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Tall Buildings Fire Safety: An Opportunity for the Commercial Sector

Dame Judith Hackitt’s recently released Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety is an important moment for the construction/property sector. The proposals represent the most far-reaching reform agenda the industry has faced for decades. Yet to an extent there are still some missed opportunities here. While the government has chosen to focus its recommendations on high-rise residential buildings, she also refers to other, “complex” buildings, so there’s a pressing need to improve fire safety across the board — which means commercial buildings too.

The times are changing

There are two key elements which have historically formed the basis of high rise fire safety in the commercial property sector: an annual fire risk assessment or review and a fire strategy which is usually written when the property was being built. This might have been enough in the past, but times change.

High-rise commercial buildings today are nothing short of ‘cities’ in the sky. The Leadenhall Building, with a floor area of nearly one million square feet, has a population of 6,500 — something approximating a small village. The 95-storey Shard is even bigger: it’s 1.3m square foot of floor space houses around 10,000 office workers and hotel guests, which is around the size of a small town.

One could argue that the traditional annual risk assessment and fire safety strategy is no longer fit-for-purpose in the context of this new landscape. Given the high volume of occupants in these buildings, they’re likely to experience a higher turnover of tenants, which can create extra risk if not managed properly. It’s inevitable that some tenants will be more responsible than others.

A holistic view

That makes it important to review fire risk assessments and fire strategies on a more frequent basis than has traditionally been the case. Out of these they should be developing effective fire safety management plans which translate in simple terms how those on-site can manage fire safety. Historically this has been a major failing of the sector: the fire risk assessment and strategy can add complexity and make it more difficult for those at the frontline to manage safety effectively.

At Ark we focus on listening to and understanding the requirements of our clients, unencumbered by current guidelines and assumed best practice. It’s clear to us that fire safety engineers are good at fire safety but not understanding property, and vice versa. Sometimes it takes a third party like us to stand back and take a holistic view at property management fire safety, in order to provide the clarity the sector needs.

Three-point plan

To recap our recommendations, the commercial property sector needs to:

1)     Conduct traditional fire risk assessments more frequently.

2)     Ensure fire strategies are up-to-date and applicable.

3)     Make sure there’s a simple, pragmatic fire management plan available so those on-site can manage fire safety effectively.

The Grenfell Tower tragedy has rightly focused the government’s efforts on improving fire safety in the high-rise residential sector. However, we need to go further by also improving and extending best practice in the commercial sector. There may not come a more opportune time than now.

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