2023 was tough but the industry is resilient

Claire Curran, President of BESA
Claire Curran, President of BESA

2023 was a big year for the building services sector, with an unprecedented surge in legislation and commercial business challenges, but BESA President Claire Curran believes there are reasons to be optimistic about 2024.

The past year has been busy and challenging for members of the Building Engineering Services Association (BESA) and the wider industry. Showing resilience in the face of difficult trading conditions and a blizzard of new regulation was key. Making better use of digital processes and tools will be vital for our collective future as we seek to be more efficient and productive.

The Building Safety Act certainly picked up pace in 2023 and is now in full force, with the office of the Building Safety Regulator (BSR) ramping up the pressure on the industry to comply.

This new office, which began work in April and is part of the Health & Safety Executive (HSE), continues to remind everyone that the new safety regime will (in time) apply to ALL buildings and includes additional requirements for Higher-Risk Buildings (HRBs) “from shed to Shard”.

Dame Judith Hackitt, who is widely regarded as the creator of the legislation as it emerged from her report into the Grenfell Tower tragedy, has also been urging the industry “Lead, don’t lag”.

In other words, don’t wait for the Regulator to tell you what to do, just get on with making buildings safer and better.

Neil Hope-Collins from the Office of the Building Safety Regulator told the BESA Annual Conference in October that the principal contractor had the ultimate responsibility for making sure buildings were planned, managed, and delivered in accordance with the Building Regulations, but said sub-contractors could “push back”.

“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, of course,” he said.

Stringent planning process

The planning application process will be more stringent and more detailed design information will be required at an earlier stage. However, Neil said this was designed to reduce problems later in the project by front-loading the investment of

time and money to ultimately make projects cheaper to deliver. While there is a legal obligation on clients to ensure all works covered by the Building Regulations are properly planned, managed, and monitored, he also pointed out that contractors are required to refuse to start work until they are satisfied the client is aware of its own duties.

Building services firms should feel empowered to call out poor practices and measures will be in place to help them do that, he stressed.

BESA staff have been tracking developments since the start and working through the detail to pick out what is of direct relevance to its members. We are also making sure our products and services are aligned to help members achieve compliance. You can visit the BESA Building Safety Act hub for more information.

Many of BESA’s services can help members cope with the new building safety regime, including our technical and legal and commercial departments, the BESA Academy, SKILLcard and several of our competence and compliance schemes, as well as the continually-updated SFG20, which keeps building maintainers on top of the latest legislative requirements.

This is not just cleaning…

One area of building safety which witnessed significant progress in 2023 and is set to accelerate even faster in 2024 is cleaning and maintenance of kitchen extract ventilation systems.

BESA’s newly rebranded certification scheme BESA Vent Hygiene Register (VHR) reported a 78% increase in the number of works notified to the VHR digital database last year with the annual total passing 22,000 for the first time. The dramatic increase was attributed to more clients, insurers and fire officers recognising the importance of these systems to the fire integrity of buildings.

There is at least one serious fire in a UK commercial kitchen every day and owners are becoming increasingly aware that by improving the maintenance of their grease extraction systems, ventilation, and ductwork, they can minimise the risk of a fire spreading. As a result, thousands more systems are now being cleaned in compliance with the industry’s TR19® ‘Grease Specification: Fire risk Management of Grease Accumulation in Kitchen Extraction Systems’.

Formerly known as the BESCA Ventilation Hygiene Elite scheme, VHR was rebranded to reflect the growing profile of the profession and to help it prepare for formal government regulation and as part of BESA’s campaign to promote ventilation hygiene as a key element of the wider building safety agenda.

VHR is intended to become the ventilation hygiene equivalent of the mandatory Gas Safe Register, which transformed the safety of gas installation work in the UK. It is recognised by the insurance fire risk body RISCAuthority, and by the London Fire Brigade which recently updated its guidance for catering premises to include new measures from TR19® Grease.

Proving safety competence

The new SKILLcards has been produced for key safety professions including thousands of fire sprinkler, local exhaust ventilation (LEV) and commissioning professionals by BESA’s Engineering Services SKILLcard.

SKILLcard worked closely with the British Automatic Fire Sprinkler Association (BAFSA), the Institute of LEV Engineers (ILEVE) and the Commissioning Specialists Association (CSA) to provide updated qualifications to help operatives prove their professional and safety credentials in the face of increased scrutiny of all building work.

The new cards are part of the wider pan-industry Construction Skills Certification Scheme (CSCS) alliance used to provide evidence of professional competence and health & safety qualifications across a whole range of built environment professions. All cards carrying the CSCS logo must now only certify occupations with nationally recognised construction related qualifications such as NVQs or approved equivalents.

