What is a Principal Designer on a construction project?


Construction projects typically require many different contractors and professionals - who ensures that everyone works together to manage safety risks? A Principal Designer is a person or company with responsibility for overseeing the pre-construction phase of a project so that health and safety risks are minimized.
So, what exactly does a Principal Designer do and how does this role impact your commercial insurance policy?

What is a Principal Designer?

The role of Principal Designer has a legal definition, set out in the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2015 (CDM 2015). The CDM rules apply to any project with more than one contractor, requiring these projects to have a Principal Designer and Principal Contractor who are responsible for health and safety, alongside other legally defined duty holder roles.
A Principal Designer is responsible for planning, managing, and monitoring the pre-construction phase of a project, ensuring that risks to health and safety are reduced as far as is ‘reasonably practicable’.
Health and safety risks which a Principal Designer should consider include those which apply to contractors and workers carrying out the construction work, people involved with maintaining and cleaning the structure and those who use the structure as a workplace.
The legislation requires a Principal Designer to liaise with the Principal Contractor of a project, sharing all the information that will be relevant to the construction phase and co-ordinating health and safety matters during the construction phase.

What is the purpose of a Principal Designer?

The role of Principal Designer helps to improve accountability and clarity about who is responsible for health and safety of a construction project. The Principal Designer has responsibility during the pre-construction phase, while the Principal Contractor assumes the main responsibility during construction.
Appointing a Principal Designer does not mean that other contractors do not bear any responsibility. Everyone working on a project with design responsibility has legal duties under CDM 2015 to carry out their role with due regard for health and safety.
 A Principal Designer standing in-front of a building holding plans

What is a Principal Designer expected to do?

Principal Designer’s role involves:

  • Informing the client of their legal obligations.
  • Planning, managing and monitoring health and safety in the pre-construction phase (identifying risks, taking action to eliminate or reduce risk, overseeing designers).
  • Compiling pre-construction information and supplying this to designers and contractors.
  • Preparing a health and safety file and then reviewing, updating and revising it during the course of the project.
  • Liaising with the Principal Contractor around planning, managing, monitoring and co-ordinating the construction phase.
  • Taking into account the general principles of prevention.
  • Ensuring all parties in the pre-construction phase work with the client, the Principal Designer and each other.
  • Checking that designers have the right skills, knowledge and experience to carry out the work.

A Principal Designer should be appointed as early as possible in the life cycle of a construction project, and certainly before the pre-construction phase begins. If a client fails to appoint a Principal Designer or Principal Contractor, the same obligations rest on the designer and contractor in control of pre-construction and construction phases.
It is often the case that a Principal Designer needs to be retained well into the construction phase of a project, for example if further design work is required or existing designs need to be modified once construction has begun. Before the Principal Designer steps down from the role, they should prepare a full briefing for the Principal Contractor setting out any relevant matters, as well as passing on the health and safety file.

What skills, knowledge and experience does a Principal Designer require?

A Principal Designer should be able to demonstrate that they have health and safety skills, knowledge and experience required for a particular project. If the Principal Designer is to be an organisation rather than an individual, the organisation needs to show that it has the organisational capability to carry out the role.
The level of skill required for each project will differ depending on the scale, complexity and characteristics of the construction involved. Individuals might be asked to show records of continuing professional development (CPD) or membership of relevant professional bodies in order to qualify for a role.
To demonstrate organisational capability, a company might use an external assessor to determine their ability to perform the role, or self-assess using standard health and safety pre-qualification questions in PAS 91.

Principal Designers and the Grenfell tragedy

The role of Principal Designer has come under increased scrutiny in the wake of the 2017 Grenfell Tower tragedy, in which 72 people died. The tower had been renovated using flammable cladding made from polyurethane, which greatly exacerbated the scale of the fire. Litigation and debate following the tragedy has focused on the lack of accountability for contractors involved in the renovation project.
Dame Judith Hackitt’s review into building regulations and fire safety, published in 2018, found that regulation on building safety and fire is ambiguous and inconsistent and that key roles such as Principal Designer need to be strengthened. Dame Hackitt stressed that clearer roles and responsibilities were required in order to address the problems revealed by the Grenfell tragedy.

A new competence framework

One of the recommendations in the Hackitt review was the development of an Overarching Competence Framework Standard and a set of Competence Requirements for the roles of Principal Designer, Principal Contractor and Building Safety Manager.
These standards are under development by the British Standards Institute. A draft competence framework has now been published, with the final version expected later in 2021. In time, these new standards will become embedded in industry, with certification bodies, trade institutions and professional associations using them as a guide to assessing competence in professionals and organisations.
It is also possible that commercial insurance providers might use the new framework in calculating the risk level of providing a particular company or individual with insurance.
 A desk with building plans laid across it as well as pencils and a model of a house under construction

HSE consultation on the role of Principal Designer

Dame Hackitt’s review advocated that a Principal Designer role should be a requirement for all high-risk projects to help improve accountability and safety. In response, the Health and Safety Executive is carrying out a survey to see how the role functions in practice.
The survey underlines the increased interest in the Principal Designer role and debate over how well it works in practice, and whether it should be reformed or strengthened.

