Hackitt and the Golden Thread: Challenges to Implementation

Hackitt and the Golden Thread: Challenges to Implementation

Will the Hackitt Review recommendations be easily implemented?

Graham Spinardi (University of Edinburgh) explores the implications of the Hackitt Review into fire safety regulation following the Grenfell Tower disaster. In particular, he considers the challenges to implementing a digital 'golden thread' of building information throughout a building's life cycle.

Introduction

After the June 2017 Grenfell Tower fire, the Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety was established to provide a thorough examination of the failings of the English regulatory system for fire safety. This review was led by Dame Judith Hackitt.  The final report published in May 2018 called for ‘a radical rethink of the whole system and how it works’ (Hackitt 2018, 5). Her damning verdict (Hackitt 2018, 11) on the current system concluded that:

  • ‘regulations and guidance are not always read by those who need to, and when they do the guidance is misunderstood and misinterpreted
  • ‘that there is ambiguity over where responsibility lies’; and that regulatory oversight and enforcement is inadequate with enforcement ‘often not pursued’
  • ‘competence across the system is patchy’.

While Hackitt’s main argument was that fire safety regulation should emphasise an ‘outcomes-based’ approach rather than one based on compliance with rules, the focus here is on Hackitt’s recommendation to establish a digital ‘golden thread’ to ‘ensure that accurate building information is securely created, updated and accessible, at points throughout the building life cycle’ (Hackitt 2018, 102). As Hackitt highlights, this is desirable to ensure that building safety management can be done with full knowledge of the original fire safety design, and of any subsequent changes.

Pre-Grenfell fire safety regulation

Historically, fire safety regulation in the UK has been divided into two separate phases: pre-construction regulation covers approval of building design whilst post-construction regulation covers the building’s occupation and use. The specific regulatory mechanisms at the time of the Grenfell Tower fire were the Building Regulations 2010 for design approval and the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order (RRFSO) 2005 for post-construction regulation.

In essence, the RRFSO requires that the ‘responsible person’ should carry out a ‘suitable and sufficient’ fire risk assessment for a premises, and put into effect any mitigation efforts that are indicated.Where a workplace is concerned, the responsible person is the employer ‘if the workplace is to any extent under his control’; otherwise, it is ‘the person who has control of the premises’.Post-construction regulation since 2005 has thus been largely a matter of self-regulation, with local Fire Authorities providing some oversight for those buildings (e.g. night clubs or care homes) considered to involve greatest risk (Spinardi et al 2019).

Hackitt (2018) identified a number of flaws in the operation of this approach to post-construction regulation, including the limited oversight of the process (in many cases no one checks that a fire risk assessment has been carried out or has been acted on), and the lack of any specific requirements for competence for those carrying out fire risk assessments (see also Spinardi et al 2019). One specific problem is that in many cases the responsible person, or their designated fire risk assessor, does not have access to the original fire safety design information.

The existing mechanism for the handover of design information to the building user relies on the provisions of Regulation 38 of the Building Regulations, that requires that the ‘person carrying out the work shall give fire safety information to the responsible person not later than the date of completion of the work, or the date of occupation of the building or extension, whichever is the earlier’.

This approach has two crucial failings (Spinardi et al 2019). First, there is no means of enforcement, nor any oversight other than to require the project developer to sign a declaration that they have provided the fire safety information. No check is made on its contents or that it has actually reached the responsible person. Indeed, the requirement to transfer the information on the completion of the work may be impractical because the responsible person may not yet be in situ. Moreover, even when the design information is made available to the first occupier of a building, there is then no mechanism to ensure that subsequent occupiers gain access to the information. Second, even when the responsible person is able to locate the fire safety design information, it may not be in a form that is useful to them. There is no standardised format for providing this information. Nor is there any requirement for the responsible person or a delegated fire risk assessor to have any particular level of competence to understand it.

