The independent report into dangerous building defects found across schools in Edinburgh last year has now been published. It says that it was pure luck that no children were killed and makes significant recommendations for the construction industry.
The report was commissioned by city council chief executive Andrew Kerr after the collapse of a wall at Oxgangs Primary School and subsequent closure of 17 schools.
It was led by construction and procurement expert Professor John Cole, who interviewed representatives from those who built the schools, architects, structural engineers, parents, teachers and current and former council staff.
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, particularly in the outer leaf of the cavity wall.
The report states: “The poor quality relates to all three of the following aspects:
- the direct laying of the bricks and the positioning of the wall ties;
- the direct supervision of the laying of the bricks and the positioning of the wall ties; and
- the quality assurance processes used by the sub- contractor and main contractor to confirm the quality of the construction of the walls.
“All three issues were ultimately the responsibility of the design and build contractor in charge of the site.”
The main contractor was Miller Construction.
Broader findings from the report, which runs to over 250 pages, include:
- the collapse of the wall was due to poor construction and inadequate supervision;
- there was insufficient independent quality assurance and poor record keeping by both the council (the ultimate client) and Edinburgh Schools Partnership (ESP), the PFI vehicle that Miller was part of;
- within the construction industry as a whole, quality assurance measures are revealed to be ineffective;
- the issues identified in Edinburgh are likely to be widespread.
The procurement route, PFI, and the method of financing get a clean bill of health, although certain contract conditions were described as “surprising” by Professor Cole.
The report contains many recommendations for the council and other bodies, both public and private, as well as the construction industry.
Edinburgh City Council chief executive Andrew Kerr is planning to draw up an action plan specific to the council recommendations so that they are all addressed individually. It is clear that one or more of the myriad construction industry leadership organisations needs to do likewise, as anyone reading just the following extracts from Professor Cole’s report would conclude.
Key highlights of the Cole Report
Selected extracts from Report of the Independent Inquiry into the Construction of Edinburgh Schools
“The fact that no injuries or fatalities to children resulted from the collapse of the gable wall at Oxgangs School was a matter of timing and luck. Approximately 9 tons of masonry fell on an area where children could easily have been standing or passing through. One does not require much imagination to think of what the consequences might have been if it had happened an hour or so later.
“The Inquiry has become aware that this was one of five avoidable incidents of external masonry panels failing in strong winds at Scottish schools in the last few years. Five may seem a relatively modest number but, given the potential implications of failures of this type, one such collapse is one too many. The reason that the incidents are described as avoidable is that in all cases it would appear that proper quality control at the time of building could have identified and have rectified the basic defects in construction that led to the failures.”
On the procurement route:
“The conclusion of the Inquiry … is that, given the above context, the City of Edinburgh Council had a sound rationale for their decision to adopt the PPP methodology for the funding and procurement of the PPP1 schools and acted both appropriately and pragmatically in making this decision.
“However, the method of financing the project, per se, did not negatively influence the quality of construction in the Edinburgh schools. There is no reason why properly managed privately financed public sector buildings should not be capable of delivering buildings constructed to a very high standard, if best practice approaches to ensuring the quality of design and construction are properly incorporated. There does however need to be a greater understanding amongst clients and those advising them as to what does represent best practice in this regard.”
On the quality of the contract:
“It is the view of the Inquiry that while there are several areas within the PPP1 Contract that could have been strengthened to provide additional assurance for the Council, the Contract was generally adequate for its purpose. The incorporation of a number of additional provisions, such as were found by the Inquiry in examining typical contemporaneous contracts, while perhaps beneficial, would have been unlikely to have prevented the occurrence of the defective construction subsequently identified in the completed schools.
“The omission of collateral warranties in favour of the Council from principal building subcontractors and members of the professional teams appointed by the building contractor was somewhat surprising, as even then this was a common provision. However, this was not directly relevant to the issue of the defective construction at the schools.”
“The Inquiry is of the view that insufficient attention was paid by ESP [Edinburgh Schools Partnership, the PFI vehicle] and its relevant sub-contractors to the accurate documenting, storage and maintenance of as-installed drawings and related records of the schools. The absence or inaccessibility of these led to a more prolonged and probably more extensive remediation process than would have been required had this documentation been readily available as required under the Contract.”
On the wider significance of the failings:
“This Edinburgh Schools problem has a greater significance than it otherwise might have had, due to the fact that the same set of fundamental defects, impacting on the structural integrity of the external walls of the schools, were found across 17 schools built by a range of different main contractors, bricklaying subcontractors, and bricklaying squads. This was not the result of the isolated incompetence of a rogue sub-contractor or bricklaying squad.
“Similar defects have been identified across other school buildings in Scotland. Some of these, predating the collapse in Edinburgh, also resulted in the collapse of brickwork panels. Again, fortuitously, these did not cause injury to school children.
“Following the report of the extent of defective construction found at the Edinburgh Schools, the Scottish Government requested all local authorities in Scotland to undertake a review of their school buildings. This sensible step resulted in the identification of the need for remedial work to a number of schools.
“It would, however, be naive to suggest that this is a problem only relating to the construction of schools and that contractors apply a better standard of quality assurance on other building types. If these defects are present in school buildings, there is also a likelihood that they are present with similar frequency in other buildings that contain large masonry panels or where masonry panels are required to be tied back to a structural frame.
“What is also significant about the Edinburgh situation is that highly professional and competent teams of structural engineers were unable to identify, through detailed visual inspections, the existence of serious defects in the construction of the walls they examined. This point is worthy of wider consideration by those who may have relied on visual inspections as a form of assurance that the underlying construction of walls are sound. Any such inadequacies in the construction of masonry panels, must therefore, be detected prior to walls being closed-up or there is no easy practical way of ensuring they have been built properly. This requires effective quality assurance and scrutiny during construction.
On industry action required:
“It is incumbent upon the construction industry to develop and promulgate best practice methods that can be relied upon to provide the necessary level of assurance in relation to those areas of construction that become quickly closed up to inspection, the failure of which could impact on the safety of the users of buildings. In addition to the construction of masonry panels, fire-stopping has been identified in the report as another such area deserving of special attention.
“It is also clear that clients, particularly public sector clients with statutory duties in relation to the communities they serve, cannot simply delegate away from themselves the responsibility of putting in place an appropriate level of informed, independent scrutiny to ensure the safety of the public buildings they procure. By independent scrutiny the Inquiry is referring to inspection by individuals or organisations appointed by or directly employed by the client who are independent of the project company or contractor undertaking the project.
“The exact nature and effectiveness of the role of Building Standards in this regard is also worthy of further review and consideration. The potential extension of the current requirement for formal certification of parts of the work by qualified individuals, as is the case for electrical and plumbing installations, may offer a possible solution to the lack of inspections that Building Standards can practically carry out in relation to elements of the structure or fabric of buildings that could cause injury if not constructed properly.
“Despite the significant increasing reliance being placed on the quality assurance by contractors of their own work, there is no formal requirement for the personnel within contracting organisations charged with undertaking this role to have undergone any recognised test of competency to do so.”