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A New Approach to Managing and Mitigating Risk

As an industry, construction should approach British Standards and Regulations in a different way. In the past, they have been seen as a target to meet - rather than a minimum to exceed. We are merely ‘doing our job’ if we meet a British Standard or a building regulation. Driving change, improving quality and mitigating long term risk requires going beyond.

Instilling a ‘culture of quality’ raises standards and produces high quality homes; homes that exceed the expectations of our clients, that are demonstrably safe now and, as importantly, safe in the future. What should drive us is our clients’ satisfaction on purchase of their home, and their ongoing enjoyment of it. This can be achieved through the care and attention we pay to the design & construction and the user experience.

Making sure each stage of a construction project designs out avoidable risk starts early. Clients have a really important role to play. By driving a need to mitigate risk in all its forms, especially post-completion risks, that mindset is disseminated to everyone involved in the project and long-term risk mitigation is more likely to be achieved.

Learning from the past

For new builds, lessons can be learned from the post-occupation phase of previous builds. During use, we have the opportunity to understand how unintended use or unsafe practices can be mitigated in the future. These can usually be designed out so they cannot be repeated.

An example of unintended use and unsafe practices is opening windows/doors on tall towers. Understanding lessons learned from previous projects where windows could be opened fully, we have implemented a design that restricts opening. These windows are designed with misuse in mind (window ironmongery tested for storm conditions without failure or deformation in the open position). Juliet balconies are specified with inward sloped handrails to prevent resting objects that could fall out and inward opening windows to prevent falling glass in case of failure. Each time we purposefully review the unintended consequences, we take lessons learned forward to improve future design.

User engagement is therefore very important to learn and improve. This should be undertaken from purchase of an apartment onwards, covering the whole time they are residents. Using a Net Promoter Score or similar survey is a good way to understand how residents have settled in. After that, formal feedback should be collated about quality of the build, competence of concierge and management staff and how grounds and the buildings are maintained. Issues that repeat should be addressed and these lessons taken forwards to new projects.

It is also important to highlight the positive aspects and to celebrate good design, because a lessons learned process should be about what went well too. This way good aspects can be replicated.

Ultimately, continual feedback and marginal improvements is a cultural mindset that any construction company can adopt.

Key tips on keeping sites safe

A strong site safety culture starts with the first steps in setting out the design. Ensuring that safety and avoidance of risk are being designed into the scheme should be a requirement of any company. If you design something that is inherently safer to build, then the likelihood of it being built without incident is correspondingly higher. Too often the temporary works or methodology required to mitigate risk during construction add complexity and cost and still leave residual risk. The design aspiration should not take precedence over the ability to build safely.

At a site level, meaningful engagement with trades and contractors through Safety Leadership Teams, promotion of reporting of unsafe practices and near-misses, programmes like Good Order, Good Work, Good Health all raise the standards of the working environment to reduce injury, promote a positive working culture and improve health awareness.

On any project it is crucial that any contributor feels safe to call out unsafe practice. I’d go further and suggest it’s important for clients and designers to encourage and reward that behaviour to encourage a culture of safety. The aim should be to welcome and reward people for making a difference to safety and empower people to be able to raise issues upwards.

Design management and change control

Establishing and maintaining the principal designer role is a regulatory requirement. However, a strong PD serves as a point of focus for safety-in-design when they are empowered by the Client to manage and direct safety in design from the very early planning stages during the pre-construction phase. They should have a ‘seat at the table’ as much as any other designer or consultant. A principle designer who challenges health and safety as much as good QS challenges costs will remove the majority of inherent risk even before people on site have lifted their tools.

Design for manufacture and assembly improves the amount of control over the construction environment and should minimise the number of on-site activities and mitigate risk. However, DfMA should not be allowed to ‘off site’ construction safety issues. Off-site or on-site, the ability to build safely is paramount.

Changes in design can be a large source of unintended consequences that can have health & safety impacts. Processes to control change in design, with high-level sign off at different stages needs to be part of QA systems. The time needed for these reviews should be built into the design and construction programme. This prevents changes being made that result in ‘design drift’ and limits negative impacts on quality and/or safety.

Mitigation of unexpected costs

It can take a long time to create planning designs but there is value in spending the extra time needed to know how to build your designs safely. Having this knowledge when you submit ultimately mitigates costs by avoiding expensive re-design or supplementary applications, along with giving more surety on budget cost.

Maintenance costs are driven down by early risk mitigation and designing for maintenance. There is a correlation between buildings that have been designed to be constructed safely and those designed to be maintained safely and reducing maintenance burden. If the cost of maintenance is not adequately considered (often the case in development), pressure on service charge can result in unintended use, reduction in maintenance activities or ‘cutting corners’. This leads to an increase in risk for the end user and future cost impacts.

A design for maintenance approach can protect your business against un-forecast expenditure on remedial works, and will assist in keeping service charges as low as possible for residents and managing agents.

Supply chain input

The design process benefits greatly from involving the whole supply chain.

Firstly, tapping into their knowledge early in the project brings great value. Manufacturer’s product testing and certification ensure buildability and safety. Secondly, their knowledge of clients and contractors and the way they work will inform best practice and less risk. Lastly, their advice is not solely cost-based, but rooted in and expertise of how their products are deployed to best effect, minimal cost and reduced risk.

Resident-created risk

You can design and build a building safely, but end users also need to be part of the culture of safety. Residents can reduce risk by being encouraged to understand what unsafe practices are. For instance, smoking is common, usually allowed within the confine of your own property, and by itself not overtly risky to the building or other users. However, smoking on the balcony, inadvertently throwing a cigarette butt off the balcony that then lands on a fire-prone piece of furniture creates a chain of events that leads to a building fire. In this case both the smoker above and the resident below have played a part in a failure that would have led to large costs and risk to life. It is important that these scenarios are reviewed in advance, and that estate rules and tenant education are put in place to reduce risk.

Education is key, user guides and homeowner manuals must be shared with residents to increase user knowledge and encourage safe practice. Resident portals can easily be made available through concierge services, including apps to pass on knowledge. This means subsequent tenants can be educated as well.

One of the most effective ways to educate is through regular contact. For example, when high winds and storms are forecast, email and text warnings can be sent to residents in advance, reminding them to close windows and take care in the building surrounds. Backing up safety communication with robust policing quickly builds a culture of best practice.

Ultimately, encouraging clients, contractors and users to take pride in the building means they will care for the building through design, construction and in use and mitigate risk at all stages.

This article is based on an interview with Bernhard Elber, Development Director (SQP) at Berkeley Group PLC.

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