A quick guide to managing risky renovations

  • Renovation works can present significant risk management challenges often not found in other construction projects
  • Older buildings, which may have been built using out-of-date or even hazardous materials, can be particularly challenging
  • We look at how to manage the risks involved in any renovation project, and how Zurich can provide support

From site security to fire and flood risk, any significant construction project presents a range of important risk management challenges.

However, businesses must consider a number of distinct challenges when renovating commercial property.


Risks involved with renovation work

As Alistair Byfield, Senior Risk Engineer, Construction, Zurich, explains: “The first risk to consider is structural stability. On a normal construction site, you would start with a clean slate, whereas a renovation requires the constructor to find out what designs the structure was originally built to.

“Any significant change has the potential to affect the structural load and stability of the building.”

Altering a building’s intended use necessitates a detailed understanding of its original purpose, as well as structural surveys to understand what its capacity is. For example, if a building is being turned from an office into a gym, the floor would need to be checked for its weight-bearing capabilities. Failure to do this increases the risk of causing significant damage to the structural integrity of the building.

Unlike most construction projects, renovation works are also often undertaken when a building is still occupied, which creates additional considerations.

Alistair says: “Utilities or fire alarms may need to be switched off during a renovation. If services to other occupants cannot be maintained, they need to be warned of disruption.”

Communication failures can mean that leaks, fires and other risks are not spotted as quickly. Alistair adds: “The last thing you want is a fire starting on a neighbouring floor when the alarm has been turned off.”

Renovation work will also present many of the risks seen on other construction projects. For example, if the roof of a building is being renovated, it is likely that hot works will be involved, which creates its own set of risks and considerations.

Renovation may also involve ripping out walls and floors, which in turn will expose utility lines and pipes, increasing the risk of gas leaks or escape of water. Site security also needs to be considered. If windows and doors are being removed, how is the building now being secured?

The risks involved with renovating older buildings
Renovating older buildings can be particularly challenging in terms of risk management. Alistair explains: “It is important to consider whether the building meets modern standards. Is lead piping still being used, for example?

“It is also important to consider whether building plans are available and accurate. We had a situation where a concrete floor on a building plan turned out to be timber, which obviously presents very different risks.”

Renovating older properties can also expose hazardous materials, such as asbestos and lead, or electrical wiring that has badly deteriorated over time, presenting a fire risk.

With more than 200 older or historical buildings across the UK destroyed or damaged by fire in 2018, reducing fire risk is a real challenge. As well as old or faulty wiring, many older buildings have voids and cavities in the walls, floors and ceilings, which can provide a clear runway for flames.

Managing risk in renovation projects
Whatever the age of the building, appointing the right people to the project is vital, as well as ensuring there is someone onsite who is responsible for risk management.

Alistair explains: “The key is appointing competent and experienced designers and contractors, who have detailed fire management plans and full building and structural surveys, and who have a plan for communicating with building managers and any other occupants.”

It is also essential that documents and plans are available from the outset of a project and kept up-to-date throughout.

“A live fire management plan should be kept on site and updated whenever there is any change to the building,” says Alistair. “For example, if an escape route gets blocked during renovations, new fire escape plans need to be provided. Things can change on a daily and weekly basis during a renovation, and it is important that plans are kept up to date.”

Contractors should also be following the fire safety Joint Code of Practice, and have a robust testing procedure for infrastructure such as utility lines, gas and water pipes.

Alistair says: “These are likely to have been exposed during a renovation, so it is important to check for damage. Leak detection systems are particularly useful.”