And will insurers cover architects for the principal designer role, asks Andrew Mellor as he unpicks the rapidly changing rules

Andrew Mellor_PRP_crop

We are in the midst of a period of rapidly changing legislation and related guidance. It is already very difficult to keep up with it all, but this will only get harder over the next few years.

With so much change underway, it will not be easy for those in the industry to obtain – and maintain – full knowledge and understanding of all of the new legislation required.  

The Building Safety Act requires the Architects Registration Board (Arb) to ensure that the competency of architects is maintained. So we are likely to see more formal continuing professional development (CPD) and competency checks, with those on its register being introduced to the regime by Arb following the current consultation process.   

RIBA has required its members to undertake CPD for some time, but architects who are not chartered may not have been doing so. This is probably the reason why the Building Safety Bill proposes to place the obligation on all architects via the Arb.

RIBA is proposing mandatory revalidation of its members every five years, with competency assessments in four key areas including fire safety. 

The recently published Construction Industry Council report entitled Setting the Bar and the BSI’s Built Environment Competence Standards provide a very good insight into the standard of competence expected. Of course, some will say that construction professionals should already have – and be maintaining – these levels of competence, as it is how we formally demonstrate that we have the appropriate skills.    

In my opinion it is right to have competency assessments – but they need to be well-considered. For example, an architect with five years of post-qualification experience may not have the same competency levels as someone with 20 years of experience. The assessments obviously need to take this into account, as well as the type of projects on which an architect works.

Domestic extensions still require competency, but they do not pose the same safety risks as high-rise towers. Practices of any size and in any part of the built environment may well find it hard to ensure that their architects obtain all of the required CPD if the bar is only set at one height, given the time and cost commitments that will be needed.  

Training will have to be structured and formal, in part to ensure that we are getting the guidance required for our roles. The established process will also have to enable clients to assess the competence of those they are appointing. 

Who is really going to have the full competency required for this role, which comes with commercial risk and sanctions for non-compliance?

Of course, competency is not just about the skills, knowledge and expertise of individuals but also the management procedures and processes that the business puts in place. At my practice, PRP, we have led from the top, actively promoting best practice, and we have sought ways of improving our processes that help to ensure building safety.  

We have developed a fire safety audit tool which considers every part of the Approved Document B (ADB) guidance and we use this to carry out a fire safety audit of every project in the practice. This considers requirements outside of ADB and anticipates changing legislation. It therefore needs to be a live tool which evolves and remains relevant as legislation changes. 

Processes such as the fire safety audit have given our professional indemnity insurers confidence that we are competent and that we are taking matters very seriously at a time when such insurance is becoming increasingly difficult to obtain.  

One of the new pieces of legislation being introduced requires the appointment of a Principal Designer (PD) under the Building Safety Act. The PD is required to “coordinate, monitor and manage the pre-construction phase and coordinate building safety matters to ensure that the project complies with the building regulations”. 

The PD has to co-sign the final declaration at the end of a project to say that, to the best of their knowledge, the building design complies with the Building Regulations.  

Who is really going to have the full competency required for this role, which comes with commercial risk and sanctions for non-compliance? In my opinion, it should not be for an individual but a multi-disciplinary team to validate that the design complies with the regulations.  

Assuming that an organisation can form a team to cover this role adequately, will insurers provide professional indemnity cover for the PD service, given that they are becoming increasingly risk averse to anything fire-related? That remains to be seen but, from the outset, it will probably be very difficult to secure.