Need for better buildings outweighs government inaction, says BESA President

Speakers at the BESA Conference have urged the building services industry to pursue better buildings in the face of government row-backs, not only to reduce carbon but to improve occupants’ wellbeing

BESA president Claire Curran opened the conference with a call to improve buildings for social reasons as much as environmental ones. She said: “It makes no difference that the government has got cold feet over its net zero timetable and the cost of vital infrastructure, we still have a built environment that is desperate for an upgrade…We need look no further than the ‘crumbly concrete’ scandal for proof that our existing building stock is not being properly maintained. Vital investment in refurbishment and retrofit has fallen so far behind the curve that many of our built assets are no longer fit for purpose.”

But she added that improving buildings had an important social benefit. She said: “Whether you think net zero is achievable or not, making buildings better is surely a basic social responsibility…The buildings we live and work in are crucial to our well-being and quality of life – and there is nothing more fundamental than that.”

She added that if the government was serious about wanting to help families who are struggling with rising costs, then it should support a major programme of building refurbishment and retrofit to reduce their energy bills.

The safety of occupants was also the subject of a discussion on IAQ, featuring WHO air quality ambassador Rosamund Adoo Kissi-Debrah, who is spearheading a campaign for a new Clean Air Act – dubbed ‘Ella’s Law’ in memory of her daughter who was the first person in the world to have air pollution stated as her cause of death. The aim is to secure 100,000 signatures to force a debate in Parliament.

Ros said: “Everybody needs to care about air pollution. People are dying prematurely…The number of people who are dying of lung cancer who are non-smokers is increasing and that is down to air pollution.

The session also featured the launch of new guidance on mould and condensation in buildings – a collaboration between BESA’s IAQ Group and Mitsubishi Electric. They say the guide aims to ‘educate landlords, tenants and homeowners about how they can tackle the problems of damp and mould at the source, with straightforward steps and advice to help improve the indoor environment.’

Ros railed against the current poor air quality in private accommodation for students. She said: “It is appalling some of the places that these students live in and it is no doubt affecting their health and therefore their ability to work…The problem is that these young people don’t have a voice and often don’t vote, but this is somebody’s child. Anyone who is a guarantor for their child’s accommodation should help by raising the issue.”

Dr Jo Jolly, head of project futures at the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA), made a forthright call for delivery teams to be more “courageous and honest” to achieve sustainability goals and avoid a race to the bottom on quality and cost.

She said: “We are facing a ‘shitshow’ with the climate emergency, and we need to tackle it with fearlessness…These are the last best years we have to make a difference before time runs out.”

Neil Hope-Collins from the Office of the Building Safety Regulator told the largely specialist contractor audience that it was the principal contractor who had the ultimate responsibility for making sure buildings were planned, managed, and delivered in accordance with the Building Regulations. He said: “If they don’t give you the time and the resources [to get things right] that’s on them…as long as you told them.”

He added that competence requirements were not just about which “card or a piece of paper” somebody holds, but the skills, knowledge, and competence for doing the job”.

He reassured the audience: “If you were competent before the Act, you are still competent now”

The conference concluded with a keynote presentation from Lord Markham, the Minister in charge of delivering the government’s programme to rebuild the NHS estate by 2030. He urged the industry to work with his department to introduce greater levels of product and design standardisation that would improve efficiency and speed up project delivery.

He said the 2030 deadline was a “drop dead date” because several hospitals would have to close as they were no longer fit for purpose. The improved buildings could cut the Trusts’ operating costs by up to 10% and patient recovery times would be speeded up by 20%, he added.

He concluded: “You should never let a good crisis go to waste. We have no choice. These hospitals must be built, and they will be even if the government changes.”