Exactly Who is Competent?

Under South African legislation various aspects of buildings must be certified by a ‘Competent Person’.

I was asked about this recently in relation to accessibility, and have tried to justify it as being similar to, for example, the roll of the engineer (in relation to structure) or the Fire Department (in relation to fire protection). Heritage is one of these aspects, and it was discussed at the last meeting I attended of the Built Environment Committee of AMAFA (relating to heritage in KZN)

Architects often caution that the certified competent list could become endless and maybe as a profession they should be permitted to do this certification themselves. Who are we architects to decide which of our peers is competent? Well in some fields it appears much more straightforward; like the mechanical engineer for the lifts and air conditioning. On the whole, it seems that when one understands how little one knows in certain fields, that is when you are competent! I could tackle some simple heritage projects, but certainly would not take on anything complex, except with the assistance of an architect with lots of experience.

But how does one get this experience? If you have a post graduate qualification, you would probably realize that you need experience too. It’s a catch-22 situation and I would suggest some sort of training, plus internship would be invaluable in leading towards being ‘competent’.

In the accessibility field I’m pretty biased in thinking that it should be an architect based person who does this, and that their knowledge must extend to the imperatives from a broad band of legislation relating to rights. It is a social issue too.
An architect is prone to advise what the performance requirements are, as opposed to prescribing how to get it done.

There are so many ways of making built environments accessible, besides providing ramps and toilets.

Universal design approach also mainstreams people which is where a truly democratic society should be heading. It is disappointing to realize that most people feel that persons with disabilities require so much more accommodation in buildings; an indictment on the general approach to good design.

These days it does seem to finally be penetrating that, in general, all non-residential buildings should be accessible to persons with disabilities, but many building owners, and tenants, still use the age of the building as the reason that it is not accessible. Would those same people use the old age of a building as an excuse for it to be structurally unsafe or a hazard to safety if there was a fire?

Perhaps insurance companies could look at how this fits into their policies? I have an idea that when a claim is made they investigate to see if the building was safe for everyone; so it is reactive, not proactive. Unfortunately for us, not many of the buildings that do not meet requirements of accessibility are held to account for themselves.

Businesses seem to display safety diagrams on the walls, but fire drills are seldom done. Even if a fire door is found that opens, it often has a stepped threshold, which is a hazard for everyone, including wheelchair users, or papers and files and other clutter hampering access to the escape route.

Back to competent people: perhaps it will one day be accepted that there is a whole lot more to accessibility than meets the eye, and competence in this field will become as respected as it is in other fields. Creating safe, healthy and convenient environments for all is not a “shall we or shan’t we?” option. It must be an asset to business of which South Africans can be proud, in line with our Constitution.

“Never ascribe to malice that which can adequately be explained by incompetence.”
- Napoleon Bonaparte

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