How will the industry verify and utilise the freedom it as?

INTERVIEW The Swedish National Board of Housing, Building and Planning (Boverket) plans to launch its new ‘Building Regulations of Opportunity’ in January 2025. But there is a great deal of uncertainty about what they will mean for the construction industry. Erik Serrano, Professor of Structural Mechanics at Lund University of Technology, has been thinking about what effect the rules might have.

How do you feel about the forthcoming building regulations?

I must say that I’m essentially positive about them. The name suggests that they will provide new opportunities and not be as prescriptive as the current regulatory framework has felt. I think this is good news because it provides opportunities for an industry that is perhaps not known for having the strongest drive to innovate. The new rules also offer potential when it comes to construction costs – being able to think a little more freely, make efficiencies and find innovative solutions. But can we implement this in a good way? This is where I’m not sure the current proposal has succeeded. So when it comes to implementation, I have to say that I’m quite negative.

What are your main concerns?

A very clear concern is that we are in the final phase of the Eurocode work. And there are also other parallel projects going on at European level around harmonised standards, a construction products directive, circularity and reuse in construction. And now we have the new building regulations coming on 1 January 2025. I think it’s a bit premature to launch as early as 2025. We should remain in step with Eurocode and with the work that may be needed from the Swedish Institute for Standards (SIS) and industry organisations. But then we’re talking about 3–4 years from now.

But aren’t the new rules supposed to be flexible in the event of change?

If there is flexibility once the new building regulations are in place, they will of course work with both the current and future Eurocode. The problem is that the industry will face one major change now and then another when the new Eurocode is finally in place. Implementing two things so close together is unnecessary, and concerns have been raised about this. I also don’t know if there are other issues with harmonised standards and everything that will have to be synchronised with Boverket’s rules, because we don’t really know what they will look like.

What are the risks?

How will the building regulations be followed up? And who by? Who has the expertise to do it? And this is not an issue just for wood. However, it is true that wood construction faces different risks than other materials in terms of traditions. It’s still new – although we’ve been talking about wood construction for the past 20 years, things have only started to pick up pace in the last 5–10 years. So based on general expertise in the industry, I don’t know whether wood construction is more vulnerable to less regulation. There’s not as much knowledge even about ordinary wood construction.

How will the new rules affect those involved in a project?

I think the main concern, and this applies to all actors, is how to reach agreement and how to verify and utilise the freedom you have. The control functions and the expertise in the industry become critical when you don’t have a clear regulatory framework or clear solutions for verifying the alternatives, and this applies to developers as well as architects and designers.

So it is down to the individual?

It certainly is. There are concerns maybe about developers taking shortcuts, saying they want to do things in a different way that will be good enough.

How can municipalities deal with construction documents if they have nothing to refer to?

I’m very much in favour of the idea of freeing up and enabling construction. But we still have to have clear structures, rules and procedures for managing this freedom. I think the controls we have today are quite limited. I don’t expect to see many more or fewer accidents or collapses in the future. Such incidents are not generally due to people being careless or taking calculated risks, but rather due to a lack of quality control and a lack of function and structures in the system. I believe this whole issue of getting new freedoms is about how it will work, if the regulations don’t set out exactly how to make a calculation or verify compliance with the requirements.

Will the regulations lead to more innovation in wood construction?

I’m hopeful that it will be easier to incorporate innovative products into construction in practice. It could potentially open up opportunities to embrace experimental construction in a different way. But if there is no approval system in place, there will be no innovation.

So controls are the main challenge?

The challenge lies in alternative methods or whatever we want to call them. The problem boils down to what is expected of the different actors. The construction industry, material organisations such as Swedish Wood, and other stakeholder organisations. What is their mandate in relation to Boverket, in relation to SIS, in relation to the control function inherent in the municipalities’ handling of cases?

The new regulations were planned to be published on 1 July 2024, but have been postponed due to the large number of comments received. The new plan is to launch them on 1 January 2025.

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