Dr Jim Glockling responds to recent survey on combustible materials

24 July 2019

Jim Glockling, Technical Director of the Fire Protection Association, discusses the results of FPA’s web survey of the question ‘After the recent fire at the block of flats in Barking, should combustible materials be banned on buildings under 18 metres (government guidelines only ban use over 18 metres)?

The background to this question stemmed from a fire in Barking where extensive and very rapid fire-spread was experienced over the wood clad balconies of a six-storey apartment block. Reports speak of fire ingress into the apartments and near misses which obviously, being lower than 18 metres, has caused the appropriateness of any height threshold applied to the combustible ban to be called in to question.

However, in relation to the wording of the question an apology is due. Many respondees assumed the statement included the contents of the building which is clearly an impossible ask and perhaps greater clarification was required. Those responses affected will probably be few in number in comparison to the total Fire Protection Association member returns and so the overall statistics of 45% in favour of a total ban at any height, and 55% not in favour, is probably a true enough reflection of the result for the purposes of reporting here.

Having gone through those responses supported with additional comments I have tried to categorise them for clarity which I’ve listed below. Needless to say, there are examples where the same argument is used to support both answers with ‘environmental factors’ being a case in point – the sustainability of building out of timber, versus the environmental damage that combustible materials burning present. Many other factors sited are classed as ‘opposites’ – a ban is not needed because we have controls in place to assure safety – but a ban is needed because there is a mistrust of our ability to adhere to the necessary controls that should assure safety. Also observed was a great deal of ‘conditional’ commentary – support for a ban of combustible materials on high hazard buildings, but not on all – a vote both ways – perhaps a third voting option would have been good in hindsight.

Rough classification of reasons for an any-height ban include (extracting key words and phrases as appropriate):

We owe it to those who perished in Grenfell and Lakanal

Necessary in the context of reducing FRS capability (resource and response times)

Simplicity and clarity – no ‘wriggle room’

The materials are available and construction methods possible – so why would you not

Reduced fire toxicity

To counter inevitable imperfections in detailing and installation – what should be done, all too often is not

Fire does not understand the concept of height, why should our regulations

Environmental – use materials that cannot burn and contribute to global warming

Morally the right thing to do – common sense - why would you not

Conditional reasons for an any-height ban included:

For high hazard buildings only (sleeping risks, schools and hospitals)

Adjoined buildings where a fire in one could affect another

Where a single staircase is used

Where there are concerns pertaining to means of escape

New construction projects only

Statements in support for an any-height ban included:

Cost must not be allowed to erode the level of safety that could be provided

Rough classification of reasons against an any-height ban include (extracting key words and phrases as appropriate):

Combustibility of contents is a greater issue

BS8414 and other standards measures are appropriate for discerning risk

Impractical and impossible to achieve

Construction industry would not be able to cope

Improvements in other areas by other means should solve this problem

Impact upon cost and wasted internal building space

Unnecessary - Insufficient evidence to support such a change

‘Holistic’ fire engineering should be allowed to solve safety issues

Stifles innovation in building methods and materials

Curtails use of more environmentally beneficial materials

Environmentally unsound

You must allow choice

Harm the drive for the use of more environmentally acceptable materials

Cladding is just one combustible material amongst many that needs to be dealt with

Conditional reasons against an any-height ban included:

This is only a high-rise issue

Unnecessary for low-risk buildings

Seek reduced combustibility specification, but not a ban

So long as standards and inspection improve

Statements against an any-height ban included:

No one died – this is over-regulation

Historically such a requirement has never been needed

An unscientific measure

The question confuses combustibility with flammability

Personally, I do not think anyone will find the reasons given for or against surprising. There is little doubt that the circumstances of the Barking fire were alarming. Its relevance to the question set really depends upon your stance on risk to occupants, and how much of that should be assured by the intrinsic material performance of the buildings components; how much is assured by other management and design methods; and how much trust you place in our ability to deliver accurately and honestly what was promised. Safety has always had to coexist with the pressures of cost and sustainability, but recent events have introduced the additional factors of mistrust and suspected complacency (rightly or wrongly) which inevitably leads us down a path to broad-brush-stroke musings of this type. Sadly, what we cannot ascertain is the classification of who voted for what. We all like to think of ourselves putting forward balanced arguments but is this a case of the knowledgeable practitioner versus the naïve idealist? Or of those intransigent to change and adherence to product not accepting what must happen to regain public confidence? As with many surveys, you realise on analysis that there are always other question(s) that could have been posed.

Dr Jim Glockling responds to recent survey on combustible materials