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Building Safety Act: how does RIBA’s new Principal Designer Register help architects working with domestic clients?

Learn more about how to become a candidate for this new competency level and sign up for the domestic register on RIBA Academy

16 May 2024

Initially launched in autumn 2023, RIBA’s Principal Designer Register now offers a third competency level from this week (16 May 2024) and will be accepting applications from RIBA Chartered Members seeking to join a register for Principal Designers working solely on domestic projects for domestic clients.

Small practices and sole practitioners who expect their projects to be limited to smaller-scale residential works will be able to demonstrate Principal Designer competence to their domestic clients while benefitting from a two-stage assessment process for the domestic register.

Candidates should be aware that the domestic level does not apply to residential projects for commercial clients. This is because there are distinct regulations for domestic clients under both CDM Regulations 2015 and Building Regulations in England.

Candidates for the domestic register will take the same knowledge test as those seeking to join the general register – demonstrating their understanding of Principal Designer duties and the regulatory framework for both CDM 2015 and Building Regulations – and must submit a similar written submission that documents skills, knowledge and experience. They will not need to attend the Stage 3 assessment interview required for admission to the general and higher-risk buildings competency levels.

Details on how to join the register at your chosen competency level are set out in the newly revised RIBA Principal Designer Register Handbook.

Candidates for the domestic register will take the same knowledge test as those seeking to join the general register. (Photo: iStock Photo)

Why is a Principal Designer required on all projects?

The recently enacted Building Safety Act regime requires a competent Principal Designer to be appointed on any project that is notifiable under Building Regulations, with no exception for domestic works. The Principal Designer is responsible for coordinating and monitoring all design work and must take all reasonable steps to ensure compliance with the regulations.

Domestic clients should appoint a designer with control over design work as the Principal Designer and a contractor as Principal Contractor. The act puts a duty on the architect or lead designer to explain these client duties before commencing work. However, in the absence of a Principal Designer appointment, the sole or lead designer on a domestic project may become the Principal Designer by default.

It was always the Health and Safety Executive’s intention that the architect or lead designer should take on the role of Principal Designer for both for CDM 2015 regulations (designing for health and safety during the construction phase) and now Building Regulations compliance.

Appointments can be made separately, and in the past third-party consultants have taken on the CDM role. But since the Building Safety Act, the case for the lead designer to take on the Principal Designer role for CDM and Building Regulations compliance is seen as a real opportunity.

Sign up to RIBA Academy’s Principal Designer on-demand course.

Architects are best placed to be Principal Designers. (Photo: iStock Photo)

Why joining the Principal Designer register is beneficial to architects

RIBA is encouraging architects to make the Principal Designer role their own (through one of the appropriate competency levels). Not only are they seen as best placed to take on the role, but the new regime is seen as an opportunity for the profession to take control of the design process.

Mike Oades, a Director at Atomik Architecture and someone who has been through the accreditation process to join RIBA’s Principal Designer Register, says he has no doubt that architects are best placed to be Principal Designers.

“We typically provide a full service, so it would be short-sighted to try and pass this responsibility to a third party, and it’s not in the spirit of the legislation,” he argues. “Architects are always complaining about being marginalised within the industry. Here is the perfect opportunity to demonstrate why the architect, as lead designer, is the obvious choice for the role.”

He continues: “We were also concerned that if the role becomes a box-ticking process for overzealous project managers, it could exclude architects from providing the Principal Designer role on their own projects if they are not on the register.”

Mike points out that preparing for assessment for the register is a good way for architects to gain a thorough working knowledge of the legislation, and helps to demystify the roles and processes.

“The primary benefit [of the register] is that it should make all our projects safer, as it gives Principal Designer architects a clear mandate to maintain best practice and behaviours within the industry – ultimately this should reduce the risks in buildings,” he says.

“I have seen several architects complaining about the perceived risks and cost of joining the register, particularly for smaller practices. As designers, we all have statutory obligations under the act, whether we are the Principal Designers or not.

Mike concludes that there are efficiencies for a practice if the Principal Designer is kept in-house and it potentially benefits the client, too, by removing the complexities of having a third-party in the role. And for a chartered architect who is on the register, the service should come with a premium, he says.

Sign up to RIBA’s Principal Designer Domestic Register

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:

Thanks to Mike Oades, Director, Atomik Architecture.

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 an RIBA Chartered Member.

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