The construction industry is rapidly returning to work following the Prime Ministers announcement last night (10th May 2020).
This raises a number of issues regarding the health and safety of workers on the construction sites which are quite rightly being discussed on social media today.
However, one aspect that doesn’t seem to have been considered is the problem of “material substitution”, where one product is changed for another.
With builders merchants and manufacturers still closed in full or part contractors will struggle to get the materials they need to undertake the work that’s required. If they cant complete the work they will often have penalty clauses for late completion or simply not get paid for the work that they have partially competed. This places them under great pressure to “get building work done” and it becomes increasingly tempting to substitute one product or material for another.
Whilst changing the colour of a kitchen worktop has little effect on health and safety other material swaps can have major life safety implications. This was evidenced dramatically at Grenfell Tower where cladding and insulation materials were swapped from the original product specifications, resulting in multiple deaths. To many contractors (and builders merchants alike) one product may seem very much like another, and the temptation to swap from PIR (polyisocyanate) insulation to PUR (polyurethane) insulation if that’s all that in stock will be great. However, if that product hasn’t been tested in the same combination as the original it may simply not be safe to use.
In some cases the products being substituted may look visually the same but have significantly different properties. Just last month CROSS (the whistleblowing scheme for construction safety) carried a warning that concrete lintels in a domestic extension had been wrongly substituted. The report explained that the engineers designed lintel was swapped with an alternative from the same supplier. The geometry of the two lintels were identical, but the replacement lintel was only designed to take 3/4 of the load of the original, risking future structural collapse.
In recent days we have seen builders intending to render directly onto OSB rather than a cement particle carrier board (risking warping and damp ingress), another who “sealed up” a manhole with a sheet of insulation and tape (risking the entry of raw sewage) into the building and one who installed of a domestic smoke detection system where a commercial system was required to ensure fire safety. Other examples include swapping fire or moisture rated plasterboard for standard plasterboard or using standard concrete instead of sulphate resisting concrete.
There is a real risk that this is common place, and likely to increase with hidden defects not becoming apparent for several years in some cases. Now more than ever it is important that works are fully inspected and that you look to appoint a clerk of works to check that the correctly specified materials are in place. Reliance on Building Control inspections alone will not deliver quality or safety as many of these items may not be identifiable and are often not “statutory” inspection stages in any case.
The issue of materials substitution was raised in Dame Hackitts report where she recommend that firstly a detailed specification must be approved prior to works commencing (known as Gateway 2). To avoid substitution she also recommended a statutory change managment system whereby changes of materials legally had to be notified to Building Control and works are not allowed to continue until that change had been approved. Lastly prior to occupation the contractor is required to evidence that the correct products had been installed by competent people.
To avoid the risks of material substitution the Government needs to ensure urgently that stocks of products are back to pre-COVID levels in order to safeguard lives. We would also call on Government to bring forward Dame Hackitts recommendations and legislate that
- that work cannot start until approval is in place,
- that material substitutions must be notified to Building Control and
- that materials are clearly marked to help identification
We would also ask that this applies to all projects (including domestic extensions) and not just to buildings in the scope of Dame Hackitts report (eg those over 18m in height). Whilst this might seem a draconian measure pre approved specifications could be published to speed up the approval process – indeed a similar website already exists at www.Buildingregs4plans.co.uk which enables even a small builder to produce a compliant specification in minutes.
Pending that legislation we need an urgent national campaign to educate contractors, surveyors and clients of the risks and what to look out on site to prevent incorrect material use.