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Changing at pace – the new normal

The industry’s response to the coronavirus crisis shows that it is perfectly capable of delivering the longer-term improvements to working practices demanded by Dame Judith Hackitt

Ventilation and filtration will be key as more people start to return to work. Image courtesy of Farmwood M&E

The chair of the Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety, commissioned by the government in the wake of the Grenfell fire disaster, was a guest speaker on one of BESA’s daily Covid-19 update webinars in May.

She said the sector had demonstrated it was “capable of massive change at pace” and had been able to dump old practices quickly “without compromising safety or quality”. She urged everyone to emulate the methods used to deliver vital projects for the NHS and other essential services where “collaboration and co-operation replaced fragmentation and adversarial behaviour”.

However, Dame Judith added that there was still a widespread lack of leadership across the sector and too many people waiting to be told what to do despite the fact that the new regulatory being created in the wake of her review would be retrospective.

“Some people have stood up to be counted and are doing the right thing, but not nearly enough…if you have continued building in the same old way you will be held accountable [by the new Building Safety Regulator],” she told the webinar chaired by BESA chief executive David Frise.

Rebuilding confidence

Dame Judith urged the industry to start rebuilding confidence with the financial and insurance markets, which she said were now alerted to poor practices that increase risk in construction projects. She added that the industry should also be seeking to regain the trust of the general public after the Grenfell Tower disaster as many people now felt unsafe in their own homes.

She made it clear that improving competence and accreditation would be central to her programme of industry reform.

“A lot of people simply don’t properly understand some of the features of buildings,” she told the BESA webinar. “There are people who cut corners blatantly to save money because they can get away with it, but others simply lack competence. Sprinklers are no use at all if they are not installed properly.”

BESA is currently enhancing its schemes in readiness for the new regulatory environment including the Competence Assessment Scheme (CAS) it uses to assess the technical and commercial professionalism of companies who apply for membership.

Nathan Wood, chair of the Association’s Health & Wellbeing in Buildings group, agreed with Dame Judith’s assessment that the emergency projects showed what the industry could do given the right project conditions. However, he said they had also shown that there was now a greater understanding of the role building services play in people’s health and wellbeing.

“The emergency NHS facilities built in record time across the country show just what is possible. With the legal and contractual shackles removed, the engineers got on with the job and created buildings fully focussed on supporting the health and wellbeing of their users,” he said.

“They used precision military-style planning to support engineering innovation and delivered an outcome that was both safe and of good quality.  The world was watching and the outcome was critical – the engineers were allowed to engineer; and the contractual complexity that holds so many projects back was swept away. 

“We now have a chance to turn that model into a ‘new normal’ for our sector supported by higher standards in competence and compliance. For building engineering services this is also an important opportunity to restate the value we bring to buildings and people,” said Mr Wood.

Another efficiency improvement seen during the crisis was the sudden acceleration in the use of digital systems to support engineers working from home and to facilitate remote monitoring of building systems that were hard to access. 

“This is a ‘game changer’ and no-one should be looking to turn back that clock – onwards and upwards,” said Mr Wood.

BESA also believes there will be huge opportunities in the ‘green recovery’ and the government is already looking at ways to accelerate some of the initiatives it put in place to support its zero carbon agenda. 

“The health & safety of our people will be a big concern as they go back into action on site and in buildings that may hold unknown threats,” said BESA President John Norfolk. “However, as well as working more safely we must also work differently. 

Economic revival

“The Minister for Small Business Paul Scully MP was a guest on one of the BESA webinars and made it very clear that the environmental agenda and the changes recommended by the Hackitt Review would be central parts of the economic revival. 

“Therefore, the construction sector simply cannot just go back to business as usual. Instead, we must ensure that the unity of spirit and fantastic collaboration witnessed on those emergency NHS hospital projects must become our blueprint for a new way of working,” said Mr Norfolk.

One of the biggest social changes brought about by the coronavirus crisis was the amount of people working from home. Many of these people will not return to a central office – or will at least split their time more evenly between home and office from now on.

This will complicate issues around an employer’s responsibility for the health and wellbeing of their staff? How do you know that their home office is suitable? Does it have the right level of natural light? Is it acoustically and ergonomically appropriate and not polluted by airborne bacteria?

“BESA has been focussing a lot on how to turn commercial and public buildings into ‘safe havens’ from pollution,” said Mr Wood. “We talk about people spending 90% of their time indoors – now it might be 90% of their time at home.”

He said this could be a problem in many properties, but particularly those with Mechanical Ventilation Heat Recovery (MVHR) systems. There have been many reports of these systems creating problems due to installation and maintenance failings. 

There is going to be a growing clamour for improved standards; expert guidance; and evidence of competence to make sure the domestic industry can cope – and the lines between the commercial side of the sector and the residential will blur, he believes.

The office environment is bound to change too. During the crisis, the general advice was to reduce recirculation of air as much as possible and increase air change rates to limit the possibility of infection and re-infection by COVID-19. The emphasis moved from energy efficiency to health and safety.

Former BESA ventilation hygiene group chair Richard Norman said he was expecting this to become a long-term, structural shift for the ventilation and filtration sectors. 

“Energy saving is going to have to play second fiddle to ensuring the air inside buildings is ‘moved’ faster than it is now – certainly in the immediate future anyway,” he said. “This is a challenge at a time when there is so much worldwide focus on cutting carbon emissions.

“The pandemic will also have a profound influence on the layout of offices. The current trend is for open plan spaces with people grouped together in high densities – that will have to be completely reversed, which has implications for the design and operation of ventilation and air conditioning systems,” said Mr Norman.

He also pointed out that it will no longer be appropriate to turn off or down ventilation systems at night – and in many cases, offices will start leaving bathroom extract systems running 24/7.

“Perhaps more importantly, I can also see a change towards filters with antibacterial and anti-viral impregnated media, and away from those designed to be energy efficient.”

Heavily contaminated

He also thinks there will be a lot more ductwork monitoring and testing. “Firstly because turning ductwork systems on ‘higher’ throws out a lot of dirt and dust through vents and secondly, if systems are going to be running at full tilt, identifying heavily contaminated systems and cleaning them will improve their performance,” he said.

Greater activity in this area will be part of the evidence employers will use to prove to their staff that they are trying to do the right thing. “Look how much I value your health and wellbeing,” will be the message. 

We were already living in a health and safety, increasingly risk averse world and that will only intensify because of the virus. The difference now is that we understand more about the risks to building occupants posed by airborne contaminants – and have more methods for addressing it.

For example, clean air technologies and strategies will surely become the new normal for every healthcare facility in the UK. Wearing masks and washing hands helped to control the spread, but medical professionals now recognise that is not enough and they are far more aware of the role played by air purification and sterilisation devices…and, therefore, the building engineering industry.

“After the crisis eases, there will also be a stronger appetite for testing and for measuring and monitoring – this will have a profound impact on the work of the building services sector,” said Mr Wood. “The public are now familiar with the concept of tracking and tracing threats – and will want to see this done in their commercial and residential buildings.”

It is a whole new world with the health and wellbeing of building occupants now front and centre.

17 June 2020

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