Devonshires Basements | Health, Safety and Basements
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Health, Safety and Basements

Earlier this month, the UK’s largest new homes warranty and insurance provider, the National House-Building Council (the “NHBC”), announced that it has been working across the industry with the aim of forming a committee to set a new specific set of standards for constructing basements. NHBC’s actions follow its report in the previous year that claims for basements have affected nearly 900 homes costing approximately £21m in total.  The new standards are to be published in the NHBC Standards 2015 edition.

This has been long overdue with many employers and contractors approaching the construction of basement with a certain vagueness that not even the most detailed specification could improve. It follows that whilst ourselves and others have previously written extensively about the issues relating to basements, but there is yet to be produced a set out specific guidelines for best practice.

Many experienced contractors often claim that they are able to carry out any alteration to any building, and many employers would jump at the opportunity considering the lucrative result it could have. Few, however, actually appreciate the sheer scale of the closest thing to a civil engineering project that can be carried out to a residential property.

The NHBC’s move is welcome, but the end result will and should be, heavily scrutinised for cost/safety ratio. This will be a very delicate balance to consider: basements already cost a small fortune to build and yet in spite of the soaring cost, the construction of the same has one of the worst track records for health and safety. The Health and Safety Executive (the “HSE”) reported late last year that enforcement action was taken at 36 of those sites:

“an overall rate of 34% – with 41 Prohibition Notices served requiring dangerous practices to stop with immediate effect, and 21 Improvement Notices served requiring safety improvements to be made.

The majority of the Prohibition Notices related to unsafe work at height, with dangerous excavations also an area of concern. Inadequate welfare provision accounted for three quarters of the Improvement Notices.”

The HSE continued that:

Domestic basement projects are technically-challenging and carry substantial risks. Common issues found during the inspections were:

  • Work not properly planned
  • Failure to appoint a competent temporary works engineer to design suitable propping to support excavations and existing structures
  • Poor or absent welfare facilities for workers
  • Basic precautions missing, such as edge protection to prevent falls from height, especially into excavations

With safety and good practice in one hand and costs in the other, the NHBC should be able to set the benchmark that the industry has needed for more than two decades.  The industry will no doubt read closely NHBC’s solution to the most common, if not the only reason for a claim made by end users: leaking. It follows, the Construction Index reports:

NHBC’s initial report into basement problems found that nearly all basement claims were a result of water ingress, not structurally related, and that the majority of large claims from 2012 were due to workmanship and design failures associated with externally tanked Type A systems.

The report also highlighted a lack of adequate ground investigations being carried out to establish the existing ground water conditions and ensure the correct waterproofing system is used.

A solution the above would be particularly noteworthy as basements, given their subterranean nature, should be expected to inherently leak.

By Tom Keya