Cowan Architects - Bulding Safe Homes

Home quality starts with safety, the customer priority

The power of safe and liveable spaces

According to the UK Green Building Council, we spend a staggering 90% of our time indoors, with 65% of that time being within our homes. Understandably, the quality of these spaces significantly influences our well-being. A study referenced in the same UKGBC article lists key features identified by survey respondents as their “ideal home” preferences. Survey respondents placed the highest importance on safety, followed by affordability, energy efficiency and design quality.

Emphasising safety and security presents an opportunity to deliver significant value to property owners and investors, as well as architects and designers. Not doing so presents a significant risk to society, investment and market confidence. We have seen this in the current RAAC failures in public buildings.

This article explores the pivotal role of safety in building design and how it forms the cornerstone of a comprehensive 360-degree design strategy with robust business and customer benefits.

Safety beyond the norm: A commitment to excellence

Delivering customer satisfaction requires that our foremost responsibility be the creation of safe and secure buildings – it is simply a market expectation for their homes and personal well-being.  This goes well beyond the technical requirements of Secured by Design – it needs to both provide emotional and physical safety. This resonates with the conclusions of the Hackitt enquiry into the Grenfell tragedy.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs

Source: Simply Psychology

We can see from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs that safety is foundational and provides a platform from which many meaningful human dynamics flow. The home is the incubator of self-actualisation and in a post covid, post-Grenfell world, ensuring that the home is safe and secure is a moral obligation. Furthermore, it is now a statutory responsibility under the Building Safety Act. Failing to prioritise safety in home design poses significant risks to both occupants and the construction industry as a whole. To achieve safe and secure homes, we must look for what ‘additionality’ can be included beyond the fairly comprehensive technical compliance requirements of current regulations (Building Regs, CDM 2015, etc.).

Feeling safe at home is delivered through thoughtful design, a co-ordinated specification, accessible and easy-to-use technology, and good construction quality. These qualities are enshrined in The Building Safety Act which introduces comprehensive safety requirements in the design, delivery and operation of all buildings. Achieving this requires delving deeper into design, materials, and construction quality for both new-build and retrofitting. This is especially crucial in retrofitting, where hidden safety risks require profound technical insight and construction experience to uncover.

Designing and constructing safe and secure new buildings is generally easier and more streamlined, as developers have full control over the entire process. In contrast, retrofitting existing buildings presents a greater challenge due to the need to work within the constraints of pre-existing structures.

What underpins safety is:

  • Commitment
  • A clear client brief and target market
  • Alignment of investor, developer, contractor project objectives
  • Design integrity
  • Quality of completed product

Common safety issues and solutions

  1. Cladding: Addressing a looming risk

The Grenfell Tower disaster in 2017 tragically claimed 72 lives, exposing critical safety concerns tied to external cladding systems. These included the use of combustible materials, inadequate fire safety measures, and regulatory gaps. To rectify these issues, the UK government introduced a series of comprehensive safety measures, from banning combustible cladding materials to enhancing building regulations. The removal and replacement of hazardous cladding materials became paramount, aligning with broader objectives of creating a safe, secure, and high-performing building envelope.

  1. Vertical Penetrations: Fortifying against fire risks

Vertical penetrations, such as elevator shafts and stairwells, have the potential to serve as pathways for fire, smoke, and toxic gases. Retrofitting efforts zero in on effective firestopping systems, proper compartmentation, and smoke control systems, ensuring safe occupant exit even if primary pathways are compromised.

  1. Poor Cladding Fixings: Mitigating compliance risks and costly repairs

Neglecting the quality of cladding fixings represents a twofold risk: it endangers compliance and increases the potential for costly repairs. Prioritising careful attention to the fixing process is imperative, given the significant business risks associated with overlooking this crucial aspect.

  1. Insufficient site oversight and inspection process: Addressing hazards early

Robust site oversight and inspection processes are the cornerstones of construction safety.
Insufficient site oversight and inspection processes pose risks to construction safety, potentially leading to hazards and structural integrity issues. Strengthening supervision with regular, comprehensive inspections by qualified professionals, along with implementing robust quality control measures, is crucial for early hazard detection and rectification.

  1. Deficient building management practices: The importance of documentation

Inadequate record-keeping and specification information can lead to confusion and potentially compromise critical life safety systems within a building. To address this, enhancing record-keeping and specification documentation practices, along with implementing digital systems for accuracy and accessibility, is essential. This measure helps prevent the need for potentially compromising hybrid solutions.

  1. Safe Value Engineering: Balancing design and budget

Designers must understand the balance between design criteria and budget. Value engineering is part of the process; however, this must be restricted to those elements of the building which do not compromise either the safety or security of its occupants.

The business case for safety-centric design

Achieving a sustainable and successful solution necessitates a 360-degree approach that considers the needs of people and the planet with an emphasis on profit. Architects play a pivotal role by crafting spaces that provide a positive living experience, a vital factor in achieving customer satisfaction. Happy customers are at the core of a thriving business and its overall success.

Designing safe and secure buildings is paramount for the well-being of occupants and therefore, essential for the success of developers, investors, and stakeholders. The aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire has underscored the urgency of prioritising safety.

A commitment to safety yields numerous benefits. Firstly, it engenders trust and a positive reputation in the industry. By adhering to strict safety standards, developers can build trust, leading to repeat business and referrals. In addition, proactive design that exceeds safety standards helps developers avoid legal consequences, increased insurance premiums, and reputational damage