Bennett Memorial Diocesan School, Tunbridge Wells

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    WW Martin

Maintaining building standards in the face of material alteration

Situated in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, Bennett Memorial Diocesan School was founded in 1951 by Lady Elena Bennett and Christopher Chavasse, then Bishop of Rochester.

The school’s campus caters for a mixed population of over 1,500 students, and in 2019 work began on a series of improvements to the building infrastructure on site. This encompassed an extension to the school kitchen, refurbishment of an existing science room, and a new two-storey classroom block named Rochester in a nod to the school’s origins.

The main contractor for the project was WW Martin, working on behalf of the site’s owner, Kent County Council (KCC). Harwood was engaged to provide Building Control services for the development as both an approved supplier to KCC and as a respected partner to WW Martin on a number of previous school projects.

The schedule for the work was a relatively tight one, with a hard deadline for the site to be safe and ready for the return of pupils in September 2020, following the summer holidays.

For Harwood Approved Inspectors, the project involved thorough assessment of the design and build to ensure all elements were compliant with Building Regulations. This included taking the lead role in consultations with the local Fire and Rescue Service to address crucial issues around fire safety.

With school buildings, fire-safety measures typically follow the Building Bulletin (BB100) guidance, which outlines a number of school-specific requirements that are more stringent than the general guidance provided within the Approved Documents. Examples include restricting access to pupils above first-floor level if only one staircase is available and reducing the travel distances to available fire exits if there is a specific fire hazard.

The Rochester building arguably presented a more straightforward proposition from the perspective of inspection and sign-off – as a new build, Harwood had to be satisfied that the entire structure met the regulations in full. The refurbishments presented a slightly different challenge, however, because they were defined as a material alteration. As such, the work being carried out had the potential to alter the integrity of existing structures or uncover legacy issues, which could result in the need for remedial action to be taken. This can sometimes be the result of works carried out by mechanical and electrical (M&E) contractors over the years which unwittingly impacts the fire-stopping properties of a building, for example.

From experience of similar refurbishments, Harwood knew that rather than applying Building Regulations with a blanket approach – as per a new build – the threshold for compliance with a material alteration should be for the current level of building safety to be maintained following the completion of new works.

Under these parameters, Harwood might need to advocate additional works or, where safety levels remain unaffected, just to highlight the areas in question to the contractor and site owner, letting them decide how they want to proceed.

Paul Robinson, Principal Building Control Surveyor at Harwood, explains that responsible and reasonable contractors such as WW Martin understand the nature of these potentially delicate situations, and the particular importance of any fire-safety concerns being raised. It is the responsibility of Building Control, he adds, to outline every judgement and associated rationale in very clear terms, drawing links to the relevant regulations and answering any questions in full.

“With a project such as this you have to continually assess whether the work being carried out is making the situation any worse than it was before,” says Paul. “As Building Control, you have to make those judgements all the time. It’s essential to be clear about the parameters from the beginning and to judge everything on consistent, agreed criteria. After that, it’s about good communication and working closely with the client.”

Paul points out that contractors increasingly see the advantage of incorporating Building Control as part of the wider design team, maximising their impact through early engagement and enabling concerns to be flagged before they turn into late-stage difficulties that can compromise deadlines.

In the case of the Bennett Memorial Diocesan School project, the schedule was very tight since the buildings needed to be occupied by staff and pupils at the start of term. In the end, some final work had to be completed on the outside of the kitchen extension after the deadline, but the application of temporary surfaces to the surrounding pathways meant that all fire-safety requirements were satisfied in good time.

Harwood was therefore able to issue a part-final certificate to show that final inspection had been completed and, while minor finishing touches were pending, all structural elements and key safety aspects were met.

Paul concludes: “It’s often the case that last-minute works are required and, for us, it’s important to be proactive in these situations. It’s about coming up with compliant solutions quickly and doing our best to help get the project over that line.”

For more information about Harwood and how our building control inspection services can add value to your projects, get in touch with our team today on +44 (0)1227 931 777 or email


If you are looking to mitigate risks in terms of delays or unexpected costs, the experience of Harwood Approved Inspectors ensures buildings are safe for their users by identifying non-compliant features and working with design teams and contractors so they can create real-world solutions to construction challenges.  With its Head Office in Kent, Harwood provides Approved Inspector building control services for commercial construction projects across England and Wales.  Our highly professional yet approachable approach and pragmatic attitude ensures the details that matter are taken care of.

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