29 Nov, 2023

As of October 1, the Building (Amendment) (England) Regulations 2023 have come into force, ushering in a new era of regulatory clarity under the ambit of the Building Safety Act 2022. This regulatory overhaul impacts a spectrum of projects, spanning from domestic house extensions to higher-risk buildings (HRBs), necessitating the appointment of two principal duty holders: the Principal Designer and the Principal Contractor.

Those versed in construction regulations would recognise these duty holder titles from their introduction under the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2015. However, the roles and responsibilities assigned to the Principal Designer under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, secondary to the CDM regulations, differs significantly from those now mandated by the Building Regulations, secondary to the Building Act 1984 and the Building Safety Act 2022.

Key Differences in Duties and Responsibilities:

Under CDM, the Principal Designer primarily focuses on planning, managing, and monitoring the pre-construction phase of a project, along with coordinating health and safety matters. The objective is to ensure, as far as reasonably practicable, that construction projects are designed and managed without jeopardising the health or safety of those involved.

In contrast, the Principal Designer under the Building Regulations is tasked with planning, managing, and monitoring the design work during the design phase. The coordination of design work is crucial, with an emphasis on taking all reasonable steps to ensure that the design aligns with relevant requirements outlined in Schedule 1 to the Building Regulations 2010. These requirements span from Part A – Structure to Part S – Infrastructure for the Charging of Electric Vehicles, along with Regulation 7 governing materials and workmanship.

The new Principal Designer must meticulously coordinate design work to demonstrate compliance with the Building Regulations, echoing Dame Judith Hackitt's call for a more robust ownership of accountability. While individual designers retain responsibility for the compliance of their designs, the Principal Designer now assumes an overarching responsibility for coordination.

Expanded Roles and Responsibilities:

The Building (Higher-Risk Buildings Procedures) (England) Regulations 2023 introduce additional requirements, including a competence declaration and a Building Regulations compliance statement in HRB Building Control approval applications. The Principal Designer must also plan and carry out an appropriate frequency of inspections during the construction phase to ensure alignment with the compliant design.

Regarded as a pivotal regulatory change, the new Principal Designer role carries heightened liabilities and stricter sanctions. However, it is seen as an opportunity for the profession to reclaim control over the design phase. It has been asserted that architects, already competent as lead designers, are well-positioned to fulfil these new duties and expand their service portfolio.

Architects Facing the Challenge:

The question arises: are architects prepared to embrace these added roles and responsibilities? While the CDM 2015 reforms aimed to replace the CDM Co-ordinator role with the Principal Designer, uptake in the profession has been modest. An HSE research report from June 2023 revealed that health and safety consultants, client advisors, and project managers were more commonly assuming the CDM Principal Designer role.

With the government discouraging duplicate duty holders, there is a notable trend towards the same entity performing both Principal Designer roles. This shift could result in an increased demand for architects, acting as lead designers, to also take on the Principal Designer mantle.

Architects are urged to comprehend their duties and wider obligations fully before entering such agreements. In cases where a domestic client fails to appoint a Principal Designer, the designer in control of the design phase, likely an architect, automatically assumes the Principal Designer role.

Navigating Insurance Challenges:

Securing appropriate professional indemnity insurance remains a significant challenge. While the government has tempered its initial intention to impose strict liabilities, the requirement to take 'all reasonable steps' remains. Insurance concerns persist across the industry, with the government contemplating strict liability duties on designers in the future, subject to consultation.

In a bid to reshape the prevalent design and build culture, the government advocates alternative procurement models like integrated projects insurance (IPI) to foster collaborative behaviour across project teams.

The RIBA has responded to these changes by launching a 'Principal Designer Register' for architects, demonstrating competence in roles required under both the Building Regulations and CDM. The register includes a separate tier for parties competent in the more demanding roles required for HRB projects.

As the industry grapples with these transformative shifts, the coming months will reveal whether architects embrace the Principal Designer role more rapidly than seen under CDM. The profession faces a significant opportunity, and the onus is on architects to either step up to these increased responsibilities in leading the design process or risk ceding control to others.