The SABS and the water services engineer

By Vollie Brink

The SABS, the building water services engineer, and the National Building Regulations are all inextricably linked – none can function if the others do not.

When we talk about the South African Bureau of Standards (SABS) and the engineer, specifically the building water services engineer (BWSE), then I want to focus on the National Building Regulations (NBR) and how it affects the engineering design and the role of the building water services.

Perhaps we must go back to 1977 when the NBR were promulgated for the first time in South Africa.

Before 1977, every city, town, and municipality had their own local building regulations and the Chief Building Inspector was the person who decided what regulations were and what were not in his town. He decided what he would allow and what not, and so you would find that, in one town, you were not allowed to use a rubber bath trap, and, in another town, not a lead trap, and one town would not allow uPVC piping, and so on.

This situation made it very difficult for the engineer because you would have to obtain the local building regulations, study them, and then apply them. There was also an overlap of what the local engineer’s department would allow and what not – and the opinion of the design engineer did not count, and in many cases innovative design was completely stifled and not promoted.

The Chief Building Inspector ruled, his word was final, and there was no recourse or appeal possible or alternative solution.

The NBR of 1977 brought a new era, a new approach, and a sense of professional standards and norms that were comparable with world standards.

The new NBR brought with it national standardisation; the engineer could now design on standards that were acceptable and applicable all over the country. It also provided the opportunity to appeal to a higher body in cases where there were disputes regarding the interpretation of the rules and regulations.

The new national regulations also brought with it the opportunity for the engineer to carry out an engineering solution in terms of rational design.

It is important to understand the basis of the new building regulations of 1977 (I believe this is still the case even if some people don’t remember it anymore). The basis consisted of three very important elements, namely health, safety, and economy.

It seems that the economy part has been forgotten.

Some councils fought back by producing their own local building by-laws, which they tried to enforce. But this negated the spirit of the NBR, which was intended to open up for a new approach of non-prescriptive development. The old approach was prescriptive and allowed one person to have the final say. Fortunately, these local building by-laws have been ruled as secondary to the NBR.

The first NBR gave the choice of a rational design or deem-to-satisfy-rule design to the owner, which was a great step forward and further away from the old compulsory rule approach. This design freedom opened up new opportunities for meaningful, fit-for-purpose, and cost-effective appropriate design by a competent person (a registered professional who must take full responsibility for the design).

It was specifically stated that the building control office (BCO) is not allowed to interfere in a rational design, which was at first a problem for both the BCO and the design professional, but mutual trust was built and the system worked very well.

There were unfortunately some gaps in the NBR.

Water is such a strategic and crucial resource and we must have the best technical competency to design and oversee the construction.

The most critical gap was that there was nothing on domestic water for buildings, and this gap still exists. We are talking about ‘green’ regulations and standards, such as SANS 10400-XA, which refers to a document that also does not feature in NBR and which is not applied by the BCO as it is not in their mandate.

Another gap that still exists today is the definition and qualifications of the so-called competent person. This gap has now seriously affected the career of the engineer and will eventually lead to the industry not having the required engineering competencies.

We already have the situation where engineers don’t want to venture into water services for buildings because that sector has been degraded and is not financially viable. This is because unqualified and unregistered persons are posing as competent and are allowed by some BCOs to be accepted as so-called competent.

The work of an unregistered person is a high risk as there is no discipline when they cause failures and the owner is the person who ends with the short stick. Water is such a strategic and crucial resource and we must have the best technical competency to design and oversee the construction.

Lately, we have noticed another gap that is also serious: the shortage of engineers in this field. We just don’t have engineers around the committee and work group tables at the SABS anymore. Engineers just can’t financially afford to spend many hours sitting in SABS meetings and this will seriously affect the quality of standards in the future.

As I have mentioned water is such a strategic resource, yet we don’t have any formal standards and norms under the NBR, and we don’t have drawings to know where the piping is to do accurate maintenance, which is the cause of huge water losses.

The promulgation of SANS 10400-XA also has a gap, as nobody is sure how to comply with it in terms of the hot water system or how to uniformly nationally present their drawings to the BCO. However we hope to rectify this at some point in the future.

The SABS has a proud background and history and it has transformed to serve the new democracy in line with the requirements of the constitution. We do need to address the gaps as mentioned but we hope the management corps and staff of the SABS and NRCS will try to resolve those shortcomings somewhere in future.

We, the stakeholders, have been asking for water regulations for buildings under the NBR and under the building control officer’s office for many years, but nobody has listened.

SANS 10252-1 has been promulgated under the Water Act as regulation but it is not applied by the BCO as he does not have a mandate to do so under the NBR act.

SANS 10252-1 was developed by engineers as a design manual for engineers but it was later manipulated and twisted and declared a regulation.

You cannot have a design manual without regulations.

When we developed SANS 10252-1 we drafted proposed water regulations to be read in conjunction with the design SANS10252-1, but these proposed regulations got lost in the archives of the SABS and until today we don’t have building water regulations and even the advent of the NRCS brought no fruit.

We are in a severe drought and a drought such as we have not experienced in many decades, and we don’t have building water regulations? Who must we blame for this situation?

The design of the water system in a building is related to the water supply of the local water supply authority and therefore there the design regulations must be an integrated approach and all the role players such as the supply authority engineers and the building water services engineers must be involved to develop national building water services regulations as a matter of urgency, using the best engineering talent available.

I have come to the point where I asked myself, what is the value of the SABS in my life as an engineer and my work? What value does the SABS add to my work? Does the SABS add value to my work? Do I need the SABS?

I am allowed to do a rational design and therefore I am allowed to base my design on other suitable, relevant, appropriate, innovative, cost effective standards and regulations, and not on the local non-compulsory standards and regulations that do not exist.

The question is, has the time come for engineers to come together and develop our own norms and standards and even regulations based on world standards?

The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) played a critical role in the development of standards such as SANS 10400-P, which was originally developed by the CSIR and other NBR Standards. Where are they today? They are not seen on the working groups and technical committees.

Where are the laboratories? Where are the inspectors? We have rules and regulations but who sees that they are applied? There are gaps which need to be addressed for a better future.

My greatgranddaughter, who is five years old, was told by her pre-primary school teacher, “It seems your ears are not working because you don’t listen to what I say.” And the little lady replied, “My ears are working but I don’t want to hear you!” – Does this sound familiar?

I hope the community outside the SABS will stand by the SABS and NRCS, and support and contribute to build on the world-class standards that have been the backbone of the industry of South Africa in the past to create a better future for all.



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