Hackitt report recommendations 

The final Hackitt report focussed on Higher Risk Residential Buildings (HRRBs) and recommended that: ‘Government should make the creation, maintenance and handover of relevant information an integral part of the legal responsibilities on Clients, Principal Designers and Principal Contractors undertaking building work on HRRBs’ (Hackitt 2018, 36). Hackitt proposes three gateways for regulatory approval with the first consisting of planning approval and the second of design approval. The move to building occupation would then require approval at Gateway 3, which would include satisfying a newly established regulatory authority (what Hackitt calls the Joint Competent Authority or JCA) ‘that all key documents have been handed over’ (Hackitt 2018, 38).

The purpose of this Gateway 3 requirement is to ‘ensure that the future building owner will receive the key golden thread information products, linking the design and construction and the occupation and maintenance phases together… [in order to] complete a pre-occupation Fire Risk Assessment based on the Fire and Emergency File that is ready for occupation as well as a resident engagement strategy’ (Hackitt 2018, 40). Information ‘must be transferred when building ownership changes to ensure that the golden thread of information persists throughout the building life cycle’ (Hackitt 2018, 105). Not only would the responsible person be expected to carry out regular fire risk assessments, but also there would be a requirement to present a ‘safety case’ to the regulator at least every five years, or whenever there is major renovation (Hackitt 2018, 56).

Better control of fire safety during a building’s lifetime would be ensured by requiring ‘robust record-keeping by the dutyholder of all changes made to the detailed plans previously signed off by the JCA’, with significant changes requiring permission from the JCA (Hackitt 2018, 12). According to Hackitt (2018, 35): ‘As soon as detailed work commences the client needs to ensure that a digital record of the building work is established and a Fire and Emergency File is initiated. Both of these will need to be maintained throughout design and construction and be part of the regulatory oversight process.’

Amongst the information that Hackitt (2018, 104) proposes to be recorded are: ‘size and height of the building’; ‘full material and manufacturer product information’; ‘identification of all safety critical layers of protection’; ‘design intent and construction methodology’; ‘digital data capture of completed buildings e.g. laser scanning’; ‘escape and fire compartmentation information’; and ‘record of inspections/reviews/consultations’. In addition, the golden thread should include ‘information on the building management system in relation to fire and structural safety, records of maintenance, inspection and testing undertaken on the structure and services and evidence that the competence of those undertaking work on the building was sufficient’ (Hackitt 2018, 56).

Hackitt ‘recommends that for new builds, a Building Information Modelling (BIM) approach should be phased in’ because having ‘BIM enabled data sets during occupation means that dutyholders will have a suitable evidence base through which to deliver their responsibilities and maintain safety and integrity throughout the life cycle of a building’. For existing buildings, where the original fire safety design information may not be available, Hackitt (2018, 105) recommends that government ‘should work with industry to agree the type of information to be collected and maintained digitally’.

Hackitt’s recommendations were generally accepted by the government, with proposals for implementation set out in June 2019 in a Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) Consultation Document. This proposed ‘that a golden thread of building information is created, maintained and held digitally to ensure the original design intent and any subsequent changes to the building are captured, preserved and used to support safety improvements. In addition, we propose that a key dataset, a sub-set of building information held in a specified format, is required as part of a golden thread. This will enable the building safety regulator to analyse data across all buildings in scope’ (MHCLG 2019, 15). Although the regulator will need to be able to check data held in the golden thread, there is no explicit proposal that any or all of this building information should be lodged with the regulator. In Scotland fire safety design information is already required to be lodged with the local authority, and the extension of this principle to the golden thread would be logical. Hitherto this has not been considered possible in England and Wales because building design approval could be carried out either by the local authority or by a private sector Approved Inspector, and in the latter case, the resulting design was seen to be subject to commercial confidentiality. Hackitt (2018, 42) recommended that ‘the ability for dutyholders to choose their own regulator must stop’, and if that is the case, this barrier to providing the regulator with full access to the golden thread would disappear. However, BIM models often contain information that companies consider to have proprietary value and this is likely to present a barrier to golden thread information being made publicly available.

