CROSS Safety Report
COVID-19 and the impact on construction quality
A reporter is concerned that during the Covid lockdowns, there may have been work done without adequate independent supervision.
Key Learning Outcomes
- Consider the environmental constraints holistically and carry out additional checks where appropriate
- Where possible and contracted to do so, carry out thorough site inspections
- Adapt your activities as reasonably as possible to the novel natures of remote working
For Building Control Approval Bodies or Verifiers:
- Be aware that business as usual checks on-site may have not occurred
For clients, developers and owners:
- Supervision and proper checking are cheap insurance.
- Consider the impact of separating design teams from inspection activities
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A reporter is concerned that during the coronavirus lockdowns, there may have been work done without adequate independent supervision. The Construction Leadership Council issued guidelines on the safe operation of building sites, and the government said that construction sites should continue to operate, albeit with social distancing. This meant that construction work has carried on throughout the COVID-19 situation, to varying degrees.
However, the degree of compliance with guidelines on sites has been variable, and this has led Building Control Bodies, Verifiers, Warranty Inspectors, and clients’ agents to limit their inspections of the works, due to safety fears for their staff.
The government did issue guidance to Building Control Bodies and Verifiers which ensured that they should not be signing off projects on the basis of remote inspections or photographs, however, the number of inspections during projects has fallen significantly during this period, which means that defects are less likely to have been picked up.
Expert Panel Comments
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The reporter touches upon a key issue of the past two years, and a timeline of government lockdowns and restrictions provides more insight into the time periods this report is referring to.
Levels of inspection
The old adage is “The measure of a man's real character is what he would do if he knew he would never be found out?" (Thomas Babington Macaulay).
Similarly, “There is also hardly anything in the world that some man cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper, and the people who consider price only are this man's lawful prey” (John Ruskin).
It is true to say that the level of Building Control inspection was reduced and that some of that inspection was by remote means. There well may be "latent" defects that come to light in the future as a result, and a potential danger is construction during the past couple of years is going to get a very poor reputation; at some point there may be costs for someone.
There is a proven history in recent times of buildings having been built badly. The most recent experience with that is in relation to external wall construction, where the costs to society have been immense. That includes costs to whoever has to pay to rectify it in the end; this can vary from the insurers, the contractors, the people who end up owning those badly built buildings (often homeowners), and the government (who is assuming the costs in many cases). The same impact could be experienced for other forms and elements of deficient construction.
The difficulties encountered by the coronavirus restrictions do not mean that the contractors or developers had any less responsibility to get things right, of course. Contractors and developers need to have taken additional measures to carry out inspections before the work is finished and made inaccessible. Improvements to procedures need to have been made across the full site team. A potential complication is that this work is in the past, so once again, reliance is going to be placed on the records claiming how the inspections have been made.
Regrettably, within a contractual chain, there may be stakeholders who, because of time and cost pressures, or even a culture of inadequate professionalism, will cut corners and attempt to cover them up, especially in hidden parts of structures. It is also expected, as part of human nature, that mistakes may be made in any well organised and well-intentioned process. The purpose of systems of work is to check and identify errors so that they can be corrected. The Building Control/Verifier check is a vital part of the process but is not necessarily the first line of defence.
Role and importance of Building Control and Verifiers
This case could also be considered as an exacerbated occurrence of inadequate levels of control (hence why it was reported), which may very well exist in a world without pandemic restrictions.
This should also be considered along with the reduction in Building Control charges, and therefore inspection levels, since the introduction of competition. If it is perceived by stakeholders that Building Control inspection is important, then this is a wider topic and should not be dealt with as a short-term issue.
It should also be borne in mind that the lockdowns enforced to address COVID may have changed perceptions of what is 'normal' and what is acceptable. The panel encourages a return to pre-lockdown levels of supervision of construction (albeit acknowledging that technology methods for inspection may have moved on). This is also part of the previous wider debate on what level of supervision is acceptable and what clients (and society) are willing to pay for.
A Scottish perspective
From a Scottish point of view, legislation is very clear that checking is the responsibility of the "Relevant Person" - typically the Client (owner or developer). It is common for a traditional client to have a Clerk of Work appointed on their behalf to undertake a checking role.
Local authorities are appointed by the Scottish Government as "Verifiers". Before construction starts, they verify the warrant drawings meet the building regulations and grant a building warrant. Before one can legally occupy a building, the "Relevant Person" must apply for a completion certification, which "The verifier will undertake reasonable inquiry" before granting. They are not required to monitor all construction work.
Clients and Designers
Clients that are not willing to assume the cost of site inspections will choose and use inspectors on the basis of cost when they can. This is all more worrying if one considers the findings of the Hackitt Interim Report, where in paragraph 5.24 is stated that “Much of the feedback received indicates concerns that increased privatisation reduces the independence of the review process and leads to a decreasing capacity and expertise in local authorities. There are notable concerns also that third-party inspections are open to abuse given the potential conflict of interests, with growing levels of mutual dependence between developers and contracted inspectors”.
Clients may argue that they are paying the contractor/developer to get it right, so there is no need for supervision or inspections. However, it is the public that is put at risk, and inspection is the cost-beneficial way to serve the interests of every party to the contract.
There has been a trend to separate design teams from site inspections, and this usually leads to what is being built failing to match the design intent. The proactiveness in avoiding such issues through good design can be compromised if one considers the impact of the sudden and imposed remote working on designers, which can introduce challenges in supervision and overseeing of design work, particularly when new team members join that have never really met their colleagues, undermining the benefits of 'team working'.
Potential for improvement
It is highly encouraged that those responsible for buildings constructed during this period should be aware of the issue and, as required, carry out their own verification of important details. The importance of good records cannot be overstated.
Another recommendation could be considered to "triage" defects, so assessment is done in a timely manner, and actions proportionate to the defect are appropriately taken.
In anticipation of future challenges, it may be wise to plan ahead and design assurance methods that are robust to the sorts of constraints that the COVID-19 pandemic brought. There is the potential that they can be designed to be just as reliable as conventional supervision (if not more so), while also being more cost-effective. An example of that, considering the use of assistive technology, is how many industries have already developed photography-based Artificial Intelligence enabled fault recognition.
Design teams could focus on what is really essential to get right and then identify Hold Points where direct inspection and thorough interrogation of the works take place. This should be done with a genuine appreciation of the Quality Assurance process, not treating it as pure rules on compliance. This will also serve the purposes of the client’s insurance and assurance.
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