about design certification / SER certificates
This briefing note explains design certification of building structures and the specific certification scheme implemented by the Institution of Structural Engineers and the Institution of Civil Engineers: Structural Engineers Registration Ltd or SER Ltd (hence an “SER certificate”, which is a design certificate). It can help to read our previous section on building warrants/building control approval before reading this information
The section applies principally to Scotland. At the time of writing the only other area of the UK practising certification is the Channel Islands. Similar process and rules apply there.
Where do design certificates fit into the warrant process?
Where a building warrant is required for works in Scotland, the structural engineering information submitted with the application can either be:
- drawings and calculations submitted to the local authority for them to check that the design complies with the Building (Scotland) Regulations 2004 or
- drawings and a design certificate confirming that the design complies with the Building (Scotland) Regulations 2004. (i.e. local authority do not check for compliance but may request additional information)
There is no difference between the building warrant granted for either option.
Where has this come from?
The Building (Scotland) Act 2003 which, among other things, puts forward the concepts of:
- certification of both design and construction by individuals known as ‘certifiers’
- verification of certifiers who submit design certificates by individuals known as ‘verifiers’
- an appropriate scheme to control these processes
The intention is to ensure that individuals who supply design certificates act within a regulated and audited scheme, with appropriate checks and controls, whereby a greater assurance of safety may be provided than had sometimes been experienced in applications for building warrant in the past, i.e. where engineers certified things that were incorrect, that they did not understand, where they were subjected to unfair commercial or personal pressure in order to certify something, or where they behaved in an unprofessional or incompetent manner.
The Act enables an engineer who is a member of a suitable scheme to check the structural design of works and include a design certificate with an application for building warrant, signifying that the design complies fully with building regulations.
Who gets to be a member of a scheme?
At present there is only one scheme in operation in Scotland. The joining criteria are that:
- a certifier must meet the defined requirements for an Approved Certifier of Design (ACD), make an application for that role, and be accepted
- the certifier’s employer must meet the defined requirements for an Approved Body (AB) and either make an application for that role and be accepted, or already have done so at a previous time in relation to another certifier.
Once these steps are completed the individual has joined the scheme and may issue design certificates in the form permitted under the scheme. Joining fees are also required from both the certifier and the approved body.
Approved Bodies are necessary because the cost of proving the ancilliaries necessary for certifiers to carry out their tasks are too great for individuals to bear.
What does the certificate mean?
It means the certifying engineer responsible has ensured that all aspects of the structural design of a project satisfy the requirements of the Building (Scotland) Regulations 2004. It is a statement of achievement of certain standards.
How do engineers feel about it?
Certification is a considerable responsibility and the scheme is viewed with mixed feelings by many busy engineers as a result, especially as it carries an element of personal liability. This liability needs to be insured against and many certifiers now carry their own personal PI insurance as a result, not relying on their employers to protect them in this regard.
So, tell me more about the schemes.
As mentioned, at present there is only one scheme that has been accredited for the certification of building structures by the Scottish Government.
The Institution of Structural Engineers and the Institution of Civil Engineers have set up a scheme, administered by a commercial company called Structural Engineer’s Registration Ltd, to provide certification. SER Ltd is based within the Institution of Structural Engineers’ headquarters office in London.
The scheme is usually referred to as the SER scheme, and the design certificate provided under the scheme is often referred to as an SER certificate. This scheme is described in SER’s extensive Scheme Guide. They also produce a less technical condensed document to guide clients.
The scheme is enforced by auditing of both certifiers (ACDs) and their employers (ABs).
Certifiers are checked for things such as maintaining institution membership, continued professional development and technical knowledge etc, while Approved Bodies are checked for the quality and completeness of the project records that they hold, compliant quality, training and health and safety systems, up-to-date computer software etc.
It is worth noting however, that the auditors tell the engineer in advance which projects will be audited. There are good reasons why this happens but the compromise that this introduces into the auditing system is acknowledged.
SER Ltd state in their client guidance that the scheme requires additional work from the consultant and this will have a cost attached.
The cost to engineering practices of running the scheme properly can be considerable. For each project this is typically an additional 15% of the fees they would normally charge and is subject to a minimum amount of around £250-300.
- Taking a £100,000 project as an example:
Warrant application fee = £980
Engineer’s fee might be 3.0% of build cost = £3,000 so:
Certification fees at 15% of £3,000 or £275 minimum = £450
SER Ltd fee @ 3% of warrant fee or £30 minimum = £30
Total extra fees = £480
On the other hand, warrant application fees are reduced by 10% when a certificate is submitted.
- Warrant fees are £980 on a £100,000 project so:
Saving on warrant fee = £98
Therefore the net cost increase = £382
As a result, and due to these percentages being fairly universal, there is little actual cost incentive for certification from the client’s perspective.
Getting a warrant could often be long winded in the past. Are things better now?
The passing of the Act and the subsequent introduction of this particular scheme to satisfy it has, in many cases, reduced the length of time it takes to get the structural aspects of a project approved.
Generally speaking, local authorities now discourage the submission of structural calculations for checking by the authority for warrant purposes. This is primarily due to staffing cutbacks and the increased time required to check calculations packages compared to the largely administrative workload associated with receipt of certified drawings.
Will a structural design certificate speed up getting my building warrant?
It is unlikely to do so.
The process of reviewing a project by a local authority prior to granting a building warrant consists of studying both the architectural information and information from the various engineering disciplines involved (structural, civil, sometimes mechanical and electrical as well). Even if as much of the engineering as possible is covered by a design certificate and so does not receive a full review, the architectural package still has to be checked for compliance with the complex building regulations covering this discipline. This routinely results in queries being returned to the architect for consideration and re-submission. It is this sequence of events that usually controls the length of time it takes to get a building warrant and the certification of aspects of the engineering has little or no influence on the overall time taken.
It should be noted that in some cases the local authority may still request further clarification on the engineering works despite the provision of a design certificate.
The official line from a local authority
The official line from the City of Edinburgh Council’s building control department is that, regardless of submission type (i.e. design certificate plus drawings, or calculations plus drawings), warrant applications are processed strictly in the order they are received and will be turned around within four weeks.
Are there areas of a project that are not covered by certificates?
Yes. Some common areas that are not covered by any certification scheme at present include:
- Architectural matters generally
- Fire engineering
- Contaminated land
- Drainage schemes
Calculations and drawings for these elements still have to be submitted in full to the local authority for checking in the traditional manner for checking and approval by them.
England and Wales
There is no equivalent of the Act in England and Wales and as a result no certification schemes exist there. A scheme is however in operation in the Channel Islands.
There is opposition to the introduction of any such schemes among the engineering community in England and Wales, where the UK’s large consultants are based. This is due to the increase in internal costs this causes. These costs are a problem because of the difficulty in passing them on to clients. Clients are unhappy at the prospect of being asked to pay extra for something they thought they were getting anyway – safe designs that comply with the Building Regulations. This point is hard to refute, especially against the background of the functioning alternative to certification currently in operation. See the England and Wales section in our article on building warrants/building control approval.
At present there seems no immediate prospect of the introduction of certification taking place in England and Wales and building control approval of projects remains via the three routes outlined in the aforementioned article.
Our recommendation to clients
In Scotland, for the vast majority of projects with any structural content, go down the design certification route.