Challenges for implementation

Hackitt’s proposal for the creation of a golden thread approach to building safety information utilising BIM is welcome in principle, but like many of her recommendations, will likely prove ‘easier said than done’. BIM has been heavily promoted by the UK government in recent years, but as others have noted (e.g. Dainty et al. 2017), there are significant obstacles to its widespread adoption. Three inter-related challenges may hinder the widespread uptake of BIM: uneven investment across industry actors; the challenges of data standardisation and harmonisation; and the lack of adequate competence to use BIM systems.

First, adequate investment in BIM is a challenge because the UK construction industry comprises a wide range of actors of greatly varying sizes and resources. The adoption of BIM requires the allocation of specialist personnel, but the majority of construction industry operators are SMEs with limited technical capacity. In practice, if a golden thread of fire safety information is mandated by regulation, then a lowest cost approach based only on providing the minimum regulatory requirement will be the path chosen by many. Even where BIM is already being implemented, some extra work may be needed to incorporate the fire safety golden thread information.

The second issue then arises of exactly what this information should comprise and how to define it so that is both useful and unambiguous. BIM is an approach to the digitalisation of physical and functional building characteristics, but it is not a stable, off-the-shelf technology. Each instance of the use of BIM will require the organisations involved to agree on the data to be captured and in what formats. In particular, there are the typical issues of standardisation and harmonisation that are raised by such inter-organisational systems (Spinardi et al 1996). Standardisation is a key issue for the uptake of BIM, but the current situation is that: ‘The ability to capture consistent asset data that is standardised and in a consistent format remains a challenge for the industry’ (Cousins 2019). Harmonisation of operational practices may also be necessary to ensure that key actors are using data in the same way.

Third, adequate competence will be required to ensure that data is correctly inputted into the BIM system, and, crucially, that is then used in an appropriate manner in the management of fire safety. A golden thread is no substitute for competent fire risk assessment and building management. A focus on technical solutions to information management should not divert attention from this core issue of competence.

Conclusions 

We must await a comprehensive revision of fire safety regulations to know exactly how Hackitt’s recommendations will be implemented. Although the Hackitt review focussed on Higher Risk Residential Buildings, it would be wise to address the failings she documented in a systematic manner, applicable to all types of premises. The proposal that a new regulator should provide oversight at all stages in the building life-cycle is welcome, particularly for ensuring that fire safety is maintained during occupation, but requires a regulator with sufficient resources. With regard to the idea of a digital golden thread for building information, it might also be useful to consider whether the information held could go beyond that relevant only to safety, to include, for example, design and operational data concerning energy efficiency.

However, whatever the specific role of a golden thread it is unlikely to be easy to do, or a panacea. Hackitt’s proposal to use a BIM approach does not make the challenge easier because BIM remains an emergent technology rather than one that is established, stable, and widely used. Rather it may be that any golden thread requirements in new fire safety regulations could provide a driver of BIM implementation, perhaps initially around the narrow requirements of building fire safety. However, whatever form the golden thread information takes, the most important factor will remain the competence of those who make use of it, whether to carry out fire risk assessments and manage building safety or for other building management purposes.


References 

Cousins, Stephen (2019). Golden key could unlock Hackitt’s golden thread of BIM data. BIM+ http://www.bimplus.co.uk/analysis/golden-key-could-unlock-hackitts-golden-thread-bim/ (Accessed 6 May 2020)

Dainty, A., R. Leiringer, S. Fernie and C. Harty. (2017). BIM and the small construction firm: a critical perspective. Building Research & Information 45(6), 696-709.

Hackitt, J. (2018). Building a Safer Future Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety: Final Report, Cm 9607, London: Her Majesty’s Stationary Offfice.

MHCLG (2019). Building a Safer Future: Proposals for reform of the building safety regulatory system: A consultation. London: MHCLG.

Spinardi, G., I. Graham and R. Williams (1996). EDI and Business Network Redesign: Why the two don’t go together. New Technology, Work and Employment 11(1).

Spinardi, G., J. Baker and L. Bisby (2019). Post Construction Fire Safety Regulation in England: Shutting the Door Before the Horse has Bolted, Policy and Practice in Health and Safety, Vol. 17( 2), 133-145.

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