In celebration of regulation

Dr Jonathan Evans from Ash & Lacy says that, far from stifling innovation in envelope design and cavity trays, the recent safety regulations actually put the UK on the verge of a ‘meritocracy’ that will benefit future buildings

Contained in June’s Government response to the industry consultation on the ban on combustible materials over 11 metres, there’s a really interesting comment. Namely: “We do not believe it is appropriate to permanently exempt cavity trays, as it would hinder innovation in development of additional compliant products.” Hallelujah!

One of the arguments I have consistently tried to refute made by those opposing tighter regulations on fire safety is that regulations hinder innovation. Clearly, if you say ‘it must be made of 1 mm thick steel,’ then that’s a prescriptive requirement which will inevitably limit choice and design freedom. But a combustible materials ban is a ‘performance’ requirement – you can do anything if it passes the relevant test.

Anybody who has the creativity to have invented anything (or even rarer, has gone on to commercialise it), will understand that if there’s no demand for something, then it’s unlikely that somebody would be motivated to come up with a solution, never mind that people wouldn’t buy it if you did. Engineering history is peppered with examples where regulatory change has driven innovation that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. The story of the Clean Air Act and the catalytic converter is my favourite example of the good that can come from regulators who hold their nerve and demand progress. Human ingenuity will always prevail, especially when there’s a financial reward.

The Government didn’t want a ban on combustibles, but fire safety became a political issue and that trumped civil service reluctance. However, the new Regulation 7 on external wall materials and the underlying direction of regulatory travel has stimulated the development of a large number of products with improved fire performance and associated certification evidence.

Without question this is driving culture change too. Companies are realising that investing in research and development will generate a worthwhile return. This creates demand for more skilled engineers and researchers and this stimulates the need for companies to appear more attractive to incoming talent. The higher the bar, the bigger the reward for those forward-thinking companies who can attract innovative staff and develop new products that address regulatory progress.

The Dame Judith Hackitt model of demanding change from industry leaders is futile; there has to be a tangible benefit. In an industry where there are no regulations and little product differentiation, the lowest price will always win. Regulation 7 massively changed the way buildings over 18 metres are designed, specified and built. Fire is always the first topic of conversation in an enquiry.

As we adapt to the new fire regulations, coming up close behind is a new thermal performance threshold which is starting to drive innovation in building systems. The Future Homes Standard will reward companies who deliver innovative new products to realise better performance at lower cost.

Regardless of the disputed relative merits of using various construction materials, one thing that cannot be disputed is that the less material you do decide to use, the better. We have developed a pioneering, ‘generative-designed’ cladding mounting system using a software tool; the result minimises the use of aluminium or steel in a polymer-free solution designed for ultra-high thermal resistance.

Insulation thicknesses are increasing, so brackets are getting longer and thermal bridging is becoming more important; this rewards innovative, high-efficiency designs. Continued development in this area coupled to an increasingly digitised design and manufacture process will be the defining theme of our business development for the coming years.

It’s not just regulatory necessity that drives change. We’re hurtling towards a skills shortage that will inevitably drive demand for more value to be added at the production stage. Rather than fight it and demand freedom to continue to use low-cost labour that drags down wage levels, this should be the watershed moment for MMC (Modern Methods of Construction). I gave a talk over 20 years ago following the Egan Report and said that nothing would change without regulatory pressure or cost advantage.

It’s not enough to be better, for something to take off it has to be ‘cheaper’ too – however you choose to interpret that. I got booed, but I still believe this to be the case, and if you don’t believe me, read about the pathological behaviour of corporations since the late 17th century. All industries have the capacity and fair share of individuals who will exploit and expose poor regulation – Dieselgate, Boeing 737-MAX etc. My hope is that regulators hold their nerve and treat with extreme suspicion those who say ‘it can’t be done.’ Set high standards and those who have high standards will come forward to meet them.

I will be hosting a webinar on 8 September exploring this topic in more detail, and I welcome fellow industry professionals to join what will undoubtedly be an important conversation for all of us. To register interest, email Aneira.beament(Replace this parenthesis with the @ sign) for further information.

Dr Jonathan Evans is CEO at Ash & Lacy