A responsible construction industry will have safety at the heart of every new design it starts. Regulations abound during every phase of the project’s process and we know that a successful builder will look to exceed those safety rules. But at the end of the project, how do Housing Associations and private landlords educate the residents or end users on the safe use and occupancy of their apartment or house?
The resident’s perspective
The fundamental premise of making sure we make and use buildings safely is in prioritising the resident. Trying to make residents aware of the risks is no easy task and many will offer advice and guidance. But it might not be the right place to start because there is a distinction between keeping people safe and residents feeling safe.
What is interesting is that safety for the construction industry might look quite different to what it means for residents and future homeowners. The Grenfell tower disaster has had an impact on residents throughout the UK and many people still live in tower blocks surrounded by cladding. The problem is they might not have had that frank and meaningful discussion with anyone about safety before or after the disaster. What it makes it more difficult is the public inquiry and white paper that is looking at safety regulations is absolutely necessary, but the interim period between decisions and action feels very unstable. Most residents will not know what safety regulations there should be or what they should look like.
Taking the opportunity to help people feel safe
However, there is a great opportunity for the industry to engage and begin to understand what they can do to make people safe and encourage them to take responsibility for their and the community’s safety. It is a simple process to test products for safety but we can’t test residents to see how safe they feel. So, what can be done to educate end users on safety, their own and the regulations and tests that should be inherent in the apartment or house they are living in?
We need real engagement and collaboration.
There is huge value in having end user input right at the start of a project, to understand safety as it is applied to their property. It bestows on residents and designers alike equal success (or equal liability in the worst-case scenario) because both groups have a deep understanding of what safety looks like. Either way, residents as key stakeholders on the design means they are educated right from the start. It’s vital to co-create a vision ‘for the neighbourhood as the neighbourhood’ and this is achieved by having direct relationship with the industry.
Changing the mindset
There is an information deficit when it comes to engagement with residents, as well as a discord created in the language that is often used. In social housing areas for instance, authorities may say they are regenerating the area, but what residents hear is they are knocking down houses and moving residents elsewhere. The industry has a lot of work to do to change that mindset.
This starts with good information for the end user and putting people before profit. For that to be successful there needs to be a better relationship between the industry and the people it’s catering to. The word “refurbishment” was, and still is, used post-Grenfell, but refurbishment is enhancement. What is happening now is building owners and landlords doing their statutory duty of maintenance and repair, not enhancement. A change in mindset then requires a bold vision and ambition to involve the residents at a level where they feel consistently valued.
That’s not to say that individuals aren’t sometimes careless when it comes to safety, but the change in mindset needed in the communities needs to start with both industry and residents taking ownership of safety in collaboration. All this can help reduce risk, but unless industry has a relationship with the end user, there is likely to be incidents caused by careless acts. You can invest in products and processes but if residents aren’t involved to collaborate and be educated in a language they understand, safety will continue to be an issue.
The opportunity to collaborate
There is an opportunity to move away from bureaucracy, and away from the idea that things have to be done in a certain way. The industry can move away from the thinking that there is no room for collaboration or new ideas. The digitisation of construction sites in a pandemic era is testament to that – there are so many fresh ideas and ways of working being created to solve the problems that have arisen.
So, it’s not necessarily how we educate end users, rather it’s about how we involve residents and appear more human and collaborative to them. You can have the best communications budget and get the best literature out, but you can’t guarantee that anyone will read it. The best communications strategy includes residents who are able to engage with a human.
This article is based on an interview with Samia Badani, Head of Strategy and Partnerships at SPAH&W