On 14th June 2017, a fire spread through Grenfell Tower and over seventy people tragically lost their lives. The fire appeared to be accelerated by the design of the building’s exterior cladding leading to a national programme of testing. These tests have revealed widespread use of aluminium composite materials which in many cases do not meet the combustibility requirements of the current building regulations and guidance, raising concerns about not only the cladding systems used across the country but fire safety in general.
The government in response to the fire have asked for two reports; one based on a public enquiry chaired by Sir Martin Moore-Beck considering the buildings design, construction, modifications, inspection, management, as well as the fire, the cause, fire progress and the response of the emergency services.
In addition, the Government has asked Dame Judith Hackitt, previously Chair of the Health and Safety Executive, to undertake an independent review of the current building regulatory system regarding fire safety and the guidance provided with a particular focus on high rise residential and other complex buildings. This will be carried out with the aim of making recommendations that will ensure that there is a robust regulatory system for the future and provide further assurance to residents that the buildings in which they live are safe.
Dame Judith Hackitt has now published her interim report which states clearly that she is of the opinion that the current regulatory system for ensuring fire safety in high rise and complex buildings is not fit for purpose.
She suggests that the current regulations and guidance are too complex and unclear which can lead to confusion and misinterpretation in their application. This ambiguity also presents itself in the current system of product testing, marketing and quality assurance as the processes are not clear. There is a lack of clarity on the roles and responsibilities across the design, construction and maintenance of such buildings in respect of fire safety.
Not only is the Compliance, enforcement and sanction process weak, but the understanding and knowledge (competence) of those who design, build and manage such buildings is also inadequate due to a lack of change control in where buildings are being built contrary to how they are designed. Considering the possibility, if all above matters were rectified, Dame Judith also addresses the fact that the routes available for residents to escalate concerns are unclear and inadequate. There is also a lack of meaningful sanction on those who flout the current system which does not drive the right behaviours.
Dame Judith is now moving into the next phase of the review which is due to be completed in the Spring of 2018 and she intends to consider six broad themes, in respect of the following areas.
Regulation and guidance
The rules for ensuring high-rise and other complex buildings are built safe and remain safe should be more risk-based and proportionate.
Those responsible for high-risk and complex buildings should be held to account to a higher degree.
There should be a shift away from government solely holding the burden for updating and maintaining guidance, towards greater responsibility for the sector to specify solutions which meet the government’s functional standards.
Regulations and guidance must be simplified and unambiguous to provide clarity at all levels.
Roles and responsibilities
Primary responsibility for ensuring that buildings are fit for purpose must rest with those who commission, design and build the project. Responsibility and accountability must rest with clearly identifiable senior individuals and not be wholly dispersed through the supply chain in order to identify issues clearly with roles and responsibilities across the whole life cycle of a building clearly outlined.
There is a need to raise levels of competence and establish formal accreditation of those engaged in the fire prevention aspects of the design, construction, inspection and maintenance of high-rise residential and complex buildings.
Process, compliance and enforcement
There must be a “golden thread” for high-rise residential and complex buildings so that the original design intent, and any subsequent changes or refurbishment, are recorded and properly reviewed, along with regular reviews of overall building integrity.
There is also a need for stronger and more effective enforcement activity, backed up with sufficiently powerful sanctions in order to stop negligence.
Residents’ voice and raising concerns
Residents need to be reassured that an effective system is in place to maintain safety in their homes.
There must be a clear, quick and effective route for residents’ concerns to be addressed.
Quality assurance and products
Products must be properly tested and certified and there is a need to ensure oversight of the quality of installation work.
Marketing of products must also be clear and easy to interpret.
FORWARD-THINKING FIRE SAFTEY
The review covers necessary grounds yet as Health and Safety specialists, we insist further checks can be carried out to ensure mitigation of risks on property sites.
As we have seen, many building owners are relying, understandably, on a Completion Certificate issued by a Building Control Authority (be that Local Authority or Approved Inspector) as evidence that their property is safe to occupy. Whilst this certificate is a step in the right direction, as Health & Safety practitioners, we aim to be as cautious and forward thinking as possible. Dr. David Strong, former Managing Director of the Building Research Establishment writing in The Times suggests that the fire of Grenfell had exposed deep-seated failures in the Building Control system, questioning how the building had been issued with a completion certificate if it is not fully compliant with Building Regulations. This suggests that the introduction of competition within the building control industry had not been the most suitable way forward and may need to be reconsidered.
The review predominantly considers the Building Regulations 2010 and Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 covering England and Wales – however after carrying out work across the U.K., our reports suggest that these issues are not confined to England and Wales.
As we await to see the changes in health and safety fire regulations, it is crucial we take a step forward to ensure the best measures are put in place to minimise potential fire risks. Until then, we propose the following to all business owners as possible precautionary measures, especially in instances where cladding may still be under use;
- To undertake more detailed inspections of fire safety systems and features including compartmentation and fire stopping especially within high rise and complex buildings. This will not only minimise risk, but also ensure that at the handover stage at any given point, what was designed / approved not only is what is built but ensures the safety of residents and occupants.
- Review staff training and ensure all teams have sound and up-to-date knowledge of Approved Documents and Technical Handbooks in respect of definitions and guidance, in order to provide full clarity and mitigate risks.
- Undertake assessment of fire stopping and compartmentation to ensure they are sound and fit for purpose.
- Recommend to be thorough in ensuring the application and approval arrangements for fire safety work is sufficient i.e. preventing the use of Building Notices where fire safety is or can be affected by proposed works.
- A testing and review of current fire safety cause and effect approaches, with emphasis on a review of fire-safety even where a proposed building has been approved under previous regulations or guidance, and where such projects have not materially commenced in order to ensure that the most recent regulation or guidance is adhered to.
- Review of fire safety system, including alarms, ventilation and passive protection to ensure they are sound and fit for propose.
- A comprehensive evaluation of properties under suspicion of posing health and safety risks to identify and rectify level 3 outstanding risks immediately.
Dame Judith’s recommendations are a promising start. We eagerly await to see how far the proposed changes will lead to a significant strengthening of the regulatory system for ensuring fire safety in both high-rise and complex buildings, to ensure that it is fit for purpose not only for now but most importantly for the future.