Architects’ safety design failure raises doubts for future


A faulty construction health and safety case that has recently come to court raises concerns that when the current CDM regulations are replaced, such dangers may become more numerous.

Architectural practice Mario Minchella Ltd had the responsibility of designing a new care home building in Hemlington. The design utilised a timber frame construction.

It emerged in October 2012, when an HSE Inspector made an inspection, that in safety terms the new structure would be too close to a pre-existing, neighbouring care home. She considered there was a risk, especially while the frame was uncovered during construction, that if it caught alight it would generate radiant heat that might spread to the occupied care facility, risking the lives of the vulnerable residents.

The conclusion was that the separation distance between the buildings was insufficient, as designed by Mario Minchella. The failings of the firm were categorised thus:

  • The contractors and their workforce should have been alerted to the risk and trained to deal with it: this was missing from the specification
  • The architects did not specify fire-retardant wood
  • They could have organised the sequence of works to ensure that each floor was clad (and thus less inflammable) before another floor was started, to minimise the risk

At Teesside Magistrates’ Court, Mario Minchella Ltd, of Washington, Tyne and Wear, received a fine of £1,500 plus £816 in costs. The firm entered a guilty plea over 2 breaches of the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2007*.

The quote from the HSE inspector involved in this case (Andrea Robbins) was:

Timber frames will burn faster and more completely when the panels are incomplete and not yet protected by the usual internal fire-resistant plasterboard and external cladding. When burning, exposed timber frame structures generate a lot of radiant heat and there have been a number of large and serious fires which have affected neighbouring properties with devastating consequences, though thankfully without loss of life… Mario Minchella Ltd failed to consider this risk in its design and failed to provide sufficient information to the contractors to enable them to carry out the construction safely.

There has of course been a lot of controversy about the scrapping of the current CDM Regulations and the intention to place architects at the heart of the requirement to design in safety, when working on their projects. The concern is that they will not always have the resources or know-how to accomplish this task: and cases like this do nothing to allay that fear.

*Regulation 11(3)(b) of the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2007:

“Every designer shall in preparing or modifying a design which may be used in construction work in Great Britain avoid foreseeable risks to the health and safety of any person liable to be affected by such construction work.”

Regulation 11(6)(c) of the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2007:

“The designer shall take all reasonable steps to provide with his design sufficient information about aspects of the design of the structure or its construction or maintenance as will adequately assist contractors to comply with their duties under these Regulations.”

Tagged with: