By Robin Barber, product owner for built environment at Arcus Global
Digital is becoming part of everything we do in the public sector. Significant work has already been undertaken to progress the digital transformation of the UK’s built environment, which is no exception to this.
Earlier this year the Building Regulations Advisory Committee and MHCLG published its policy paper providing greater clarity on the ‘golden thread’ policy, and the changes it will require of the industry. It outlines the high-level golden thread requirements and how digital standards will underpin implementation of the golden thread of information.
My first impressions are that of cautious optimism. It’s clear that the tragic event of Grenfell Tower has propelled changes forward that were previously put off due to time and money. But despite the market already evolving in response, the changes needed go deeper than legislation.
A change in building control, a change in the market
With the policies outlined, could we see a change in the market? I think the shift has already begun. Now, we’re more focused on creating quality data that has use for people of all professions in the sector, that spans a longer period of time and is more accurate. For one, I think that information on the materials used on the building, such as the cladding, would be the first thing many people buying a flat would request. Local authorities and building safety regulators will know that, and it’s in their interest to keep an accurate store of information on that. They are now compelled to do so in writing.
There is also a flipside to the plan, making everything transparent. Currently, there are people who could be stuck in flats with this dangerous cladding and won’t be able to sell them. It’s our current equivalent to the discovery of asbestos twenty years ago, and some of us will remember the fallout that ensued for buyers, sellers, inspectors and safety regulators alike.
When it comes to the data side of the coin, I can see a kind of ‘two-tier’ system developing, with the divide being over record management. Much better management will be seen from the developments checked by the buildings safety regulator. Local authorities, with continuous budget squeezes, can still be driven down on price and competition, and it could affect their ability to live up to the legislative requirements.
In ten years’ time, who knows what information could be important to people buying a property? With the help of a golden thread, you can go off and look at the wealth of information and draw worthwhile decisions from it. People may take more notice of what surveyors say now, because mortgages won’t happen if buildings are poorly constructed. People will want, and need, to look beyond the cosmetics – is that what the golden thread allows us to do? Quite possibly.
Tragedies like Grenfell have highlighted that we were looking for cheap ways to make cosmetic alterations to buildings quickly, and it is obvious that it was the wrong approach.
Beyond the data – a cultural shift is needed
We know that one of the golden thread’s principles has been outlined in the report as ‘cultural change’. I have long been promoting the idea that a strong commitment to cultural transformation is needed in order to make this work. I’m glad this is happening, in addition to the idea of good quality data in the system. Having the drive to implement simple things like mobile access to data can transform the way inspections are carried out, as well as live up to the golden thread principles by increasing the flow of information. Yes, these things take time and a certain level of investment, but you can’t put a price on safety, or on quality. We all know the consequences of cutting corners.
Organisations have historically been resistant to change due to time-based or financial challenges. Now, with the new legislation, you have no choice but to comply. The technology is ready. Some local authorities are ready. But the cultural change needed, for many of them, is something that will take longer to fix.
It’s not only attitudes at the top, either. A lot of building inspectors are former tradesmen without digital experience and may find adapting to new tools a challenge, but they have priceless skills that are useful in inspection. Marrying the two is where we will see the most success.
What the future holds
There is potential for real change, and creating a golden thread of information will create a source of truth that will be invaluable in the future. In the past, we had asbestos, then we had cladding. Who knows what future problems will be solved by refining the way our information flows?
In ten years this will be a useful tool, and there’s no doubt that a wealth of information will assist with future new builds. However, there is the big challenge to deal with the amount of data cleansing needed to address the buildings already standing. They were built long before any commitment to free-flowing data or digitally enhanced building inspections. Who is going to go back and retrospectively deal with all of that?
The expectation of an individual, whether it be local authority building inspectors, or someone who is buying a new property, will become more important. A single source of accurate information is needed, but without an attitude shift and systemic, cultural change, the technical commitments won’t be successful. Everyone needs to participate in order to make it truly work.