Interview with Peter Caplehorn following his attending the Oral Evidence Session with the Housing Communities and Local Government Select Committee 27 June 2018

By Emma Salmon at Thursday, July 5, 2018

On 27 June 2018, Peter Caplehorn, CPA Deputy Chief Executive and Policy Director, was invited by the House of Commons Select Committee for Housing, Communities and Local Government to provide oral evidence at a session focusing on the Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety. Questions covered the remit and scope of the Review; the need for culture change within the industry; and the clarity, effectiveness and compliance of building regulations, including the possibility of banning combustible materials. 

We asked Peter to expand on some of these questions and others supplied by the CPA Technical Expert Panel.

Was the remit of the Independent Review of the Building Regulations and Fire Safety: Final Report by Dame Judith Hackitt to narrow or should have been broader?

The remit was narrow in order to get, in my opinion, the job done. If you had made the remit larger it might not have delivered all the key points and it might have been diffused. If we are trying to change a whole system, we need to start with the key principles that will change that system, starting with the areas that are most at risk. My belief is this is clearly the start of a larger process.

What in the industry needs to change to raise standards?

The issue with standards in the industry is that they have been in decline for decades. By standards we mean: standards of behaviour; standards of quality; standards of delivery and standards of performance. In many cases, as Dame Judith Hackitt has explained, we have to have culture change but we also have to have mechanisms for driving that change.

There is an attitude that regulations are a “nice to have”. The attitude needs to be, every time, that compliance is not optional.

Regulations and guidance must be clear, it must mean what it says and say what it means. A lot of debate has been focused on whether the regulations are clear but the requirement is as simple as it can be, barely a few sentences. The rest of the document is guidance. It is the guidance that seems to confuse people. But it’s important to remember that guidance is a “guide”. Ultimately you must ask yourself: have you complied with that regulation?

In terms of delivery, quality and performance: we need to have an industry that understands what delivery of quality means, and takes ownership of that. So when we’ve completed something and it is independently tested, we’re not going to complain if we find that it’s wrong, we’re just going to fix it like most other industries do.

The Joint Competent Authority can be part of that answer to validate the proposed new guidance and ensure the responsibilities of duty-holders is upheld.

How can culture change in the built environment be achieved? What do you think will give industry the confidence to embrace this culture change?

Industry has to have an understanding that government is going to support and promote that culture change. We have seen several examples of government threatening to legislate and then not doing so. We have to have confidence on both sides that industry and government are going to progress this and both are supporting each other.

Dame Judith Hackitt described the culture issue with the sector as a ‘race to the bottom’ – what can the client, local government and government do to change that?

The culture is very much a race to the bottom with the focus on least cost, fastest time. That has been a driver for many decades in procurement, and unfortunately particularly for government or local government projects which are driven by procurement rules. Many people have tried to reform procurement in various ways by tinkering at the edges but it still remains that if you are not cheapest, you may not get considered for the project.

What we need is to focus on delivering performance and quality for the long term and for the benefit of everybody who uses that building. Just because you come up with the cheapest in the quickest possible time does not mean that you are not delivering that, but experience shows us most of the time buildings that are built to that formula are harder to maintain, fail more regularly and as we have seen are a safety risk.

Is part of the answer to look at different contracts and reassess things like value engineering and supply chain management?

The current contractual relationships and mechanisms have developed over the last 25 years. They have driven custom and practice, and at times created a situation where people do not have authority or responsibility over the work that they are doing.

Therefore we should look to other forms of relationships, how products are procured, and the operatives and the services that come together to create a building. This could include a refocus on how major decision making is made away from the site, and creating large elements of buildings away from the site, freeing up the site to be purely about assembly.

We should also refocus on the financial relationship between all the various players. Many people have talked about a contract bank account and that’s one possibility. Others have talked about the way people get paid as work progresses. All of that needs a really sensible review that would result in people paid more to do a good job, and paid less when they achieve non-compliance or poorly perform.

What would a compliance focused industry look like?

The example of a compliance focused industry is there for all to see, in fact most other industries, for example aviation, automotive, the chemical industry, they all follow a compliance process. They are using compliance to drive quality, delivery and performance. We don’t have to copy all the things that those industries do but we can certainly pick up on the basics of how they achieve the processes that they have.

The key thing for construction is to really understand what we are trying to achieve and work backwards from that. That starts with the client and the originator of any project laying their stamp on what will be delivered at the end of the process.

Dame Judith Hackitt has said that simply banning a product will be no guarantee of compliance. Does CPA agree with that?

I think CPA does agree with that, we have debated it with our members and there is a broad range of views, not all of them in total agreement. But the key thing here that in banning a product you then set up a whole series of market schisms which will possibly mean that people start working their way around the banning, possibly to game the system. Certainly it will mean that the old habits, the old culture, the old approaches are still there no matter what. So if we recognise that there are a whole load of things driving the behaviour that are not simply about products, we have to see if we can achieve changing the industry for the long term benefit.

There may be an argument for saying that in the shorter term banning something would work, but if you want long term and permanent change you have to deal with the complete system and culture change.

