Calls for all HPL cladding to be ‘urgently’ removed

31 October 2019

Fire safety experts criticised the government’s ‘flawed’ test methodology for high pressure laminate (HPL) cladding, stating that ‘thousands of people are at risk’ as a result.

In February, the government widened its fire testing regime to include materials other than aluminium composite material (ACM), with then Housing Minister Kit Malthouse ordering combustibility tests on cladding types ‘that differ’ from ACM panels used on 437 buildings ‘identified so far’. Research suggested ‘at least’ 160 high rises have materials used in rainscreen cladding systems ‘that have not been accounted for’ in prior testing, including HPL panels made from compressed wood or paper fibre, some of which are classed as combustible.

Later that month, it was reported tests would begin in March and results published in the summer, but in March industry experts expressed ‘grave concerns’ over the ‘bespoke safety testing methodology’, which means the tests have ‘no success or failure criteria’, are ‘less comprehensive’ than on ACM, will not include insulation, will not test cavity barriers and ‘will have no legal standing’.

April saw tests delayed and the materials to be tested named as zinc composite material, copper composite material, aluminium honeycomb, HPL, brick slip systems and reconstituted stone. Then in May, the tests were expected, according to fire safety experts, to see most of the 1,700 ‘at risk’ English buildings identified ‘fail’.

In July, the Fire Protection Association (FPA) undertook a BS 8414 test of HPL cladding for the government, and found that the specific system tested ‘met the relevant pass criteria’. The test involved a cladding system including a Class B, fire retardant HPL rainscreen with a non combustible rock fibre insulation, with the government’s expert panel ‘satisfied that this specific system does not present a risk to public safety’, and detailed advice on HPL systems was ‘being published’.

Following that test and later that month, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) warned action must be taken ‘as soon as possible’ to make HPL panels safe ‘particularly’ if used on buildings with combustible insulation, as its expert panel said it had become clear many HPL panels were ‘very unlikely to adequately resist the spread of fire’, and ‘building owners with these systems should immediately take action […] to remediate unsafe HPL’.

The panel’s order applies to ‘most forms’ of HPL, categorised by fire resistance. Systems below Class B should not be used, as well as if used with combustible insulation, though Class B with non combustible insulation passed the FPA test and Class A was considered safe. Leaseholders urged the government to fund removal, arguing that the positive test ‘changed nothing’.

Now, Huffington Post has reported on criticism from fire safety experts of the ‘flawed’ test methodology, claiming that ‘thousands’ are ‘at risk and that all HPL cladding should be ‘urgently’ removed. HPL is ‘thought to be’ covering 440 high rises housing 26,000 people, with industry manufacturer Rockwool raising ‘major concerns’ at a parliamentary committee on the testing.

Rockwool’s written evidence submitted to the housing, communities and local government select committee warned that the BS 8414 test ‘uses more fire protection than deployed in typical buildings’. It added that this means the test does ‘not reflect real-life conditions’ and ‘underestimated the risks of combustible materials’, and ‘neither reflects the way cladding system are installed on buildings nor the buildings themselves’.

The news outlet noted that Arup’s Dr Barbara Lane, who gave evidence to the Grenfell inquiry, and the FPA, have ‘raised concerns’ about the test, with Dr Lane stating it is not ‘relevant’ as it is ‘so far away from the kind of construction detailing that people like me have to deal with in our profession’. Inside Housing reported on the views of FPA managing director Jonathan O’Neill in July, who stated that the tests should measure ‘the toxicity of the cladding’ and include ‘windows and other fixings’, arguing that these are ‘not included in the model wall used for testing’.

These penetrations created areas ‘through which fire could spread’, with the standard not permitting these aspects to be changed. The FPA tests were able to ‘mitigate against’ some of these issues, specifically on the position of fire barriers ‘on which it allows for flexibility’, with MP Kevin Hollinrake also criticising the tests at the committee, calling it ‘discredited’, and pointing out that the Local Government Association has ‘no faith in the ability of BS 8414 to reflect real-life conditions’.

Rockwool added that ‘we believe the large-scale test used to assess HPL cladding was fundamentally flawed, and that government should give urgent instructions to building owners to remove all combustible cladding and insulation from high-rise and high-risk buildings’.

An MHCLG spokesperson responded: ‘We have been clear that building owners should ensure that their buildings are safe for residents. The government issued unambiguous advice to building owners 18 months ago to reinforce existing building safety requirements and tell building owners what to do to make sure their cladding system is safe.

‘The BS8414 test was developed after many years of research and the department and the independent expert panel consider this test continues to be fit for its purpose.’

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Calls for all HPL cladding to be ‘urgently’ removed