SKILLcard said it was delighted to be able to provide the new cards thanks to the positive collaboration between BESA and the other three industry bodies. Head of certification Duncan Sibbald added that it was important for professional accreditations to be continually reviewed and, if necessary, updated to keep pace with the fast-changing building safety environment.

“Clients are more concerned than ever to have third-party verified evidence of an individual’s competence and ability to comply with safety legislation. These new cards will provide them with peace of mind and thousands of skilled engineers with the proof of competence they need to carry out their vital life safety work,” he said.

Big year for building maintenance

The team behind the industry’s maintenance standard SFG20 found that driving down the costs associated with operating and refurbishing buildings became a top priority for facilities managers during 2023 in the face of soaring inflation and across the board cost rises.

Vent Hygiene Register
The Vent Hygiene register aims to reduce fires

Inflation pushed up equipment and material prices, a shortage of skilled people drove up wages, and energy prices had almost doubled at one point. As a result, some owners were tempted to take a chance with their maintenance programmes and reduce the frequency of key tasks in a bid to make short-term savings.

However, this often meant they got caught up in a damaging and potentially expensive cycle of equipment failures and reduced operating efficiencies which simply drove up their costs again, leaving them at risk of falling foul of the new building safety regime.

SFG20 Product Director Paul Bullard said the problem is exacerbated by the fact that many organisations work on a 100% maintenance approach when budgeting, calculating their costs based on maintaining all of their assets.

“By taking a more targeted approach using digital modelling tools, they can focus their precious resources on those systems that are critical to safety and the efficient operation of the building and redirect funds away from less important assets, some of which could even be run to failure,” he said.

“Avoiding over or undermaintaining systems is the key to getting best value for money from a building maintenance programme while remain legally compliant. It is equally important to avoid the temptation to only do the bare minimum to save costs as this can lead to operationally critical assets being undermaintained. That increases the risk of failure, drives up energy costs and reduces their remaining useful life. It’s a vicious cycle.”

No let-up in push for better indoor air quality

BESA’s long-running campaign to turn buildings into ‘safe havens’ from pollution also received a major boost with the creation of the first British Standard for health and well-being in buildings.

BS40102 (part one) gives recommendations for measuring, monitoring, and reporting indoor environmental quality (IEQ) in all types of non-domestic buildings. It includes an evaluation and rating system for air quality, lighting, thermal comfort, and acoustics.

The evaluation provides building managers with a benchmark score to help them identify areas of below par performance so they can plan improvements and include IEQ measures in any retrofit and renovation work.

BESA IAQ Group chair Nathan Wood said the new standard is an important step forward in the ongoing battle to persuade the government and building owners to focus more attention and investment on the indoor environment. “Setting IEQ performance benchmarks will make it easier for facilities managers to target problem areas and demonstrate how conditions directly affect health and productivity,” he said. “However, we must continue to keep pushing standards upwards as current government targets do not reflect the latest WHO guidance and lack real ambition.”

BESA also produced new guidance, ‘Mould and Damp Prevention in new and existing Homes’. The Vice Chair of the IAQ Group said it was time to create a “whole new industry” to tackle the health crisis caused by this growing problem. CEO of ARM Environments, Adam Taylor, pointed out that there is currently no competence requirements for people working in ventilation installation and maintenance.

“Moisture build-up in homes is already at an unprecedented level and the problem is going to get worse because the cost of heating is causing people to reduce ventilation. The mould this creates causes real suffering and is a massive burden on the NHS,” he said.


Risk assessments

More risk assessments and air quality monitoring are being carried out. These have highlighted how many buildings are seriously under-ventilated. “We need to create a new profession of specialists focused specifically on ventilation with formal qualifications, agreed standards and best practice,” he said.

BESA also urged local authorities, housing associations and other housing providers to make ventilation upgrades a key part of retrofit and refurbishment programmes. With up to £80 million of government funding being made available to social housing tenants to make their homes more energy efficient, the association believes this is also an opportunity to take an ‘all round approach’ to tackling poor quality housing.

Our work in this area was further enhanced with the launch of a ‘basic awareness’ training course for IAQ by the Association’s online training Academy and based on the IAQ Group’s guides – and we continue to support the growing campaign for new clean air

legislation, which we hope to see come to fruition in 2024.

This is just a taste of the breadth of activity across our sector in 2023 and serves to illustrate the crucial role played by building engineering services in many parts of our society and economy, which should give us all optimism for the future.

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