Building Defects & Regulations

A building defect can be described as any deficiency or shortcoming in the performance or function of a building that prevents it from satisfying statutory or user requirements. Such failures can happen at any point in a building’s existence.

Building defects fall broadly into three categories:

These categories are not mutually exclusive. For example, poor workmanship by a contractor can often amplify an error in the architect’s design. Alternatively, the failure of one element may lead to a secondary defect in a nearby element, for instance where rising damp in a structural wall causes dry rot in an adjoining timber floor.

Material and construction defects

All building materials have a lifespan over which we can expect them to degrade, and all will fail at some point. If a building is well designed and constructed, proper maintenance might prolong that life. However, it is still true that all materials will at some point need to be replaced.

Sadly, many buildings suffer an early failure. This can be caused by poor design, specification, manufacture or construction processes. Alternatively, faults might be the result of inadequate maintenance or inappropriate use. The impact of such failings can be costly.

Material and construction defects will often become apparent to a building user through either visual clues, such as cracking and staining; physical symptoms, such as uneven surfaces; or even by smell, which is often the case with dry rot. However, some defects can be less obvious.

Design defects

A failure to fully co-ordinate the design and construction of a building, or to fully satisfy a client’s brief can also result in a defective building.

Such defects can be either aesthetic, for example an inadequate quality of finish, or physical, such as providing insufficient headroom for an intended use. Determining whether such defects do in fact exist can be challenging. Where a building contract has been clearly written, acceptable standards might be well defined, but where that is not the case the perception of design defects might be more subjective.

At one end of the scale this might lead to a swimming pool that is usable, but not quite as deep as desired by the end user. Much more seriously, an architect’s failure to thoroughly integrate a building’s construction with its fire escape strategy might have fatal consequences for the building’s users. Defects of this type are not always apparent until the point of failure.

Other typical design defects might be:

Compliance with building standards

The UK has several pieces of legislation that address the condition of buildings, such as the Defective Premises Act 1972. However, using these to determine whether a defect exists is often less than straightforward. The key legislation covering standards for new buildings is the Building Regulations 2010.

The building regulations set performance standards for construction work in the UK. With a few minor exceptions, the regulations apply to all new buildings, extensions and alterations.

Further guidance on how to meet the regulations is provided by a set of ‘Approved Documents’, published by the government. Each of the twenty different documents addresses a separate area of building performance–for example Approved Document A deals with structure, and Approved Document B covers fire safety.

Taken together, these documents are intended to set out a strategy to meet the minimum acceptable building standard. However, these documents can overlap, may not always be comprehensive, and can also occasionally promote contradictory goals.

To complicate things further, construction professionals are not obliged to follow the letter of the guidance, provided they can prove their design meets that standard by other means.

The guidance is regularly updated. Since the year 2000, the Building Regulations have been revised only once (in 2010). However, the Approved Documents have been amended, revised, corrected and reissued 111 times! Some parts of the guidance have seen few changes (Approved Document A has been issued four times), whereas others have been heavily revised, such as Approved Document L (Conservation of Fuel and Power), which has been through 31 different editions.

Building Regulations are not retrospective, so the standard of a building should be expected to meet is that which was current on the day work began on site. When determining the cause of defect, it is critical to understand which set of guidance should have been applied to the building.

How can we help?

Understanding how a building has been constructed, how certain materials behave, and how that building’s use might affect the building fabric is vital when diagnosing defects.

Hawkins’ Built Environment Team includes engineers, architects and materials specialists with a wide knowledge of construction techniques, sectors, and building regulations, as well as the experience to navigate the complex information surrounding construction projects.

Our analysis can help insurers, building owners, and legal advisers to determine the cause, effect, and liability for defects in the design and construction of the built environment.

Before and during construction, we can provide a technical audit of the design and construction documentation to:

  • Assess the adequacy of the design, and its compliance with planning, building regulations, fire safety and accessibility standards
  • Review the content and development of design drawings, construction information and specifications.
  • Assist with inspection duties, assessing the quality of workmanship and the implementation of the works on site.

Once the building is complete, the team can use a combination of site inspection and document review to:

  • Inspect the finished building and assess compliance with the relevant standards and terms of the contract.
  • Advise on remedial works to mitigate any deficiencies in the design.
  • Investigate building defects to determine the root cause.
  • Assist with establishing where design liability lies.
  • Provide an independent opinion for use in formal dispute resolution proceedings such as litigation or arbitration.

Related areas of expertise

Civil & Structural Engineering

Whether it is a subsiding foundation, a collapsing structure or a flooding drainage system, it can be hard to understand at first glance what part of a large system has gone wrong.


The role of the architect sits at the heart of the building industry. In many projects, the architect is responsible not only for the design of a building, but also for the coordination and management of that design and the team of consultants engaged by the client.

Geotechnical Engineering

Geotechnical engineering is the branch of civil engineering that deals with soil, rock, and underground water, and their relation to the design, construction, and operation of engineering projects. Nearly, all civil engineering projects must be supported by the ground, and thus require at least some geotechnical engineering.

Fire Engineering

The potential consequences of decisions regarding fire protection design, construction and management have been highlighted by recent fires in high-rise residential buildings in the UK, as well as the rest of the world. Insufficient consideration of fire safety management and protection provisions can have massive financial implications and could lead to civil and/or criminal proceedings.