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Architects blame school wall collapse on Design & Build

15 Feb 17 While some have sought to blame the structural failure at a primary school in Edinburgh last year on bad bricklaying and others have pointed the finger at PFI, for Scottish architects the primary culprit is Design & Build and the decline of the independent architect/engineer.

Nine tonnes of masonry collapsed when a wall failed at Oxgangs Primary School in January 2016
Nine tonnes of masonry collapsed when a wall failed at Oxgangs Primary School in January 2016

Some reports say that Scottish architects have called for all PFI buildings in Scotland to get independent structural checks as a matter of urgency. Actually the call goes even wider than that – they say that all buildings procured through the design & build contract route should now be considered at risk, regardless of how they are financed.

In its evidence to the recently published Cole Report, the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland (RIAS) said that the root issue behind the collapse of a wall at Oxgangs Primary School in January 2016 was lack of independent supervision.

“We believe that the role of sceptical friend has largely speaking been lost, that it is invaluable and that the design team can naturally service this crucial role,” RIAS told Professor John Cole’s inquiry.

RIAS told Prof Cole that over the past 30 years there had been “a revolutionary and systemic transfer of responsibility for leadership of the procurement process from construction professionals such as the architect, to other parties less involved with the design process.

These would include project managers, contractors, contractor-developers and other special purpose vehicle types of consortia composed as entities for administrative and legal convenience.

“The reasons for these changes are many and varied. While the Latham Report (1994) and subsequently the Egan Report (1998) were ‘paved with good intentions’ some consequences may not have been as anticipated.”

It added: “Where the project leader or sometimes the project leader and funder is the contractor organisation, it should be acknowledged that the person in charge of the process will have different operating ‘drivers’ from those of architects. It appears that it has been the case, on occasion, that the management structures within some large contracting organisations require individuals without appropriate construction skills or expertise to be responsible for the administration of large and complex projects, requiring significant technical and contractual knowledge.”

The Cole Report, published last week, that it was pure luck that no children were killed at Oxgangs School.

It said that the primary cause of the collapse of the wall at Oxgangs School was poor quality construction in the building of the wall, which failed to achieve the required minimum embedment of 50mm for the wall ties.

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It said that the poor quality was down to problems with bricklaying, supervision and quality assurance – “All three issues were ultimately the responsibility of the design and build contractor in charge of the site,” Cole said.

The use of private finance, per se, was not an issue, Cole said.

RIAS president Willie Watt said that Cole Report was hugely significant, emphasising the potential danger from major latent defects in recently constructed buildings.

He said: "When major inquiry reports are published there is a tendency for everyone to breathe a sigh of relief, mutter ‘well that's that dealt with’ and move on. That should not be the case with this, extremely well researched and deeply concerning report. The message is simple and the responsibility of all commissioning authorities is clear.

“An early process of inspection by appropriately qualified experts should proceed as urgently as the various public commissioning authorities, local, health and governmental, can muster the skilled individuals who can do this work.

“The Royal Incorporation’s own submission to the inquiry agreed strongly that without diligent and careful checking at every stage of the building process problems are almost inevitable. In this instance it was fortunate that nobody was injured, or killed.”

RIAS secretary Neil Baxter added: "This report demands a response – and don't underestimate it – that response may save lives."

To see the full submission by the RIAS, click here. To download Professor Cole's report, click here.

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