domestic projects, many architects are still apprehensive at thought of the new responsibilities that come with the Principal Designer role.

Taking opportunities to upskill and prepare for the competency demands of the Building Regulations Principal Designer role is important. (Photo:

Why upskilling is important for architects

Keri Barr is founder of Hertfordshire-based KBA, which carries out mainly residential work and domestic extensions. As a sole practitioner, she has taken any opportunity to upskill and prepare for the competency demands of her role as the Building Regulations Principal Designer.

The thought of going to a third party or declining the duties has never crossed Keri's mind. She was already acting as Principal Designer under CDM for her clients, which is rarely onerous on most small residential projects.

A member of online groups and networks, Keri began to undertake her own personal learning mission before the secondary legislation was released. She then utilised these same forums for discussion and challenge when the legislation was published and in effect.

First, she asked fellow group members about the regulations and asked questions about the areas she did not understand. Soon, she found herself taking a lead in responding to others’ questions. Additionally, and as simple as it sounds, she also read the legislation when it was released (then read it again, and again, and again). There were no shortcuts.

“The turning point for me was when the legislation was published,” she says. “I read it and then I read it again. I think I read it four times, and continue to dip into it. Some parts of it are ambiguous, which doesn’t help, so I asked more questions. I read again and then asked even more questions.”

She continues: “But it all comes back to really reading the legislation. Everything started to kind of gel for me and I soon understood that what I now need to do is really not that much different to what I've already been doing.”

Compliance and certification

Keri tends to favour natural and eco-friendly materials and has found that products from smaller manufacturers often do not come with the kind of performance certification that would give her certainty in the compliance of her specifications.

She recalls discussing the use of a hemp block product with a client, which she might have considered previously, only to decide that a lack of certification, or resource to undertake detailed testing, meant she was no longer comfortable using it. Product manufacturers are equally pressed to catch up with the testing and documentation needs of the new regime.

“I have also found that the structural engineer I work with has become a bit more cautious, which I don’t begrudge in the slightest, but it means it is steering work away from the nicer, cleverer things I might want to do,” she says in terms of designers perhaps incorporating a greater degree of design tolerance than they’d have previously proposed.

This extra time taken to double check her work for safety and compliance, and the extra legwork needed to research products for demonstrable compliance purposes where more prescriptive specifications are requested will mean a small rise in fees charged on future projects.

But Keri’s main concern is how small scale contractors will respond to their new duties as Principal Contractors, and whether there will be a turbulent time ahead before the new system settles in.

A recent domestic project from KBA. (Photo: KBA)

The importance of understanding the regime

Keri's practice tends to work on work Stages 0 to 4 for most domestic clients. The client’s understanding of the importance of the regime and the impact on duties is a driver for Keri, who also feels a general duty to support her domestic clients’ understanding of their project delivery.

She reiterates to clients their responsibility to appoint a contractor who is competent and understands their duties concerning the project. In addition, she advises them where she may have concerns. Likewise, in her tender packs, Keri reminds contractors of their Principal Contractor duties and requests information to demonstrate that they’re aware and they are competent.

It then becomes a matter for the client, who may have a preferred contractor and choose to reject the architect’s advice.

If she is not administering the contract, she will also have no authority over the contractor on site. Keri says that her specifications are fairly comprehensive, but whether they will be followed to the letter is another matter, but this is something that the new legislation should mitigate.

“I do have worries about built compliance,” she admits. “Ultimately, it comes down to the contractor complying with your drawings and specifications, but I have found the smaller contractors can go off on a tangent and they might choose to ignore your conditionally approved building control pack.”

What happens if there's a problem with compliance?

Before the new regime, if there was a problem with compliance on site the building control officer would generally step in to offer remedies or solutions to the contractor. The contractor might often make the first move and ask for advice. But this is not supposed to happen under the new safety regime.

Instead, the Principal Designer and Principal Contractor must take responsibility for their respective compliance with the duties and must each sign a declaration to that effect at appropriate stages of the project.

Technically, if the contractor does face compliance issues due to deviations from the architect’s design, this does not affect the Designer or Principal Designer. Their duties under the act will have been satisfied as they are not required to confirm overall compliance.

Keri says some smaller contractors have still not woken up to the critical importance of their compliance declaration at the end of a project, and the regulation’s requirement that a completion certificate must be withheld in its absence.

Like the wider industry, practices like hers are also waiting to see how building control officers will react to deviations from the design on site over the coming months.

This will also impact whether they will choose to be accommodating with advice or follow the letter of the law with no design solutions put forward. If this is the case, it is likely the architect will be brought back on to the project to support a compliant solution (if it is not deliverable), or to advise the client that the building work must be delivered as per the design.

Thanks to Keri Barr, founder, Keri Barr Architects Ltd.

Want to read more about the Building Safety Act?

These professional features from the RIBA Practice team should help build a little more confidence in your part of the new regulatory regime in England:

What architects need to know about new secondary legislation

How does the new regime affect architects who specialise in domestic projects?

What do architects need to know about changes within the new building control regime?

What are architecture practices doing to transition to the new regime?

Where can architects find new Client care letter templates to use under the new regime?

How does the new regime affect Design and Build contracts for architects in England?

How can architects join the Principal Designer Register?

What resources are available to architects?

Building Safety Act: architects’ key questions answered

Building Safety Act: why should architects be championed as Principal Designers?

Building Safety Act: how has a large practice adapted to the new regime?

Building Safety Act: how has one medium-sized practice adapted to the regulations?

Text by Neal Morris and the RIBA Practice team. Send us your feedback and ideas.

RIBA Core Curriculum topic: Legal, regulatory and statutory compliance.

As part of the flexible RIBA CPD programme, professional features count as microlearning. See further information on the updated RIBA CPD core curriculum and on fulfilling your CPD requirements as a RIBA Chartered Member.

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