The skills challenge

There is currently a clear focus on building safety and net-zero carbon buildings. Hywel Davies suggests that serious investment in skills, right across the industry, is needed to deliver these effectively

Safety, sustainability and digitalisation are driving real change in our industry.

With the Fire Safety Bill in its final parliamentary stages, the Building Safety Bill due to be introduced soon, a new Chief Inspector of Buildings, and development of new competence frameworks by BSI, there is gathering momentum to building-safety reform. We also have a new Product Safety Regulator and an independent review of product testing.

Government has just consulted on the Future Building Standard,1 setting out proposals for new buildings to be net-zero ready without significant refurbishment or retrofit measures. There is a consultation on a performance-based framework to assess energy use in larger commercial buildings,1 and a Construction Leadership Council framework for the retrofitting of existing buildings to be net-zero carbon ready.

The UK BIM Framework and Digital Built Britain initiatives are embedded in government’s Construction Playbook, bringing digital information management and exchange to an ever wider circle of activities. The digital agenda meets the building safety programme in the development of the Golden Thread. This digital record of a building is intended to address concerns over ineffective operation of current rules for the creation, maintenance, handover and accessibility of building and fire-safety information and building logbooks, already required by Building Regulations. Recommendations from the Grenfell Tower Inquiry Phase 1 report, relating to better provision of information about high-rise residential buildings, need a government response.

Nothing here is exceptional or unreasonable, but it is extremely challenging, because it requires the whole industry to adopt new technologies and ways of working. It requires an approach to building focused on achieving safe and sustainable outcomes, not just doing what is required by parts of the Building Regulations that are enforced. It demands increasing adoption of digital information management processes and standards – not just for design and construction, but throughout the building life-cycle and supply chain.

The challenge here is that each of these initiatives – be it building safety, sustainability and net zero, or digitalisation – require significant enhancement to, and investment in, skills if they are to be delivered effectively.

All these changes demand new skills and knowledge across the supply chain”

The Building Safety Bill will introduce new gateways and competences for planning, design, completion and handover of buildings. There will be requirements to demonstrate that outcomes are achieved and buildings are safe to occupy, not just compliant with those minimum legal standards that are checked. The Future Buildings Standard will require more challenging levels of fabric efficiency and installation of low carbon energy-using systems. Switching to LED lighting is a relatively simple transition; replacing gas-fired boilers with heat pumps requires a different design approach. Heat pumps use refrigerants, which come under a different statutory licensing regime than the Gas Safe Register. 

All these changes demand new skills and knowledge across the supply chain. Every business is affected, whether providing design expertise, delivering safe low carbon products, or installing or maintaining them in buildings. Building owners face new duties to know what those installations are, and how they are operated and maintained to be safe and energy efficient.

The Covid-19 pandemic shows the need for better knowledge and operation of ventilation systems to both the Building Regulations and workplace health and safety regulations. With greater corporate focus on net-zero targets and sustainability commitments, more building operators will demand effective ventilation and better energy performance from their buildings, especially if they must disclose them.

Regulators are not exempt. They must embrace digital technology to assess building projects effectively in construction, to review building-safety cases, and to enforce new requirements where needed.

As a sector, we design, install, maintain and operate many of the energy-using systems in buildings, and make most of the penetrations that need firestopping and fire dampers. We must invest in the skills to design, install and operate buildings to match new regulations, technologies and digitalisation. CIBSE must also invest in new technical guidance to support them.


1 CIBSE response to Future Buildings Standard: Building Regulations Part L and F, and overheating