The Competence and Compliance challenge

Five years on from the Grenfell Tower disaster, the Building Safety Act 2022 became law last April, bringing a slew of reforms to the way residential buildings are built and maintained, and new protections for leaseholders.

A principal to build safely, whether for residential or commercial projects, seems like a no-brainer.  However in a competitive marketplace where margins can be thin, it won’t surprise anyone to hear that sometimes the wrong sub-contractors have put themselves forward as experts in areas where they have little or no experience, skills or competence generally.

Against this backdrop of controlling spiralling costs, what are the steps required to deliver assurance, essentially to get the right specialists doing the right job at the right time?

In my organisation we deliver customer assurance through four pillars, which we call “4Ssurance ®”:

Specialism               Standards                Stability                  Safety

Our pillars support delivery of a quality, compliant, on-time, best value project.  We recognise that weakness in one or more pillars will cause problems, some of which may be fatal either to the project, those working on it or the end user.

Specialism

We all know that a domestic gas installer must be GAS safe registered, and we wouldn’t dream of using an unqualified generalist to replace the boiler in our homes.  And yet we accept sub-contractors tendering for and winning specialist construction work without any real understanding of what’s required.

It’s beholden on specifiers, consultants and the supply chain as a whole that if you’re tendering for a specialist task, ensure that tenderers are appropriately specialist.  It is often not be enough to specify that something should follow a standard – if your sub-contractor is manufacturing/installing something that has to follow a BESA standard (which in our case is plastic fume extract ductwork to DW154), the only guarantee that they will comply with the standard is if they have been independently audited against it.  Work to a BESA standard offered up by a non-BESA member – the cautious buyer should ask themselves “why aren’t they?”

Every specialist will point to the great jobs they’ve done – I know we do.  But dirty linen is washed in private, so it’s vital to also ask around your industry contacts.  The industry knows who does a good job, and who doesn’t, and whilst poor jobs are not splashed over the internet, a conversation with the right person can be very revealing.

Standards

Quality companies invest in developing and working to standards.

Whilst I can’t tell you that this must be the case for every contract, ISO9001 certification is an internationally recognised standard for quality systems, and holders are regularly independently audited.  Not everyone has it, it takes time, effort and money to keep it, but you get assurance that what’s delivered to your site is exactly as it should be.

Similarly I have always been a fan of looking for active participation in the development of industry standards. There are carrot and stick benefits – companies which put time and effort into the development of standards demonstrate a commitment to technical competence; and companies associated with the development of standards are far less likely to cut corners.

Stability

Stability is all about assets, and falls into four sub-categories:

People is the ability to bring the right number of people with the right skills to bear at the right time to deliver a project, whether that’s project managers, fabricators or installers.  Don’t forget that even the biggest companies have customers other than you, so the question is not “are you big enough to do the work?” but “are you big enough to do the work given your existing and forecast commitments?”

When it comes to infrastructure, it doesn’t matter how you dress it up, size matters.  If you give a massive job to a tiny business operating out of the principal’s spare bedroom, whose fault is it when the delays start?  You need to know if your sub-contractors have the scale to do the job:

  • Is there the base square footage to fabricate what you need;
  • Do they have the equipment necessary to do the job?

Frankly, if this is a safety-critical element of the project and you don’t visit your sub-contractor to see for yourself, more fool you.

Finance often presents as something of a dilemma.  In theory a sub-contractor should have the financial wherewithal to get the job done, however I’m only too well aware that there can be a tendency within contracting to choose the subbie who is financially weak, who can be bullied, who may not be able to fight over several years to get 100% of the contract value.  All I can say here is that if this is the thought process you adopt, you shouldn’t be surprised if you get exactly what you deserve.  Stop and think for a second – how good can the alleged specialist be if they haven’t got two pennies to rub together?  How would you defend your decision in Court?

History – how long has the contractor been doing what they do?  This means actively trading, not simply length of time since incorporation, as we know some in the market keep companies registered ready for when the next insolvency comes.

Safety

If your sub-contractor is going to work on site than corporate SSiP certification is a must, as well as individual site and job-specific qualifications.

Public liability, employer’s liability and contractor’s all risks insurances must be confirmed, and where design and/fabrication responsibility also falls to the sub-contractor, then PI and Product Liability insurances are also necessary.

However whilst there will unfortunately be occasions where insurance cover will be called upon, it goes without saying that this is never an excuse for employing the wrong sub-contractor in the first place!

 

Associations like BESA, CIBSE and others have important roles to play in the education of the sector.  There is a sense sometimes that contractors don’t know what they don’t know, and that ignorance is a defence against incompetence.  No longer – the obligation on the supply chain is to know what is required, and to source the right specialists to deliver it.  There is similarly an obligation on sub-contractors to be honest about what they don’t know, so that informed supplier selection can take place.

The Competence and Compliance Challenge means adopting 4Ssurance ® as the four pillars which support that thing called “a quality project”.  Every project is different, and what makes a strong pillar may vary accordingly, but omissions in one or more of these pillars has the potential to destabilise your project.  A BESA specialist established for 30 years with factory capacity, an excellent reputation and a strong balance sheet – perhaps the lack of ISO9001 doesn’t make the pillar too weak; but a non-BESA specialist established for a few years with little in the way of external certification and a weak balance sheet – then the pillars are very flimsy.  No surprise if the job is offered cheaper, but at greatly increased risks.

I urge industry to remember that cost and value are not the same things.  A job done cheap almost always means a job done late, not finished or poor quality.  Late might mean additional costs, which may or may not exceed the original savings made; some contractors mistakenly think it still might work out cheaper to get someone else in to finish the job – we’ve all got war stories about following the same muppets into jobs to tidy up their mess.

Remember that new legislation requires the project to be stable long after you’ve completed, been paid and moved on to the next one.  Stable pillars, stable project.

In the past some contractors have turned a blind eye to the principles of 4Ssurance ®, in the hope that the product or the installation won’t be so bad that anyone will notice.  What the fallout from Grenfell has told us is that the liability for a bad installation can be tracked down and applied years later, and ignorance will not be an excuse for sub-standard contracting.  Ignore the risks at your peril.

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