Singing from the same hymn sheet15 July 2021

Hywel Davies

Will Dalrymple speaks with Hywel Davies, technical director of the Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers, about a new group that brings together eight built-environment trade bodies

Q What’s the purpose of Actuate UK?

A "It brings together the professional and trade and research bodies in what we would call the building services sector, which relates to anything you put in a building that uses energy and contributes to making the building comfortable and healthy and safe to occupy. That’s quite wide-ranging. Given the building safety and the net-zero carbon agenda, it is giving people who want to know about those things a point of contact that they can come to."

Q So does that mean that you agree about everything?

A "Of course not. We will have different perspectives. But by coming together we stand a much better chance of putting those different perspectives together and agreeing a common position on things. There are some big issues that we clearly do agree on. Do we need safer buildings? Yes, we do – no argument about that. How do we deliver safer buildings? We might have more discussion about that [focusing] on the competence of people, on how lots of us can see opportunities for building regulations or standards to be better enforced or better complied with. I think people are fed up with the construction sector having so many different voices. If people want to know, ‘what’s the view of the building services sector?’ We see a need to have a group that can help them to know that."

Q Who are those people in this scenario?

A "It could be anybody. It could be the structural engineers, for example, but it’s more likely it could be a main contractor group. It could be the Construction Leadership Council (CLC), which is taking a much more prominent role during the pandemic. It could be government policymakers."

Q This argument might be seen as an indictment of politicians that aren’t sophisticated enough to appreciate the complexity of a very diverse and large industry.

A "I would never want to describe politicians as not being sophisticated enough. And they’ve got officials to brief them, and the officials are generally fairly well-informed and bright people. It is a complex sector, and it’s unrealistic to have one person speak for construction, and I think we understand that."

Q Is the purpose of the organisation to find consensus or is it to represent a common view?

A “I think both are going to be true. Two of our major strands illustrate this. I don’t think anybody is seriously arguing that we don’t need a building safety programme. That’s not so much about achieving consensus as getting out there and being absolutely clear that we are absolutely supportive of building safety – and by the way we think there are significant chunks of it where we can make a real contribution. A lot of the systems that make buildings safe are building services systems. There’s a lot of concern about smoke control in buildings, and whether it’s properly installed, for example. That’s down to the people within our membership: designing it, installing it, manufacturing it, maintaining it; it’s all there.

On skills, everybody can see we’ve got a skills problem. But how do we define that and what can we do about it? That’s an opportunity for us to bring various different views together, and then to represent the view of the sector as a whole.”

Q How might Actuate UK do that?

A “At the moment we’ve got four work streams looking at the post-pandemic business environment, skills, building safety and net zero, and each of those is looking for what we can actually contribute to the ongoing development. There’s some internal discussion and engaging with the CLC, which is taking a leading role. What’s interesting is that as we’ve begun to work up views on these, it has become clear that if you want to make progress on net zero buildings, you do need to make progress on skills, because we need people with the right skills and competence to deliver net zero buildings. In the same way, if we want to see improvements in building safety, we’re going to need to improve skills. And then Judith’s report [the post-Grenfell Tower Hackitt Report] envisages the role of a building safety manager. We don’t really have anything like that right now. So it’s actually quite important to identify what the building safety manager might do. What knowledge, what skills are they going to need?

Q How was Actuate UK formed?

A "All of the eight members have been around for many years, and we’ve been talking to each other for that time. Probably the pandemic provided a little bit of an impetus for us to say, ‘Look, we really ought to get an alliance going,’ and so quite a bit of work was done at the tail end of last year to make that happen.

You’ve got to start somewhere. So we’ve got the eight founding members and it’s not exclusive. There are conversations going on with one or two others who might want to join in. What’s really important in terms of geography is that this is not an English organisation. We do aim to cover the whole of the UK, which is really important to SNIPEF and to SELECT, which is based in Scotland. We’re very clear that we need to be talking to people in Edinburgh and in Belfast and in Cardiff as well as in London."

Q How does the organisation work in terms of staffing?

A "At the moment we have one staff member, Maria Balermpa, whose work is dedicated to Actuate. And in terms of additional support, each member puts in some support from current staff. As far as funding goes, all of the members are putting in an equal amount.

It’s a collaborative venture and we’re all rolling up our sleeves together. We have an executive group, which meets regularly and is the decision-making body. If we can, we want to operate by consensus rather than by voting: so many people are in favour and so many are against. It’s worked out absolutely fine so far."

Q Is there the possibility that this may not always be the case?

A "I’d be foolish if I said that we don’t envisage there’s ever going to be a difficult conversation. But we haven’t had any significant challenges yet. The conversations are around identifying key themes. We all know that these things are the big issues for the sector. Each constituent body in Actuate has its own members. They are expecting us to get on and tackle the big issues, and not sit around having a squabble about things.

We had an interesting early success with the Greater London Authority recently. It put out some pre-consultation material around evacuation lifts in buildings. We got some heads together within Actuate, and said, ‘Hang on a minute; this isn’t quite right.’ We were able to get in touch with the GLA and a revised draft of the guidance [was issued], which the lift sector feels is a much more workable arrangement.

The difficulty was that the GLA [authors] had put in a reference to a standard that hasn’t yet been published and in fact has run into difficulties in the European standards bodies. We were able to go back and suggest alternatives.

It just demonstrates that having a small expert group whose members know what they’re doing and who know where to go and have the conversation are able to move things forward."

BOX: Actuate UK members

  • Building Engineering Services Association (BESA)
  • Building Services Research and Information Association (BSRIA)
  • Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers (CIBSE)
  • Electrical Contractors’ Association (ECA)
  • Federation of Environmental Trade Associations (FETA)
  • Lift and Escalator Industry Association (LEIA)
  • Scotland’s Electrical Trade Association (SELECT)
  • Scottish and Northern Ireland Plumbing Employers Federation (SNIPEF)

William Dalrymple

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