Jan 22, 2019 Last Updated 9:19 AM, Jan 22, 2019

Fire safety: now is the time for architects to take back ownership of design and construction

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Duncan Voice, Store Manager at Insulation Superstore, outlines why architects need to learn a valuable lesson from the Grenfell Tower tragedy and take back control of specification.

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In the wake of the Grenfell tower tragedy, there has been a dramatic shift in attitudes towards the role of architects in construction. The avoidable disaster has forced the industry to take design quality more seriously, whilst also demonstrating how high-quality build specifications can not only protect occupants, but save lives.

A post-Grenfell review is currently underway, spearheaded by the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), with RIBA also calling for a comprehensive reappraisal of Approved Document B and related fire standards. Although the official outcome is still yet to be determined, there will undoubtedly be a focus on the fact that components such as cladding, insulation and fixing methods must be considered holistically as part of a robust fire safety build strategy.

Traditionally, architects have always played a significant role in the specification of materials; however, the rise of complex ‘design-build’ contracts is increasingly leaving them powerless within the construction supply chain – with no say or input on budget cuts or the substitution of cheaper alternative products.

Following Grenfell, it is crucial that architects become leaders on fire safety, as well as taking responsibility for their specifications, considering the impact of individual components across an entire build while future-proofing their designs by using non-combustible materials. This is an issue focused on care, protection and long-term build performance, working to ensure tragedies like Grenfell do not happen again.

A vital lesson

A critical factor in the failure of Grenfell was the cost-saving substitution of an FR-grade aluminium composite material cladding for an unrated grade with a polyethylene core, which has since proved combustible in Government tests. In addition, the synthetic insulation used on the building was made from polyisocyanurate, which is known to burn when exposed to heat. Initial reports from the disaster also revealed that the insulation chosen for the £10m tower refit was acceptable for use on tall buildings, but only when combined with incombustible cement panels.

Individually, both the cladding and insulation materials can prove problematic, but when used together, they can be, and were, catastrophic. Detailed analysis of public documents has also revealed a complex chain of contractors and sub-contractors, which has raised the question of who was ultimately responsible for fire safety during the refurbishment.

95% of buildings screened and covered by the recent Government BS 8414 testing program failed to meet current fire safety standards, indicating that ambiguity and confusion are still prominent across the industry. There are two major fire components of fire safety to consider; stopping fire ignition and intensity, as well as preventing it from spreading. These are essential factors when focusing on a building’s exterior envelope, with all components of a wall contributing to its fire performance.

A new way forward

In the past, architects have been able to ensure that specified materials were used as part of a unified design strategy. However, facing increasing industry pressure to cut costs, this isn’t the reality with performance specifications enabling alternative materials to be used – often selected by the developer, contractor or sub-contractors. This shift in build processes has meant that during construction there is no longer a single appointed professional who is responsible for ensuring that the specified materials perform when placed under pressure from potential risks such as fire, heat and smoke.

Designers now need to take responsibility for any non-standard build slip-ups. This includes understanding how materials work together in a more holistic way, as well as their influence on key build factors such as fire safety, attention to detail, environmental impact and workmanship. Informed specification decisions should be based on not just budget requirements or their performance in isolation, but on how components interact across the entire build and with each other.

Getting serious

Architects play a vital role in ensuring tragedies like Grenfell do not happen again, making fire safety not just an extra consideration but, instead, a vital component in the early design stages. This is essential when protecting a building’s exterior, evaluating and selecting products based on their behaviour with other structural elements, the surrounding environment and its occupants.

For example, if a non-combustible insulation product cannot be applied uniformly across a facade, it is the architect’s responsibility to ensure the implementation of cavity barriers to stop, or at least slow, fire spreading. Non-combustible insulation can also provide an element of building preservation during fires, offering an extra opportunity to protect its inhabitants.

This is supported by recommendations from RIBA, which has advised that architects should act as a single point of responsibility from project conception to completion, as this would prevent key specification decisions (such as the use of fire-retardant cladding) being transferred to contractors during the build process. It would also mean that the materials specified not only work together cohesively as part of a wider fire safety strategy but that they are also correctly installed and maintained to regulatory standards.

Whilst reviews and investigations are still ongoing, there is no doubt that fire safety regulations and standards will become more stringent and, undoubtedly, architects will be expected to play a greater role within not just design, but also construction. Designers now have the opportunity to educate developers and contractors on the importance of incorporating high-quality specifications and fire protection measures into building design at an early stage. Whilst budget cuts are unlikely to be eradicated overnight, Grenfell serves as a lesson to all those within the industry on how cost-cutting can potentially cost lives.

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