As RIBA launches a domestic category of its Principal Designer Register, Jack Pringle explains why the role is an opportunity for architects to take the lead

Jack Pringle

Source: RIBA

Jack Pringle

Almost seven years ago, the Grenfell Tower fire took 72 lives, and in the aftermath, the built environment sector came under the microscope. There were calls for our industry to step up - to take responsibility for fire safety, tighten the focus on competence and for different professions to coordinate with each other. We had to do better.

Since then, a succession of legislative changes has defined responsibilities more clearly. Last August, regulatory legislation published under the Building Safety Act 2022 introduced new duties in England under Building Regulations for the Client, Designer, Principal Designer, Contractor and Principal Contractor. These echoed those terms first introduced under the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2015.

As with any big changes to long-established ways of working, the transition has naturally caused confusion for some and worry for others. Part of this reaction is because both regimes reference the same dutyholder terms, albeit with two completely separate and distinct sets of duties and regulatory requirements.

The new regime requires a competent Principal Designer on all projects involving work that is notifiable under the Building Regulations. They are responsible for planning, managing and monitoring design work in relation to building regulations compliance. This is primarily a design coordination exercise, which, under the old regime, was delivered by the Lead Designer on the project – usually the architect.

So, architects are the ideal, qualified design professionals to act as Principal Designers, and RIBA is committed to positioning them as such – there’s no-one better suited to the role.

This may be what you would expect to hear from the Chair of RIBA’s Board. But having considered the competence and liability implications, with support from technical and legal experts from across the profession, I am convinced that this is a real opportunity for architects to lead a project’s design from the start.

The role of Principal Designer is certainly not one to fear, but it is one to respect. It is based around the existing practice on many projects - with the architect as conductor of the design orchestra - and turns best practice Lead Designer processes into statutory obligations.

Let’s get back to conducting the design orchestra

The leap to Principal Designer under building regulations may be greater for architects who have not previously undertaken the role under CDM. Yet, the duties are well suited to an architect’s ability to co-ordinate, collaborate and manage multidisciplinary discussions. It’s not about being the specialist on everything, it’s about asking critical questions, checking the design is co-ordinated and being confident to challenge other duty holders as appropriate, if you are not satisfied.

RIBA members undertake initial qualification and Continuous Professional Development (CPD), but these don’t reflect the very detailed and specific competence requirements for the Principal Designer role. So, for those who wish to take on the role, the RIBA Principal Designer Register supports the need for them to demonstrate their competence. The register also simplifies construction clients’ potentially onerous duty to satisfy themselves of a Principal Designer’s competence.

While architects on the register may have an advantage when it comes to securing work, there is no obligation to join it, and professionals may choose to demonstrate their competence for the Principal Designer role to clients in their own way instead, including through suitable CPD programmes.

The RIBA Principal Designer Register is the first of its kind, and now has three competence levels to reflect the different competence requirements for Principal Designers on different types of projects. Architects can join the register’s ‘higher-risk buildings’ (high-rise residential) level, ‘general’ level, and, since 16 May, our new, lower cost ‘domestic’ level for those only working on domestic projects for domestic clients.

It’s just one aspect of RIBA’s support for its members since the Principal Designer role was introduced. We also offer a training course, guide book, regular professional features, and will continue to develop resources including a standard professional services contract for the role.

The regime is in its infancy and there will no doubt be bumps in the road, but one thing is clear – the Principal Designer role is not a hindrance, but a great opportunity for architects to demonstrate collective commitment to a safer built environment, and to lead the way. Let’s get back to conducting the design orchestra.

>> Also read: RIBA Principal Designer’s Guide - ‘An excellent and much needed book’

>> Also read: We urgently need Principal Designers. Are architects ready to step up?