More Clarity Needed On Riser Shaft Design | Ambar Kelly
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Dame Judith Hackitt speaking at the 2018 CABE conference

Dame Judith Hackitt speaking at the 2018 CABE conference


July 07 2020

A few months ago, before lockdown I attended NBS’s conference Construction Product Leaders’ Summit, where Dame Judith Hackitt delivered a keynote speech on how construction needs to improve both its culture and approach to building safety.

In her speech, Dame Judith lamented that the current system is weak and has no sanctions nor enforcement when it comes to assuring our buildings are constructed to the right standards. She highlighted that at the moment the supply chain is split based on discipline, cost or technical importance and is not considered as a whole as it should be.

She also noted there is a need for design and construction to be harmonised and not divided into silos. Everyone has a part to play in building safety; even though it begins at the design stage, it should be the focal point which lasts a building’s lifecycle.


The arrival of the Building Safety Regulator (BSR) will act as a way to ensure buildings are created safely. Part of the Health and Safety Executive, the BSR is responsible for regulating the industry during the design, construction, occupation and refurbishment of buildings. Buildings under the legislation will be issued best practice guidance by the BSR, and the regulator will also oversee building control bodies and advise government on changes to building regulations. The BSR will also offer a competency framework to ensure buildings are constructed as intended. Dame Judith is currently on the board that is chairing the implementation of this regulator, which will appoint a new chief inspector of buildings.

What was left unsaid?

It was great to hear Dame Judith comment on the importance of the BSR. Yet although it is encouraging the industry to take a more united approach to safety, more needs to be done to provide a structure which drives collaboration within supply chains. In her speech at the summit, for instance, Dame Judith didn’t offer any examples of how the industry can utilise collaboration as a way to increase productivity and safety levels.

Financial cost was also an area which Dame Judith spoke of rather hazily in her speech. Whilst I understand that her focus is to change the industry’s behaviours through the introduction of a regulatory framework, monetary cost was barely touched upon. How can we see the merits of her new culture if little to no financial outcomes were laid bare? The industry can no longer rely on ambiguous processes. We need clarity in order to put real change into motion.

Although riser shafts weren’t mentioned in Dame Judith’s Hackitt’s speech, they are no less an essential element of every multi-storey building’s safety. The industry needs to prevent risk through design – it is simply inexcusable to manage risk during the construction process! It’s counterintuitive and costly; and if risers were considered from very early on in the design stage then construction projects would be delivered safely and at lower costs.

Up until now riser zone design has been piecemeal, and this siloed mentality is not the way to design riser shafts. In her speech, Dame Judith expressed greater clarity was needed on roles and responsibilities, so that members of the supply chain could be held accountable and know where they stand. When it comes to deciding who is responsible for designing the riser zone, companies are ready to point the finger at anyone but themselves. The architect designs the position of the hole (riser openings), the structural engineer designs the structure, and the M&E consultant engineers the pipework which will go through it. But what of the flooring? Who designs the solution which seals the hole and ensures it isn’t a significant safety threat to workers on site?

At present it is nobody. Instead, risk has shifted to the main contractor who, conscious of project margins, will select the cheapest product that prevents falls from height. But what of the risk of fire? And the added costs of temporary handrails and the like? Not having a designated party that is responsible for the riser’s design is leaving project teams open to a great deal of physical and financial risk. Whilst the BSR is a great starting point and a momentous shift for the industry, when it comes to highlighting who is responsible for the design of the riser zone, more needs to be done.


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