Where it's due
Serious issues surrounding competence, compliance and enforcement have plagued the built environment for years, with research showing that the number of prosecutions actioned under the Building Regulations has fallen to around a quarter of the figure it was pegged at more than a decade ago.

This same research, carried out on behalf of the Local Government Association (LGA) in a survey sent out to every local authority building control team, also reported that it cost an average of £10,750 for a local authority’s building control team to bring a prosecution to court, even though the average award was only £670. Equally concerning was the disclosure that average fines were coming in at around £5,100, despite perpetrators benefitting by an estimated £12,000, even after fines had been handed down. Recent developments, however, have demonstrated that industry reform is not only possible, but also now appears to be within touching distance.

A renewed sense of optimism amongst industry stakeholders is being encouraged by the proposed introduction of a new building safety regulator, tasked with the job of ensuring that both existing and new building safety requirements are correctly enforced. On top of this, a significant number of industry stakeholders have taken it upon themselves to develop their own plans to improve standards in specific industry sectors, introducing new processes and procedures and, importantly, demanding proof of competency without exception.

These cross industry efforts to raise standards and drive a change in culture are clearly needed if we are to rid the sector of the disingenuous minority that continue to cut corners and ignore best practice, eroding trust and damaging reputations.

Increased scrutiny

The built environment and fire industries have been subjected to intense scrutiny over the past few years – firstly in Dame Judith Hackitt’s 2018 report, Building a Safer Future, and subsequently in the Raising the Bar interim report from 2019, the draft Building Safety Bill released in July 2020 and, most recently, the final Setting the Bar report delivered by the Competence Steering Group (CSG).

Many of the recommendations in the original Hackitt report related to higher risk residential buildings defined as high rise (ten or more storeys), multi occupancy buildings. In these settings, third party certification (TPC) schemes ensure quality and competency, affording the end user the confidence that their safety critical system is fit for purpose.

The Setting the Bar report repeatedly places emphasis on third party assessment, stating: ‘In further developing proposals for competence assessment the CSG has agreed a principles-based approach in determining the extent that third party assessment of individuals should be required of persons working on higher-risk buildings in the future.

‘There is absolute agreement that everyone working on in-scope buildings must work within a system of competence assessment and management to ensure they are competent to deliver safe outcomes.’

This report also suggests that installers should retain a core knowledge of fire safety in buildings, making it clear that individuals working on life safety systems should possess the skills, knowledge and expertise set out in the competence frameworks developed by the industry.

Over time, it is expected that these new protocols will bring about significant cultural change, resulting in newly constructed and refurbished buildings built to the highest possible quality standards by a skilled, knowledgeable and competent workforce.

Smoke control

We are all aware that in the event of a building fire, deadly smoke can reduce visibility, cause confusion and eventually overcome occupants. Unless smoke is controlled and properly ventilated, escape routes can become inaccessible, both for occupants trying to escape and for firefighters entering the building.

As a critical life safety system, it is vital that smoke control solutions are installed and maintained by a competent person with the necessary expert knowledge, in order to ensure optimum performance should a fire break out in the building.

The primary objective of the smoke ventilation system is to protect the staircase and the common circulation areas, but the performance criteria and the design of the system vary according to the layout of the common corridor or lobby. Extracting heat and smoke away from the staircase is critical for safe firefighting operations, as it results in a relatively clean air path for firefighters to approach the area affected by fire.

Mechanical smoke ventilation is often used as an alternative to passive systems. The benefits of such systems include specified extraction rates, low wind sensitivity, known capability to overcome system resistances and reduced shaft cross sections. Requirements of mechanical systems include a maintained power supply, fire resistant wiring, temperature classified equipment and a standby fan. 

System type is heavily dependent on building design and purpose – therefore consultation with the regulatory authorities may assist in achieving an appropriate design. Where smoke control systems interact with other systems, any interaction in a fire situation should not compromise the operation and effectiveness of the smoke control system.

Final commissioning cannot be properly completed until all finishes are complete and the building is virtually ready for occupation, with all services, walls and doors in place. All the more reason to ensure the build quality is right, as resealing the construction at this stage can be difficult, expensive and time consuming.

When a fire takes hold, a well designed and correctly installed smoke control system can keep escape and access routes free from smoke, facilitate firefighting operations and delay or possibly prevent flashover. On top of this, the systems can reduce the risk of the fire developing further, protect the contents of the building from smoke damage, reduce the risk of structural damage to the building and, most importantly, save lives.

Guaranteeing competency by independently verified qualifications helps recognise how vital these systems are to consistent delivery of safe outcomes.


Member certification

As part of a sustained campaign to raise standards in the sector, all Smoke Control Association (SCA) members who install smoke control systems are now required to obtain certification under the SDI 19 IFC Certification (SDI 19) scheme. This enables them to demonstrate that they are suitably skilled and experienced in fire strategy verification, system design, installation and commissioning in accordance with relevant standards, industry guidelines and smoke ventilation BS/EN product standards documents.

With an increasing number of contractors installing smoke control systems, assessing and controlling competency is more important than ever. Since smoke control systems are designed and installed for life safety purposes, the adequacy and reliability of the smoke control system is paramount. The SDI 19 scheme benefits end users and their insurers by assisting the selection of competent and experienced smoke control contractors.

Developed to ensure a suitable level of competency in fire strategy verification, system design and the installation of smoke control systems, the scheme also covers the contractor’s ability to offer and provide an appropriate level of service and maintenance to the client following installation and commissioning, commensurate with the type, size and use of the building.

As an independent UKAS approved certification scheme facilitated by TPC provider IFC Certification, SDI 19 certification helps to raise the bar in terms of quality and competency and gives the end user an assurance that their safety critical system will be fit for purpose. All SDI 19 certified contractors have demonstrated that their trained staff consistently adhere to industry best practice and fully appreciate the importance of correct installation, inspection and maintenance.

With all SCA members signed up to stringent membership criteria, including a requirement to apply for and receive SDI 19 certification, everyone involved with the SCA is fully committed to meeting the highest industry standards. We will continue to push for competency and best practice at every opportunity through schemes such as SDI 19,which provide proof that a company is competent and has met certain standards. This offers the end user peace of mind and delivers the independent verification that is set to become commonplace across the industry.