What are the concerns with combustible and non-combustible materials?

A simple question at first glance, but when you delve into the detail it’s a lot more complicated. We define many things around combustible and non-combustible and other material standards in between and just saying things are combustible or non-combustible in the practical world is very different. All things will in the end either burn or melt if you raise the temperature high enough.

The challenge is using the right combination of materials in the right way to achieve the outcomes that we need. Where we face a situation of high risk and possibly high rise (but not necessarily), in situations where people are exposed to high risk for example if they are in a building and are asleep, if they are frail, if they are ill, if they don’t know the building or equally if there are a lot of people in one single building – all of those circumstances make it clear that we should be making that building as safe as possible. If that means that those people in those circumstances are surrounded by materials that make it very, very difficult to promote fire, than I think that is the direction that we have to go in.

Are there alternative materials that can be used?

We have a very limited pallet of materials currently that can be used for cladding and for insulation and for that matter for wall and façades in general. Some might point to materials such as terracotta which is really good but very expensive. There are high pressure laminates which have been used in all sorts of cladding but are now attracting criticism due to their fire characteristics. And we have other materials such as brick slips which are glued onto panels using glues that often have a poor fire characteristic.

Some innovation needs to happen here in terms of how these various materials are used, how they perform and how they are put together in a practical sense on a building as a system. It is very challenging at the low budget end. At the high end there is obviously room for using a whole range of materials quite successfully, and we see that in high end residential and high end commercial.

Dame Judith advised that the testing regimes are inadequate. What can be done to improve this? What is the CPA’s view and position on the BS 8414 test regime and on the use of desk top studies for cladding systems?

Testing is a really big topic and is challenging. CPA’s view is that we have currently acknowledged testing regimes and we certainly support the review of BS 8414 and the re-examination of BS EN 13501.

The government consultation on combustible materials focuses entirely on using the existing tests, focusing on limiting cladding to BS EN 13501 A1 and A2 and then backing this up where necessary with a system test from BS 8414. They are slightly constrained by the limited capacity of current test houses.   

It is important to recognise that not all of the physics is totally known. So some further research and development on exactly how all fire situations come about, how it spreads, and the effects of fire on other building products would really help to design to limit and control fires.

We have some complex areas where we need to have properly constituted compartmentation and the current tests don’t look thoroughly at compartmentation.

We welcome the review of BS 8414 and the additional work on BS 9414, but this shouldn’t detract from having further analysis and a potential new generation of further tests in the medium and long term.

Are there any areas where urgent change is needed which were not addressed by the Independent Review?

I think there are, but I think the challenge is what is meant by ‘urgent change’? For the last (nearly) year the Industry Response Group has been helping the MHCLG produce information for building owners, to some degree that is to give clear advice as to what is needed urgently.

The problem we face however is there are other mechanisms, mainly financial, that are in play. By that I mean insurance and if you are going to change a building who is going to pay. And the challenge with that again is whoever pays there is an implicit issue of liability. There are some other key challenges that were clearly not addressed because they are outside of the remit of the Review, but are nevertheless they are ones that people face on a day to day basis.

I am hopeful that further work from the Industry Response Group will start to deliver some clear guidance, and maturing an approach on financing the remediations with help from the insurance industry, which also will help to unblock the current situation.

The Review proposes that there should be a new regulatory regime for higher risk residential buildings. Should it be more widely applied?

The Review was very clearly restrained by the remit to address higher risk residential buildings, the Review also identifies under almost every recommendation that the government should look further when applying each particular recommendation. It is clear that this is a direction of travel and it is absolutely clear that we kick off the new approach with the new regulatory body, and the way people address regulations and comply with them for those people who are at most risk– that seems a totally logical and sensible approach.

It is also clear if you are going to go for culture change, that change needs to be across the whole of the industry.

Are there issues that we can specifically address in regards to installation?

It is well known that there are problems with installation both with people substituting materials last minute, a lack of competence and understanding of those installing materials on site, and a lack of quality checking for the final assembly. All of those degrade the quality of the products’ potential performance.

Certainly work is already underway to look at promoting down the supply chain appropriate ways to use their product, how to use a product in combination with other products and additionally how not to use that product.

There is an inherent responsibility on product manufacturers to ensure this information is very well understood.

What are the ways that the CPA membership can meet the challenges that the Independent Review outlines?

The membership have been very keen to address the items directed specifically around how products and performance are described, making sure information is correct, making sure we can come to an accord over how products and performance are described, using digital techniques and ensuring we are part of the golden thread. Most of the membership that we talked to are absolutely on board with that and we have immediately been looking at how we can formulate the structure to deliver that kind of output.

Additionally I think that CPA members are very keen to play their part in all the other parts of the recommendations. It should be a matter of pride that the issues and recommendations highlighted in Dame Judith’s Independent Review are dealt with, and that we can all look forward to buildings that keep people safe and make people feel safe. That surely has got to be the key outcome for the whole industry.

By Emma Salmon at 5 Jul 2018, 12:45 PM