Build to safely perform

In his Presidential address in May, Stuart MacPherson urged us not to return to business as usual as we emerge from the current crisis. Hywel Davies considers what that might mean for building safety

It takes something to displace the third anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire from the headlines. But the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic did.

Covid-19 has driven change in ways we could not have imagined. We have learned to hold meetings online, and to work collaboratively and remotely on projects. It has been a radical and dramatic change.

As we reflect on the Grenfell Tower disaster and what we already know about that night, how can the current crisis inform the building safety programme1,2 and review of building regulation?

Covid-19 has put the operational performance of our buildings into sharp focus. It has thrown a spotlight on the systems that supply essentials of life: air to breathe and water for sanitation. Suddenly, everyone wants to know that the plumbing and ventilation systems are safe. Not that, when installed a few years ago, they met building standards and a building inspector signed them off – or that there is a maintenance contract for them. They want to know that the building they are in, or being asked to return to, is safe to occupy now.

In lockdown, we have surely all shopped online. A critical element is the courier bringing the physical goods to our door. But they are only a means to deliver the goods we ordered to perform a function – to feed, clothe, educate or entertain us.

What we deliver is built for a purpose – to provide a safe, healthy place to live, learn, work, be

It is easy to lose sight of the reality that a sector employing about one in 10 of us – and delivering everything from our homes to the local supermarket, the transport links between them and the utility systems that serve them both – is a delivery service. But that is precisely what ‘construction’ is and does. We deliver the built environment in which we all live.

Good practice includes commissioning the building so that it works at handover. It might also include training the incoming building manager, but then we move on.

What we deliver is lived in, shopped in, taught in, travelled on, met in. It is built for a purpose and to perform a function – to provide a safe and healthy place in which to live, learn, work or be.

In engineering terms, the pandemic has brought a particular focus on ventilation and water systems in buildings. CIBSE guidance3 on preparing buildings to reoccupy lists 11 engineering systems that must be checked before reopening.

Such is the concern about water systems that the HSE now has a specific website on the topic. And to reduce the risk of airborne transmission, CIBSE provides guidance on ventilation rates to dilute and disperse contamination and avoid transferring it within the building.

The emphasis is on performance of the building and the various systems within it. The question is, do they work now? Are they effective and delivering a safe environment today, and supporting our health in the future? That means asking whether they have been maintained and still operate as they should.

This is what CIBSE does. Everyone in the CIBSE family is involved in providing buildings that perform safely and effectively – whether that is how they are powered, lit or clad; how we move about them; how we wash our hands; how the air we breathe is provided; or how local contaminants are exhausted.

The current crisis has made people aware of the importance and the value of what we do. Do we really want to ‘go back to normal’?

The pandemic also teaches us something about building safety. A safe building is not just a sound structure that will not burn down. It must be those things, but it also needs systems to detect fire, possibly to suppress or control fire, and certainly to enable escape. A safe building needs systems that deliver healthy air and clean water, and that maintain a comfortable temperature for all occupants.

As we look to implement the building safety programme in the aftermath of the Grenfell tragedy, it is vital that we deliver and maintain safe, healthy buildings for all.

Please note, the CIBSE Journal design style is to have an initial cap only for Covid-19, whereas the World Health Organization refers to it as COVID-19.

About the author
Dr Hywel Davies is technical  director at CIBSE

A reformed building safety regulatory system: government response to the ‘Building a Safer Future’ consultation,
2 Letter from the Prime Minister to Sir Martin Moore-Bick
3 Emerging from lockdown, CIBSE advice pages,