Safety Cases for High-Risk Buildings are coming, is the industry thinking enough about what it needs to do now?
As with any innovation, MMC can throw up new risks. One category of MMC is Volumetric Modular Construction (VMC), a technology widely used in High Risk Residential Buildings such as student accommodation. VMC delivers completed buildings by connecting large, prefabricated steel or timber-based modules. The modules are often fitted out in the factory with electrics, plumbing, windows and other finishes. They are then transported to site and craned into place on pre-prepared foundations.
VMC construction typically creates a series of intermodular voids between the prefabricated units. These voids are important for anyone thinking about building a safety case for an HRB. Accountable Persons need to know how builders will give assurance about a range of risk factors, for example that the voids are well ventilated to avoid build-up of water from condensation or leakage, and how they have been fire and vermin proofed. Accountable Persons’ duties extend into the buildings operational life so they will also need to know how the seal between voids will be inspected for quality of installation and how they will be maintained and inspected.
This is not an academic debate, CROSS (Collaborative Reporting for Safer Structures) has recently issued a safety report Volumetric Modular Buildings and Fire in response to a number of incidents in Scotland, including the complete destruction of a hotel on Shetland. CROSS make a series of recommendations to different parties many of which relate to different aspects of Quality Assurance.
Accountable Persons for buildings constructed using techniques such as VMC therefore face a challenge about what should be done now to make their buildings safe. In the wake of Grenfell this is clearly an ethical issue but the Building Safety Act means there is also a regulatory need looming on the horizon.
One way of thinking about this is perhaps to draw an analogy with the testing, licensing and monitoring process used for pharmaceuticals. Can we think of assurance and certification of building systems as a comparable process that meets both the regulatory demand to build a safety case and the ethical imperative to have robust process in place to manage risks to life?
It is in no one’s interest, not least a construction industry battling to improve its reputation, for the UK to drift into a situation where swathes of the building stock don’t meet the Safety Case requirement because assurance wasn’t carried out at the time of construction. As the implementation of the Act comes ever closer, BBA stands ready to explore with clients and asset owners the role it can play in getting the sector in the best possible position to embrace the new regime.