What are the most common construction risks?

The very nature of a construction site means it is an inherently risky place. There are usually multiple parties moving around, often using heavy machinery, hazardous substances or construction vehicles. The noise, bustle, dust and dirt can make a building site a disorientating place, which can contribute to risk. This is why quality commercial insurance for construction companies is so important; unfortunately, it’s likely that you will face a claim at some point.
The exact nature of risk will depend on the characteristics of the individual project; building a 20-storey tower block will have a different risk profile to constructing a petrol station, for example. Official data shows that the most common cause of injury in the construction sector is falling from a height; 49% of fatal injuries are caused in this way.
Other common causes of injury in construction include being trapped by something overturning or collapsing (14% of fatalities), being struck by a moving vehicle (11%), being hit by a moving object (10%) or contact with electricity or electrical discharge (5%). Even with careful management of hazards within a construction site, these types of risk cannot be fully eliminated.
Construction workers also suffer from occupational health issues which can develop in the longer term. For example, inhaling dust and fumes can lead to respiratory conditions including asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer and silicosis. Breathing in contaminants from building materials can also lead to health problems.
Workers with manual roles in construction can often suffer from musculoskeletal problems – 2.1% of all workers in the sector report having a condition such as back pain or an upper body limb disorder they believe to be work-related and this type of issue accounts for three fifths of all construction-related health problems.  Construction workers are also at risk of hand-arm vibration syndrome as a result of using hand-held power tools over long periods.
Stress, anxiety and depression are also issues that affect the construction industry – particularly for those with fewer qualifications and who may be self-employed. Low-skilled male workers in the construction industry have a suicide rate which is 3.7 times the national average, reflecting the considerable strains and stresses of work in this sector.
Careful planning can help to prevent many health hazards from developing in the construction phase of a project. This is why the role of Principal Designer is so vital – thinking through each step of the construction phase and managing any associated risks is the best way to minimise risk as far as possible.

What does a Principal Designer do before construction starts?

The Principal Designer’s role has a significant effect on the way health and safety risks are managed in the construction phase of the project and the wider management of the project. Decisions taken during the pre-construction phase can have a profound impact on the health and safety risks involved in later stages of the project.

The Principal Designer should ensure that design contributes to positive health and safety outcomes, bringing together other stakeholders as well as the client and Principal Contractor to ensure everyone works together to identify risks, decide on appropriate control measures and agree what information should be included in the construction phase plan.

Another part of the Principal Designer’s role is to check that all other designers who are working on the project have appropriate skills, knowledge and experience. Checks on whether professionals are suitable for these roles should be carried out prior to their roles being confirmed.

Do you have the right level of commercial insurance?

As a business, there are many types of risk to consider. When you are involved in a construction project, it is best to be absolutely clear about the risks you incur and how the rights and obligations are divided between different parties involved in the project.

Insurance for your commercial business is an invaluable tool in protecting you against risk. A combined commercial policy will look at the individual needs of your business and put together cover that matches your requirements. Types of risk you might need to be covered include employers’ liability, negligence, public liability, professional indemnity, business insurance, buildings and contents.

When something goes wrong on a construction project, the impact on a business can be dramatic in both personal and financial terms. As well as possible claims for compensation, you may lose essential personnel, suffer reputational damage, or endure negative publicity. If it is serious enough, even an isolated event could bring down an entire business.

Having a Principal Designer should help to prevent problems from occurring later down the line, or at least clarify liability where an incident does happen. Unfortunately, claims for health and safety issues can often involve extended litigation and discussion among the lawyers as to how liability should be shared between parties. Legal expenses insurance is a very helpful addition to your commercial insurance policy, providing cover to help you pursue or defend a claim without incurring your own legal costs.

If you are taking on a role as Principal Designer, you will need to ensure that you have insurance in place in case something goes wrong. Professional indemnity insurance steps in if it is claimed that you breached your duty of care or acted negligently in discharging your duties.

One of the key benefits of commercial insurance is that you can combine cover for different types of risk rather than taking out multiple individual policies. This makes your insurance much easier to manage, understand and renew, as well as potentially cutting the cost of your premiums. Whatever business you are in, you need reliable insurance that reflects your level of liability.

Why not get in touch with Insurance Choice today for a commercial insurance quote?

Policy benefits, features and discounts offered may very between insurance schemes or cover selected and are subject to underwriting criteria. Information contained within this article is accurate at the time of publishing but may be subject to change.