15 Dec, 2023

The recently enacted Building Safety Act has brought forth significant changes, particularly in the realm of liability and accountability for construction projects. A notable shift is the requirement for clients to issue a notice of practical completion to the building control body (BCB) before finalising the works with a completion/final certificate. This is particularly pertinent for projects falling outside the Higher-Risk Buildings process, where additional responsibilities come into play.

The notice of practical completion must adhere to a standardised form, encompassing crucial details such as the client's name, address, telephone number, and email, along with the corresponding information for the principal contractor and principal designer (PD). A pivotal statement within the notice asserts the completion of building work, accompanied by an affirmation, provided by each principal contractor and principal designer, confirming the fulfilment of their duties under the Building Regulations. The BCB cannot issue a final certificate without obtaining these signed declarations.

Untangling Liability Concerns: Principal Designer Declarations

This procedural shift has sparked numerous queries regarding liability, particularly the extent to which the principal designer's declaration covers the responsibilities of others. For instance, does the principal designer, often the architect, bear responsibility for the designs of structural or mechanical engineers involved in the project? What about areas classified as contractor design portions – who assumes responsibility?

The resolution to these questions may find its way through legal scrutiny, and while awaiting judicial interpretation, insights from past cases can offer some guidance. Pending case law development, principal designers are advised to proactively identify risks, share comprehensive information, and rigorously assess the competency of consultants or designers for whom they could potentially be liable. Seeking contractual assurances, such as the PD declaration, from other members of the design team can be a prudent step to mitigate potential issues.

Fire Safety and the End of a Project: Documenting Compliance

In addition to the completion statement, documentation affirming compliance with fire safety regulations is imperative at the project's conclusion. This entails providing evidence in the form of an as-built plan, covering critical elements such as escape routes, fire-separating elements, fire doors, alarm systems, and firefighting equipment.

Detailed specifications of fire safety equipment, maintenance schedules, design assumptions, and provisions for disabled evacuation must also be furnished. For complex buildings, additional layers of detail are mandated.

The challenge arises for architects who may not be retained for the construction phase. Embracing the concept of the Golden Thread, architects should endeavour to develop this information comprehensively during the design stage. If a changeover occurs, architects should promptly notify the BCB about the transition in the principal designer role, absolving them of liability for subsequent design or construction changes.

While the full spectrum of liabilities and legal interpretations under the Building Safety Act will take time to crystallise in case law, architects must be vigilant. Failure to identify and address risks may lead to enforcement action against the principal designer, emphasizing the importance of a proactive and comprehensive approach in navigating the evolving landscape of construction regulations.