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The Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2015 (CDM) are the main set of regulations for managing the health, safety and welfare of construction projects and provide guidance and sound industry practice for principal designers.

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A practical view on Principal Designer


According to the HSE, a principal designer is a designer who is an organisation or individual (on smaller projects) appointed by the client to take control of the pre-construction phase of any project involving more than one contractor. The principal designer must have a technical knowledge of the construction industry, relevant to the project, an understanding of how health and safety is managed through the design process and the skills to be able to oversee health and safety during the pre-construction phase of the project.

Design decisions made during the pre-construction phase have a significant influence in ensuring the project is delivered in a way that secures the health and safety of everyone affected by the work. The HSE states that principal designers must:

  • Plan, manage, monitor and coordinate health and safety in the pre-construction phase
  • Help and advise the client in bringing together pre-construction information, and provide the information designers and contractors need to carry out their duties
  • Work with other designers on the project to eliminate foreseeable health and safety risks to anyone affected by the work and, where that is not possible, take steps to reduce or control those risks
  • Ensure that everyone involved in the pre-construction phase communicates and cooperates, coordinating their work wherever required
  • iaise with the principal contractor, keeping them informed of any risks that need to be controlled during the construction phase

What good looks like

Whilst we outline the role of principal designer on our website, what interests us here is how to fulfill the role to a high level and what good looks like. Good practice is not a requirement of the CDM guidelines but these examples demonstrate how the principle designer can contribute to the success of a project set up:

  • Provide a schedule on appointment
  • Develop a good relationship with the client
  • Ensure you understand the brief
  • Clarify roles: to avoid confusion the purpose of the principal designer and designer roles should be set out
  • Encourage project team meetings
  • Undertake an early site visit
  • Be proactive: for example, helping to produce an adequate brief if one does not exist or raising any health and safety concerns as soon as possible

CDM in a domestic setting

On a domestic project, the role of the principal designer must be carried out by the designer in control of the pre-construction phase. The CDM Regulations fully allow for the lack of experience of a domestic client and it is for those appointed first (i.e. the designer or contractor) to ensure the correct procedures are undertaken and that they keep the client informed as to what needs to be completed.

The legal angle

In guidance from the Royal Institute of British Architects, the duties of a principal designer are subject to criminal law and need to be undertaken with professional care, but they are straightforward and easily integrated within the ability of an experienced architect or designer. The duties are within the legal principle of ‘reasonable practicality’, also known as ‘so far as reasonably practicable’ (SFARP). SFARP is a legally agreed measure of proportionality for the legal consideration of health and safety issues during the design stage of construction. This allows a designer to balance the time, cost, aesthetics and other project considerations with their duty to avoid or minimise risks to health and safety of the operatives, users or members of the public.

 Want to know more?

The Association for Project Safety produces a Principal Designer’s Handbook, which was published in early 2016 and covers the role, how it works in practice, liaison with the principle contractor and standard and exemplar documents. Link to Handbook