The ‘golden thread’ links building safety and decarbonisation

David Medcraft is a partner at property consultancy TFT

Our industry is subject to tightening legislation on both energy efficiency and safety: from the beginning of April 2023, commercial buildings beneath an EPC rating of ‘E’ cannot legally be let. Also this month, the new Building Safety Regulator will be established to enforce the Building Safety Act. It will require all ‘higher-risk buildings’ in England to be registered by 1 October.

Regulatory compliance is one thing, but market expectations outpace regulation on both fronts and we expect standards will continue to rise. No surprise that many building owners and occupiers place safety and decarbonisation at the top of their priorities, with teams and resources dedicated to staying ahead of the upward curve.

“The goal is to facilitate data management on a broad scale, not to add volume or complexity”

However, a chronic lack of building information threatens those efforts. Across the industry, information is historically gathered piecemeal, records are made inaccessible over time through damage, loss or data corruption, and what is left is often not fully understood or used by building owners or occupiers.

The result is a lack of reliable data to inform assessment and action on our two big issues: safety and decarbonisation. Surveys or investigations are required to fill in the gaps, but the current status quo means even more recent investigations might need to be repeated on the same asset, as their findings are lost during the passing of time.

Part of the issue is that stakeholders working across a project or building owner/management team operate in silos. This is particularly true considering the specialist works required for decarbonisation versus building-safety improvements. If data is gathered or used by one team, there is no guarantee it will be shared with the rest.

But while safety and decarbonisation might be treated separately, they share many similar data requirements. 

Power of BIM

The Building Safety Act requires that building owners and managers maintain accurate and up-to-date information on their buildings, including details about construction materials, layouts and maintenance history. Decarbonisation works also require an understanding of materials, layouts and maintenance history, in addition to data on energy usage, renewable-energy production and building automation.

A building information modelling (BIM) system can collect and manage data to facilitate tracking, visualisation and updates of key characteristics. So BIM systems present a powerful means of maintaining the ‘golden thread’, which the Hackitt report requires to maintain accessible and accurate building-safety information.

But the thread can extend further for wider benefit. If each building combines data gathered as part of improving building safety and decarbonisation, these ongoing improvement processes will become more manageable.

A common BIM system can break down silos by allowing crucial information to be added, accessed and used by all who work in or visit a building. Making data input easier, and its output more useful, will be essential to achieve this, and ultimately ease the ongoing work of improving buildings through their lifecycles.

Integrating this approach across the industry

There are several systems, platforms and technologies available to help project teams, building managers, occupiers and owners to gather and use their buildings’ data. But all are useless if data management is not considered necessary to each stakeholder’s role.

The UK government can go further on data requirements to support its targets for decarbonisation and to implement the Building Safety Act. 

The British Property Federation and its members have already called on the government to mandate data-sharing as part of decarbonisation. The government could lead by example by using data on public buildings to demonstrate their standards of safety and energy performance.

The real estate industry could lead on this, if technology providers, developers, architects, engineers, construction companies and consultants could co-develop and promote a common standard for data management. We need to create guidance and resources enabling all professions to work with data models that support their responsibilities.

The goal is to facilitate data management on a broad scale, not to add volume or complexity at a time when our industry already faces significant challenges and risks.

The industry can better orchestrate its decarbonisation and building-safety works using data management. Whether this is a result of regulation or a market-led standard, it’s the only way to avert a vicious cycle of repeated works, uncertainty, expenditure and stranded-asset risks in years to come.

The Building Safety Act and decarbonisation: the data links

Key information that needs to be provided under the Act overlaps with that required to help decarbonise existing assets. Any model that can combine at least this range of information will support and enhance both workstreams:

  • Basic information, including age, size, use, occupancy, the specification and condition of building materials.
  • Management information, engagement with residents, records showing safety systems have been maintained and details of the Accountable Person to ensure that a building is safe.
  • Energy consumption, including the amount of energy used by the building for heating, cooling and lighting, as well as the time of day when most energy is used.
  • Carbon footprint, including the sources of carbon emissions associated with a building, such as energy use, embodied carbon in building materials and transportation.
  • Potential for renewable energy, such as the incorporation of solar or wind-power generation on or near the building.
  • Cost and financial data, essential for making informed decisions about which measures to adopt and how to finance them.
  • Occupier behaviour, including preferences and requirements.

Bringing these together as a result of integrated building-safety and decarbonisation works could result in increased building performance and sustainability credentials, straightforward demonstration of regulatory compliance, enhanced market competitiveness and future-proofed real estate investments. 

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