Fire safety needs a competence and responsibility restart in the UK to address green building and new energy fire risks. 50 building and fire experts discussed how construction techniques are changing, leading to a need for fire regulations which allow innovation whilst ensuring that fire safety is not compromised.
Daniel Joyeux, Efectis, opened the meeting, emphasising the need for multidisciplinary competence and training throughout the construction industry to ensure fire safety. Training of architects, engineers and building professionals needs to include understanding fire tests and materials fire behaviour. After 30+ years of relaxation, the UK today has probably among the most permissive building regulations but a loss of fire engineering competence.
Prof. José Torero Cullen, University College London, underlined the conclusions of the Grenfell fire enquiry that every one of the 72 fire deaths was avoidable (see this pinfa Newsletter). The enquiry has shown the failure of competence and responsibility at all levels of commissioning, ordering, façade insulation materials supply and installation. The deaths resulted from spread of fire, through the recently renovated façade, from one floor to others, by-passing the buildings fire compartmentalisation. For Prof. Cullen the answer is not more regulation: the UK’s announced obligations for a second staircase and sprinklers requirements will imply high costs for buildings and are not necessary. Building regulations must be flexible to enable new designs and materials for energy savings, but must ensure compartmentalisation in high-rise buildings.
Nick Summers, UK Office for Product Safety and Standards (OPSS), explained the Office’s new role as national regulator for construction products, responsible for enforcing product legislation (but not building safety which is the responsibility of other regulators such as the new Building Safety Regulator (BSR) in England). OPSS aims to raise confidence in construction products and will have powers to take action to ensure that businesses only place on the market products that are safe and that perform as claimed and intended. Early work has identified several products for initial review and potential future intervention, including fire doors, smoke dampers, cross laminated timber, plywood, cladding and insulation materials. The Building Safety Act 2022 provides the framework for new regulations covering the marketing and supply of construction products in the UK. The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) has overall policy responsibility and leads on developing the new regulations, with anticipated implementation not before 2024. The new regulations will ensure that all construction products on the UK market are covered by a regulatory framework, with businesses being required to ensure that the products they are marketing are safe.
Christopher Smith-Wong, BSI (British Standards Institute), underlined that many buildings in the UK today need fire safety renovation work, and at the same time fire safety is impacted by changes in building contents with new energy systems and lithium-ion batteries. British Standard BS 9991 “Fire safety in the design, management and use of residential buildings” is under revision. The draft submitted to public consultation in 2021, online here received 1 800 comments, a record for any British Standard, and will include major changes. A new BS 9792 “Fire risk assessment – Housing” is expected in 2024 and a possible future revision of BS 8414 for classification of external cladding systems is unlikely is until the findings of ongoing research programmes are published.
Alan Robb, Benx, façade system providers, explained that currently there is limited fire classification for whole rainscreen systems under BS EN 13501, although data is available for components. The variability of testing under this standard, including sometimes different fire loads, when combined with complimentary testing such as BS EN 1364/5, BS 8414 and even anomalies with the TGD 19 assessment, makes for a challenging environment when looking at façade systems holistically. Robb also explained that although BS 13501 in conjunction with BS 8414 testing is a recognised method of compliance testing for exterior wall systems there are issues around implementation and interpretation of this.
Nick Haughton, Sapphire Balconies, explained that there are today concerns with balcony fires. This was flagged in the BRE 2016 report “Fire safety issues with balconies”. Traditional concrete construction of flat balconies has been replaced by other materials and increasingly by glide-on construction, in order to reduce on-site labour at height. A1 or A2-d0 materials are today used for structure, decking, balustrade. However, balcony fires are often related to materials and furniture placed there by residents (e.g; a barbecue, and a motorbike on the balcony, Hicken Road Brixton 2016), cigarettes falling from the balcony above onto furniture, flammable materials used to ensure privacy …. Reinforced glass cannot be used because if it cracks it may fall. Laminated glass avoids this risk (held by the polymer layer) but is currently excluded by bans on non-combustible materials. Overall, the presentation called for a change in perspective in which balconies are no longer viewed as solely metal structures requiring a specific class A fire rating. Instead, the emphasis was placed on understanding the critical impact that residents’ use and furnishing of balconies can have on fire safety. By broadening the focus to include these aspects, balcony fire safety can be approached in a more comprehensive and effective manner, leading to safer and more sustainable balcony design for the future.
Sam Sambasivan, Transport for London (TfL), explained that fire performance of materials and smoke and toxic fumes, with minimisation of fire load, are critical for underground mass transit, because of the risks posed by high user density, limited and often non-compliant exits and moving potential fire sources (trains). Wall and ceiling elements must be A1 or A2 (BS 476 part 11), effectively excluding polymers. Combustible materials cannot be feasibly avoided in many small components or electronic equipment such as LED panels and these are subject to stringent fire testing. Even non-combustible materials are subject to smoke emission and gas toxicity testing. Compliant PIN flame retardant solutions exist for a range of polymers including epoxies, polycarbonate, polyester, polyamide, acrylic.
Mohamad El Houssami, Efectis, underlined the specific fire dangers posed by lithium-ion batteries. Battery fires result from poor battery design or manufacture, leading to failures and short-circuits, from accidental puncture, temperature, or from faulty wiring installations or misuse. On overheating, they evolve explosive and toxic gases, leading to major, new fire safety challenges in buildings, both for e-mobility devices brought into flats to charge, as well as cars in garages. Batteries in building contents are increasing both the number and the risks of fires.
Conference discussion points:
- The demand for building fire safety has increased, resulting in an increase in compliance checks, but these are often too late, after completion not during design.
- The “Golden Thread” of responsibility for fire safety at all levels is essential and must be re-established, covering building commissioning, design, contracting and implementation – installation.
- Concerns are raised about lack of fire safety knowledge, and competence in the construction sector. This is a key lynchpin to improvement and to addressing past short-comings. Initiatives are underway including industry’s Competence Steering Group the building Safety Regulator’s new Industry Competence Committee.
- The UK’s Construction Regulations are diverging away from EU law with the revision of the EU Construction Products Regulation (CPR). On the other hand, the UK market has already moved away from British Standards to EU CPR.
- Façades are now much safer as combustible materials are banned, but some flexibility is needed where fire-safe combustible materials can be shown not to increase risk, such as laminated glass.
Photo: Efectis façade testing
Efectis workshop “International Building Safety Workshop”, London 14th February 2023 https://efectis.com/en/international-safety-workshop-2/