Regulating for resilience

Taking a detailed look at the development of Building Regulations, Jonathan O’Neill OBE, considers what more needs to be done for both life safety and property protection.

Unlike many of our European neighbours and international partners, since their introduction, Building Regulations across the UK (and recognising the devolved differences) have focused exclusively on life safety. Where property protection provisions were permissible through the Local Acts, they were repealed in 2012; and in Building Bulletin 100, which covers schools, where we understand that the Department for Education is now planning to go ahead with its proposal to remove the requirement for sprinkler protection in the overwhelming majority of new schools. If this is true, specific property protection provisions could have all but have disappeared from the Regulations covering England by the autumn of this year.

All this is set against a background of the pressure to use more sustainable, thermally efficient building materials, which is seeing a much greater use of combustible products in the building process. The government have already recognised the potential environmental benefits of wood and have committed to increase the use of timber construction, albeit they have recognised the gaps in knowledge with regards to the fire performance of engineered timber, particularly in relation to higher risk buildings.

They have commissioned further research however, and the direction of travel appears to be set, but whether the government follows the path of other countries such as United States and mandate the installation of sprinklers in timber buildings of more than three stories is doubtful. The Beechmere residential complex fire in Cheshire in 2019 where the homes and possessions of 150 pensioners were completely destroyed should have acted as a warning of the dangers of housing the vulnerable in timber framed buildings. While regulations are yet to change, government research has also been commissioned looking specifically at protecting the elderly. We will await to see its conclusions.

As we know post-Grenfell, the Hackitt Review has recommended root and branch reform of the regulatory process and legislation for high rise residential buildings and legislation, and the Public Inquiry made some initial recommendations on fire safety. Legislation is currently in the process of being finalised through the Fire Safety Act 2021 and the Building Safety Bill, both of which contain provisions which should improve fire protection and fire safety, and these in turn should improve resilience in the built environment. The greater emphasis on the design process and strengthening of the regulatory process are all welcome developments which are broadly acknowledged should have a positive impact on property protection.

The government has acknowledged the problem highlighted by Dame Judith Hackitt of testing for safety critical products by establishing the Office for Product Safety and Standards (OPSS), which strengthens the powers to act against manufacturers, importers, and distributors who market unsafe products. It also introduces a statutory list of safety critical products, for which manufacturers will be required to declare performance, to ensure that this is consistently met, and to require construction products to be safe. Requiring the provision of reliable performance information for more construction products, will clearly support end-users to make informed choices about the products they use to comply with building regulations, and this too should improve building resilience. However, the FPA has long history of being a strong advocate for the independent third-party certification of fire safety products and services, which stems from our insurance heritage.

Where reliable, robust, well-designed, proficiently installed, and regularly maintained fire protection systems have formed part of a general risk management strategy, insurers have used third-party accreditation as a means of demonstrating product and system performance and competent workmanship. With Dame Judith Hackitt also highlighting issues of competence and the large fire trade associations such as the Fire Industry Association (FIA), Association for Specialist Fire Protection (ASFP), and British Automatic Fire Sprinkler Association (BAFSA) all insisting that their members are third-party accredited, it is frustrating that neither the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) or the OPSS appear to have any enthusiasm for making this a mandatory requirement for fire protection products and services. More worrying has been their lack of engagement with the Fire Sector Federation’s (FSF) suggestion that they allow those specifying independently accredited thirdparty manufacturers, installers, and fire risk assessors a statutory defence in law against prosecution. In April 2021 the government commissioned Paul Morrell and Anneliese Day QC to conduct an independent review of construction products testing, and it is understood that the report is with ministers. Let’s hope that it recognises the value of third-party certification and that the government acts accordingly. As insurers have demonstrated over many years, independent third-party certification demonstrates competence and gives an assurance of quality, both of which contribute to improving resilience.

While all of this work is vital, and despite the justifiable criticism by the Lakanal Coroner, Dame Judith Hackitt, and the Public Inquiry, Approved Document B (ADB) remains the primary influencer for resilient fire safety in the built environment, but despite enormous changes to the way we build and the materials we use, it hasn’t seen a major revision for nearly 20 years, and these are the regulations that govern us now! It’s true that since the Grenfell Tower fire that the government has introduced new rules on the use of desktop studies, banned the use of combustible materials on external walls of residential or institutional buildings over 18m, and lowered the height threshold for the provision of sprinklers in residential buildings from 30m to 11m; all of which have been broadly welcomed and all should have a positive impact on property protection.

However, a full Technical Review of ADB was announced in 2018 with the workplan shown below. As can be seen in this table, the call for evidence that was a precursor to this review saw several respondents calling for the guidance to consider property protection in addition to life safety. It is encouraging that the government has recognised this and have commissioned a limited research project to consider this further. However, it should be recognised that the introduction of property protection and the avoidance of economic loss within the scope of ADB would represent a significant shift in policy, and could start a completely different debate on political doctrine and cost. With the numbers who die or who are injured in fire thankfully so low, the cost benefit analysis based on lives saved becomes more difficult, and from experience, decisions around increased provision for property protection (such as the requirement to install sprinklers in single storey retail stores) tend to be political. Many remain sceptical as to whether this kind of intervention fits the current government’s mindset.

From what has been witnessed from the evidence that has been given to the Grenfell Tower Inquiry, the importance of robust compartmentation (an issue that has been consistently raised by fire safety professionals for many years) has been clearly demonstrated as critical. While it is encouraging that this is being included in the current review (as is a project looking at modern methods of construction) where compartmentation and the protection of voids is so important, there are growing calls for this research to go further. It seems incredible to some that new building technologies can be introduced without a full understanding of their performance in fire, which is clearly as important to the design community as it is to the fire and rescue service when they are called to intervene – perhaps large-scale testing would assist with this.

The Fire Safety Act will require that the fire risk assessments will look at the external walls and structure of a building, to ensure sufficient mitigating measures are in place. In practice, this will require them to consider the fire performance of the materials present in the structure of external wall systems and the performance of the system itself, and this should have a positive impact on property protection as well as life safety. Both the Act and the Building Safety Bill contain new and specific requirements to ensure those responsible for the safety of residents from fire take all the necessary steps to identify and reduce risk. Dame Judith Hackitt recommended the appointment of a named Building Safety Manager to further enhance and improve fire safety management and resilience in higher risk buildings – an initiative which was broadly welcomed and formed a separate workstream for the Construction Industry Council’s Competence Steering Group. That requirement was recently and surprisingly dropped by ministers steering the Bill through its final stages. We await clarification of intent here, because while the requirement for the role may have disappeared, it is widely acknowledged that the function will need to remain.

In conclusion, five years after the biggest loss of life from fire in a single incident since the Second World War, where is the government in supporting a resilient fire-safe built environment? Most industry professionals see the limitations in a strategy that centres on the principle of evacuation before collapse. However, the decision by the Department for Education to loosen the property protection requirements of Building Bulletin 100 suggests that maybe this is the direction of travel. The resilience of the built environment faces multiple challenges in the coming years, including modern methods of construction and the increased use of combustible materials in the building process. For these to be addressed will require a construction sector prepared to enter into constructive dialogue, and government acknowledgment of the true cost of fire, and that property protection generally enhances life safety. The property protection project in the Technical Review of ADB may be the necessary catalyst, but that was four years ago; reputationally, can we really afford another disaster like the one we had in 2017?

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Jonathan O'Neill OBE is Managing Director of the Fire Protection Association.