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

This professional feature looks at the new RIBA Principal Designer Guide and discusses the role and its duties.

15 February 2024

The Building Safety Act is offering architects a unique opportunity - to be the Principal Designer under Building Regulations in England.

In fact, should the profession choose to embrace the role and make it its own, there’s an argument that suggests that the role and its duties would be a few steps away from effective ‘protection of function’ that UK architects have often dreamt about.

This compelling argument is made by Dieter Bentley-Gockmann, whose highly-anticipated RIBA Principal Designer’s Guide is now available to purchase.

Many architects are still asking why they should volunteer to take on responsibility for declaring a project to be in complete compliance with Building Regulations.

After all, on the surface it looks like extra work and liability for little or no reward. This is a popular misconception of the regulations and is not a requirement. The Principal Designer’s duty is to plan, manage and monitor design work, to ensure steps are taken such that the design complies with the relevant requirements of the Building Regulations.

“I’m not sure why some architects and designers are nervous about doing this just because it’s in the context of Building Regulations, because it’s something that traditionally we’ve always done,” Dieter asserts. “I think there’s a misconception that the Principal Designer has to take on responsibility for everyone’s design, and they don’t.”

He continues: “Every designer on a project remains responsible for the design work they undertake and is responsible for ensuring it complies with Building Regulations. And that hasn’t and doesn’t change.”

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

The Principal Designer’s duty is to plan, manage and monitor design work, to ensure steps are taken so that the design complies with the Building Regulations. (Photo: RIBA/Canva)

What is the Principal Designer role and what are the duties?

A Principal Designer (and Principal Contractor) has needed to be appointed by the client for any project subject to Building Regulations (in England) since 1 October 2023.

The Principal Designer’s role is to plan, manage and monitor design work to ensure that everyone is sharing information, coordinating work and collaborating effectively so that the project design will be compliant with the relevant requirements of the Building Regulations.

In the RIBA Principal Designer Guide, Dieter argues that full-service architects - or lead designers who have been doing their job effectively - will have been doing these things already.

In addition, they should have been producing a complete package of coordinated information. For architects who have been following good practice, the principles of the new regime will not be very different, he says.

“Competence and compliance have always been requirements,” Dieter says. "It’s an implied duty of being a professional, of being an architect, and it’s an implied duty under contract through your appointment. The difference now is that it has become a statutory duty with prescribed tasks and information requirements that go with that.

It’s about saying this is what good practice looks like, and good practice is now the minimum standard and is prescribed in law.”

Sign up to watch an NBS webinar, featuring Dieter, on 21 February 2024.

Why is the role of Principal Designer important?

And what would be the alternative if architects choose not to take on the Principal Designer role?

Dieter says architects risk giving away a large proportion of what they do if they choose not to take the role on. Pure design is just a fraction of what an architect does, he argues.

If you lose responsibility for design coordination and communication with clients and team members, which architects are trained for, the danger is that you lose control of the project.

“I can’t see anybody in the current project team who is better placed than the architect to undertake these duties,” Dieter posits. “Architects talk to the client, talk to the contractor, talk to other designers and understand how the design needs to be coordinated to achieve the end result. If you hand all of that to somebody else, how are you going to get the design that you wanted at the end of the day?”

One scenario he does foresee is that third party companies might start offering Principal Designer services under Building Regulations as they did for CDM Regulations. However, questions of competency are much broader than the single discipline of health and safety needed for CDM.

The Principal Designer needs an understanding of what good planning, managing, monitoring, and coordinating looks like, and what technical compliance means for the full range of Building Regulations.

“I think there is a risk that a third party could take on the statutory role but would then look to the architect to do all of the design coordination anyway,” Dieter says. “Architects would then face a double whammy of losing control of the project and losing the fee, but would still be doing the work.”

The Principal Designer needs an understanding of what good planning, managing, monitoring, coordinating looks like. (Photo: Pexels)

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:

Dieter argues that insurers are likely to be reassured by the arrival of Principal Designers who are there to manage out risk and monitor work for regulatory compliance in liaison with the client and Principal Contractors. (Photo: Pexels)

What is the mechanism for transferring Principal Designer duties?

Practices working only to the planning application stage have expressed doubts about taking on the Principal Designer role due to fears for project compliance at later work stages.

There is a mechanism for transferring Principal Designer duties, and it is another misconception that architects not providing a full service cannot take on the role, Dieter says.

A Principal Designer working at the planning stage will have a duty to ensure that to the extent the design is prepared for the application it is coordinated to be compliant. At that point, if there are no further design duties, the architect should make sure to notify the client that their Principal Designer duties have ended.

There has to be a Principal Designer for the duration of a project, and a practice taking on executive work can take over the role for design development.

Dieter’s own practice, EPR Architects, regularly takes on projects post-planning. He reports that his practice has been developing spreadsheet-based project tracking systems for monitoring compliance – in collaboration with other practices – that can be used to meet Principal Designer duties for executive or full-service projects.

Architects have also expressed fears that their insurers will not be happy with them taking on Principal Designer duties.

While it is true that insurers were distinctly unhappy with the original draft regulations, says Dieter, DLUHC took this on board and amended regulations so that Principal Designers’ duties are qualified to take all reasonable steps to achieve and demonstrate compliance. They do not take on absolute liability.

Read more about the RIBA PI insurance guide and where to download it.

Why the new regime will make for safer projects

It is early days, but he says insurers are likely to be reassured, if anything, by the arrival of Principal Designers who are there to manage out risk and monitor work for regulatory compliance in liaison with the client and Principal Contractors. It should make for better and safer projects.

“It’s only when Principal Designers don’t follow the correct procedures that they could be exposed to risk and potentially step outside of insurance cover,” Dieter says.

“Architects and designers need to accept the fact that there is an element of upskilling. They do need to understand what’s in the regulations, what the new prescribed procedures are, and to make sure they apply them proportionately and appropriately to their projects.”

Order your copy of the RIBA Principal Designer Guide from RIBA Books.

Thanks to Dieter Bentley-Gockmann, Director, EPR Architects Ltd.

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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