Spinning the golden thread

With the Building Safety Bill due to be introduced into Parliament, one topic has been enthusiastically debated: the golden thread. Hywel Davies considers this fundamental component of the new regime

The Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety was published three years ago, just a month before the first anniversary of the Grenfell Tower tragedy. During the review, Dame Judith Hackitt heard ‘almost unanimous concern surrounding the ineffective operation of the current rules around the creation, maintenance and handover of building and fire safety information’.

Where available, ‘it is often incomplete or held in paper form and is not accessible to the people who need to see it’. She was quite clear that this lack of information poses many safety challenges. The ‘golden thread’ of information is the recommended remedy.

Chapter 8 of the report proposes a ‘golden thread’ of information for all higher-risk buildings (HRBs), so that the ‘original design intent is preserved and changes managed through a formal review process.’ Dame Judith was clear that access to up-to-date information is essential for ‘effectively carrying out a fire risk assessment of a building and determining whether any action is required’.

The concept of the golden thread is the digital management of information throughout the life-cycle of a building. It underpins the new more stringent regime for higher-risk buildings, sometimes called buildings ‘in scope’. It consists of the information that allows someone to understand a building and the steps needed to keep both the building and those in and around it safe, both now and in future.

It provides the data and documents and describes the information management processes needed to identify, understand, manage and mitigate building safety risks so that catastrophic risks of fire and structural failure can be reduced and their consequences minimised.

This process is to apply through the whole life-cycle of the building, through design, construction, refurbishment and management, so the golden thread needs to be maintained and retained and available to all those with responsibility for the safety of the building.

The greatest challenge is not defining the golden thread, but convincing a change-resistant industry that reform and a change of culture is essential

This information should be stored, managed, maintained and retained as structured digital information. It is anticipated that government will provide guidance on the relevant digital standards for information management and exchange, taking full account of the emerging framework of standards, such as the BS EN ISO 19650 series, the guidance in the UK BIM Framework, and the work already under way in the housing sector to prepare for the new safety regime.

The information needs to be accurate, reliable and secure, and accessible from a single source. It must be kept up to date and relevant to those using it, and retained securely. Above all, it should give residents confidence that the building they call home is being managed safely.

Responsibility for developing the golden thread policy rests with the Building Safety Programme in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG). It is working closely with the HSE, which will be home to the new Building Safety Regulator. The regulator will have wide-ranging new powers and be responsible for implementing the golden thread policy once the bill becomes law next year.

Heightened interest in the golden thread is prompted by the desire to understand what this drive for digital information management will require. Dame Judith is clear that industry must own the golden thread – ‘it is the responsibility of the [building operator] to initiate, hold and maintain this information’. With industry ownership comes duty: a duty to reform and to embrace digital information management and information exchange.

And it is not just the Hackitt review; the government’s Construction Playbook puts the UK BIM Framework at the forefront of modern construction practice. The industry must learn to deliver comprehensive information about buildings, not just the buildings themselves.

The golden thread supports wider changes in the regulatory regime intended to promote a culture of building safety. Legislation alone cannot embed reform. The greatest challenge is not defining the golden thread, but convincing a change-resistant industry that reform and a change of culture is not just possible, it is essential. As the fourth anniversary of Grenfell approaches, we must continue to do all we can to deliver that cultural change.