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

This professional feature discusses fees, design and build, and the benefits of RIBA’s Principal Designer Register for medium-sized architecture practices.

29 February 2024

The second in our short series of articles that check in with different-sized practices from around the UK to discuss the impacts of the new Building Regulations in England, sees us go to Belfast and to the White Ink practice, who regularly work on projects in England.

While undoubtedly the new regime is a force for good and has many positives, RIBA also acknowledges that there are areas that will take time to adjust to.

So how is White Ink practice coming to terms with the regulations, especially as the transitional period will come to an end on 6 April 2024?

What has been the main challenge of the new regime?

Director, Joan McCoy, says that she and her colleagues have identified one stand-out challenge so far: the level of detail expected to be supplied for a building control application versus the possible supplementary information that could be provided as a condition or be potentially approved as part of the change control process. For example, when thinking of possible sub-contractor design or the provision of full re-bar scheduling.

The practice has several projects at Stage 3 that will soon be submitted to the Regulator, but on higher-risk building (HRB) projects it remains unclear what exactly will be acceptable to demonstrate compliance. Joan feels it would be beneficial if practices had access to the Regulator to discuss these types of issues.

She continues by saying that this assembling of information for HRBs is impacting the whole construction process. It means clients are having to pay upfront for design work that would normally take place during the construction phase, it is dictating procurement arrangements and, of course, it means architects must charge additional fees for the Principal Designer role, especially on HRBs or complex projects.

She also adds that clients are not used to paying so early for all this work - such as finalised mechanical and electrical (M&E) design - just to get a building control application in.

Find out more on how to purchase RIBA Publishing’s Principal Designer’s Guide.

White Ink has several projects at Stage 3 that will soon be submitted to the Regulator. (Photo: Canva)

How has White Ink approached the Principal Designer role?

In Joan’s experience, some clients and project managers question whether the Principal Designer role justifies an additional fee are having to be re-educated, and this means detailed explanations of the new roles, responsibilities and liabilities.

“Some clients see this as just an extension of the CDM [Principal Designer] role and do not understand that it is much more than a box-ticking exercise,” she says. Joan goes on to explain that for the team leader acting as Principal Designer, coordination now means undertaking extra management, monitoring and evidencing duties, which also means that additional resources are required in the junior or mid-level career levels of the team to support design and production development.

White Ink has decided that team leaders will be Principal Designers on their own projects, rather than having one or two people designated to cover all practice output. The practice currently has one person on the RIBA Principal Designer Register, with four more about to undertake accreditation and has plans to train more.

In the past, White Ink tended not to offer a standalone CDM service because it found clients reluctant to pay for sufficient fees to support a proper service, or had their own CDM consultants. Under the new regime, the practice has decided to take on either the Principal Designer for Building Regulations alone, or a combined role covering CDM. The practice will always ask for separate appointments as architect and Principal Designer.

The decision to go through the RIBA’s Principal Designer Register process brings with it numerous benefits.

“Joining the Principal Designer Register gives clients confidence that you understand what the regulations are all about,” she says. “We’ve provided training for some of our clients, and have been discussing the implications for them for months. Being on the register is an extra way of giving them the confidence that our practice is really on top of all of this.”

Another reason why White Ink invested heavily in RIBA’s Principal Designer Register? The payoff.

“We all have to demonstrate competence going forward for every project and it's really time consuming to do, especially for the Principal Designer role,” Joan says.

“When you have joined the register, you've demonstrated your overall competence as a Principal Designer and then you simply need to demonstrate to your client that you're competent for their particular project. This is going to save clients time and money and it's going to save us time and money because clients only have to review a smaller document to see whether an architect is competent to act as the Principal Designer. They will have confidence in the RIBA accreditation.”

Read more about how to sign up to RIBA’s Principal Designer Register.

The assembling of information for HRBs is impacting the whole construction process. (Photo: Canva)

How has the Building Regulations affected the practice’s design and build work?

Many of White Ink’s projects are design and build (D&B). In the early days of the regulations, one suggestion was that D&B would be incompatible with the new regulatory regime for HRBs as it would make little sense to allow contractors to alter building control-approved designs. Another suggestion at the time was that the Regulations would see the return of traditional procurement.

Joan sees the potential for the opposite happening in both cases, again due to the need to appoint the contractor, and possibly various sub-contractors, prior to the building control application and construction phases for HRBs. This would be a significant change to most traditional procurement routes. She believes that two-stage D&B procurement, with the contractor appointed to work alongside the architect under a pre-construction agreement, will be the likely way forward for larger projects.

When it comes to the Principal Designer Joan suggests that as the regulations require the Principal Designer to be appointed by the client, the Principal Designer cannot therefore be novated to work for the contractor. On a D&B contract, she believes that the contractor will normally become the Principal Designer for the construction phase. Some larger/Tier 1 contractors with in-house design competency will take on the Principal Designer role from the outset.

White Ink will be offering ‘Principal Designer services’ to its contractors on D&B projects for the construction phase. This will see the practice notifying the client that its Principal Designer role has ended with building control approval. It will then enter into a separate appointment with the contractor to supply, plan, manage and monitor services concerning co-ordinating the design in relation to compliance.

At this point, the contractor will have been appointed by the client to the statutory Principal Designer role and the contractor will expect to bring its own processes such as change management systems into play.

Taking back control

Joan says White Ink has always taken a very systemised approach to the way it runs its business and is confident in its solid technical expertise. She suggests that the arrival of the Principal Designer role won’t change the way they approach design work, except for the new systems that will be introduced to evidence competency and compliance as well as dealing with the HRB Building Control regime.

These new duties are very well suited to architects, she argues, and should be approached as an opportunity to get paid properly to reflect the additional responsibility and liability that the role brings: “Architects really need to see the new regime as a way they can take back control of the design process.”

Thanks to Joan McCoy, Director, White Ink Architects.

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:

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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