Dr Jim Glockling

On 19 November the FPA reported concerning news that there were questions over thoroughly missleading documents in the Grenfell inquiry. Read Dr Glockling's thought provoking response. 

With the revelation from the Grenfell inquiry that manufacturers of foam insulation products may have falsified test evidence on the fire performance of their products, there is a need to look further afield to the potential ramifications of this for other building and occupancy types.

The press noted how these companies may have carried out tests that involved either concealing components in a manner designed to facilitate a pass and/or using materials that were not as described in the test reports’ ("Makers of Grenfell cladding abused testing regimes, inquiry told", The Guardian, 5 November 2020), and since then further details of how this was done have been revealed by employees.

In respect of FPA’s Know Your Building campaign, there may now be a need to re evaluate how much we really know about our buildings now the prospect for dishonesty and deceit has been raised – where we thought we had comfort in the material selections made and their accompanying certification paperwork, now there may be doubt. For clarification, this is a different issue to the application of wrong products on a building: this refers to the selection of the correct material by name and capability, but also application of a product using that same name that might not have been used to achieve the stated fire performance accolades – ‘counterfeit’ might best describe the situation.

Foam insulation products are used extensively in large building construction and feature greatly in warehousing, DIY stores, sports facilities and institutions such as schools and hospitals. Including, PIR, PUR, and phenolic foams, they may be used as the insulation in building envelopes of the rainscreen cladding type, as Grenfell had, or as the core of metal faced panels (sandwich panels) used for the construction of large sheds on a steel frame. The fire performance of rainscreen systems that involve combustible components is made using the BS 8414 test – this is the test regime around which suspicion of foul play now revolves. The equivalent test for sandwich panel systems is an insurer standard, LPS 1181. In both test regimes it is usual for the product suppliers to be closely involved in the testing, and it might be foolhardy not to consider that if cheating and substitution is proven for one, then it would not be unreasonable to question if deception occurred for the other.

A building’s resilience to fire, and that of the business and or services conducted within it, can be a complex array of measures, which includes material selection and management measures. Complexity aside, a good starting point is always the selection of non combustible and higher performing materials used in the structure, insulation, and cladding of that building. Clever selections at this stage not only reduce the susceptibility of the building to fire at birth, but can be more resilient over the building’s lifespan as it suffers wear and tear, as well as modification.

So what advice can be offered to building owners going forward? We are in the extraordinary situation where the loss of trust in the advisers you may have relied on has now expanded to include the manufacturers of some key building products, and perhaps even the certification bodies that were tasked with representing your interests and assuring quality. There is an urgent need for someone in every business, school and hospital to step forward and ‘do the detail’. Audit everything you have and seek assurance directly from the manufacturer that its specification was not reliant upon now possibly  discredited tests that may have used substituted or altered materials, or unrealistic and overly protective configurations. Evidence of assured ‘pedigree’ may be difficult or impossible, but to not ask the question now would be wrong.

Moving forward, and in full knowledge of what might have been happening, there is better scope for ensuring all future materials supplied for new builds and alteration are accompanied by proper test evidence – things will only improve with challenge; keep asking the questions until something substantial changes to warrant a review of the trust we place in the systems designed to ensure fire safe, and business and service resilient, buildings.

Take the FPA’s Fire Risk Blind Spot calculator to find out how much you know about your building.