Some early regulatory changes have started to come through. In February, many were surprised when the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government moved to include the use of desktop studies in its proposed amendments to Approved Document B, the fire safety guidance accompanying Building Regulations, for the first time. However, debate about the proper use of this route to regulatory compliance remains.
Yet more sweeping changes to fire safety frameworks are anticipated this month, when Dame Judith Hackitt’s final report on Building Regulations and Fire Safety is expected to arrive.
With the pressure on to meet the nation’s housing demand and provide reassurance to residents, local authorities and registered housing providers cannot afford to become lost in this evolving regulatory landscape. Clarity is important for the many housing providers needing to refurbish existing high-rise stock as well as for those building to deliver the 300,000 homes annually that our country needs. Guidance on best practice must start with their design and construction partners, offering public sector bodies peace of mind that the homes they provide are both fire safe and meet duty of care obligations.
Making the case for real-world testing
The interim Hackitt report, published in December, called for a cultural shift across the housing supply chain away from doing things cheaply and passing on risk and responsibility. Particularly amid shifting regulations, the responsibility to provide clarity begins at the very start of the build process with designers and material manufacturers.
Crucially, we need to see more real-world testing of material and their fire performance in systems. Where this is not practically possible, realistic test data and a scientific understanding of fire should form the bedrock of desktop studies, engineered judgements and assessments.
The science behind compartment and structural fires is complex. No two incidents are the same due to varying causes of fire, the fire load, the building in question and its design. This makes the responsibility of specifying fire protection systems especially challenging, and official regulations should only ever be used as a minimum baseline. Absolute certainty can never be guaranteed when dealing with fire, but testing processes that closely mirror real-world conditions can improve our ability to anticipate how systems will perform in a genuine incident.
Considering the interaction of materials is critical. Current regulations tend to deal with design elements on an individual basis, but a fire’s behaviour is influenced by the performance and interaction of building systems as a whole. For example, how is a timber structure’s fire performance affected when it is abutted to a concrete frame construction? Other design details requiring careful consideration include the relationship between walls and ceilings, as well as the positioning of load-bearing elements.
Material providers need to create testing regimes that study the performance of products working together but also how their performance will potentially change throughout their lifecycle. The partition system in a modern apartment will rarely mirror standard formats. It will be penetrated by plug sockets, telephone wires or television cables, potentially altering the way the overall system performs.
It is hard to model for all eventualities but, at the very least, where full-scale system testing is not viable, an appreciation of the complexity of building fires and system performance in the desktop study, engineered judgement and assessment process is vital. We need to build up as much data as possible to allow housing providers, specifiers and design professionals to make informed decisions.
The true cost of value engineering
The scale of modern construction projects means that every contributor is expected to deliver efficiencies but cutting costs or ‘value engineering’ should never mean cutting corners when it comes to fire safety. Real-world testing can only raise standards if the fire protection systems that pass more robust development regimes are identical to the systems that are ultimately installed in a project. That means keeping to specifications and avoiding switching in alternative products or components.
Substituting even one specified material for a cheaper substitute can compromise an entire fire protection system’s performance. There is no guarantee that the new material will behave in the same way as the one originally tested. Where different materials are required, extra time must be allowed to verify the impact of the changes.
A basic understanding of technical performance and the reasoning behind the original specification should be made clear to partners across the supply chain. This relies on knowledge sharing from material manufacturers and specifiers to the contractors who install the systems and, ultimately, local authorities and registered providers. Fire protection systems are only as good as the people responsible for their design, installation and ongoing maintenance so establishing competency within these processes is vital.
Preparing for the future
More than ever the public sector needs guidance on fire safety measures from supply chain partners, who, in turn, must adopt a robust approach to material performance testing. A more sophisticated understanding of building fires should inform the entire design and construction process, ultimately allowing local authorities and registered providers to offer much-needed reassurance and peace of mind to their residents.
It’s time to move beyond assumptions and adopt testing regimes which are transparent and accessible. Building design and safety should always be informed by credible data reflecting real-world conditions.