Fire Safety in High-Rise Buildings

Before the disaster at Grenfell Tower, the unsafe practices in the built environment including mid- and high-rise buildings had been increasing for years with respect to fire safety. Even with new legislation and the will of developers to design and build safe residential buildings, it will take years to get back to a place of where our buildings are of a high standard that goes beyond the minimum regulations.

The Protection Policy and Reform Unit was set up post-Grenfell by the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC), with two streams of work as their focus.

The Building Safety Team are focused on making buildings safe now and in the future. They assist the Home Office and the Ministry of Communities and Local Government in remediation and identifying buildings and provide NFCC capacity to deal with new and emerging demands. They are involved in the Fire Safety Bill, the Fire Safety Order consultation, and the Building Safety Bill, which will lead to the Building Safety Regulator, the body which will set the standard for the future to improve fire safety in high-rise buildings and ensure that another tragedy like Grenfell never happens again.

The Service Delivery and Improvement Team are focused on the longer-term role of protection for the fire and rescue service.  They are looking at how the new legislation will impact on business as usual for the fire service including aspects such as risk-based inspection plans and competency of enforcing officers.

Fire safety and high-rise cladding

Replacement of the Aluminium Composite Material (ACM) cladding following Grenfell is now written in policy and is a direct result of how badly a certain type of ACM burned on the building. However, people get confused and think that all ACM and Metal Composite Material (MCM) present a significant fire risk.

Of course, the cladding installed on Grenfell should not have been put on a building of that height, so it is a race against time to find out what other buildings have used the same materials. However, there are lots of components to the different ACM and MCM systems, so it is not straightforward to say whether a building using ACM or MCM is dangerous or not.

This issue is compounded because past record-keeping has been sloppy at best. Often, there is no paperwork on what type of cladding is on a building or what type of insulation it has. Progress is, therefore, slower than was previously hoped. We are still finding buildings today that have unsafe cladding and probably will be for some time.

Issues also arise around where you draw the line on safety, particularly when making that decision on buildings with only partial cladding, types of cladding that present a comparatively lower risk, or where there are combinations of different cladding systems on the same building. It can be particularly challenging to identify some types of systems without testing them, and this becomes compounded where a mixture of systems has been used on one building.

The individual components might have all been independently tested, but not as a combination. Decisions, therefore, have been made on whether to instruct to take it all off, regardless. It might be that certain types of ACM could have remained on buildings, but because of the confusion around combinations, a risk adverse approach has been taken. There may be long-term consequences of that blanket decision. If the industry can get testing regimes and certification right in the future, we can move to a more practical world, where safety is the priority alongside a pragmatic approach to cladding.

The protection board

Minister for Fire, at the time Nick Hurd commissioned Roy Wilsher, the then Chair of NFCC, to chair a new protection board. This was to provide assurance on high rise buildings in terms of safety for the public by the fire and rescue service. This was also to ensure that those responsible for buildings over 18m would consider what was on their external wall.  There was a perceived risk because of the media coverage around costs and temporary housing of residents that some of those responsible for these buildings would not want to check because of the cost implications.

The protection board was set up to ensure that all over 18 metre buildings would be inspected or assured by the fire and rescue service. Despite the recent pandemic, fire and rescue departments are on schedule to finish this assurance process by December 2021.

The biggest impact all this will have on the construction industry is the seemingly conflicting measures. One arm of the government is encouraging more building, and another is promoting safety as the priority. ‘Build them safe’ and ‘build them quick’ could be seen to be in conflict – safety should be paramount.

The Building Safety Regulator

The Building Safety Regulator (BSR) might be the beginning of an answer to this. Although they are starting with a small set of new buildings and gateway processes, they will eventually impact the whole of the industry on how they build in the future. Dame Judith Hackitt said that good and safe practices should be seen through the whole built environment. The BSR will have a big role in continuing to push for improvements in safety on construction sites, including the Golden Thread of accountability and traceability.

The key to all of this coming to fruition is collaboration and the Building Safety Regulator has laid out a framework that it wants to operate in with three gateways:

  • Sign off in planning,
  • Design and concept
  • Before occupation.

Whether we see these as practical or not, everyone in the industry needs to make sure the new framework is practical and workable.

Collaboration for safety

Collaboration will make sure sites are safe so work can continue. The ‘hard-stop’ that Dame Judith Hackitt mentioned will certainly be challenging. It may be difficult to get everything on a site completely finished and signed off before occupation, but a joined-up approach between developers and regulators will ensure that business models use regulations as a minimum standard, not just something to aspire to.

When it comes to the sale of residential apartments, developers need to sell on points of safety, like they do on other consumer products such as cars and not just how attractive they are. As an industry we need to look to ensuring high standards of safety even without the government having to mandate it – it should be seen as a given.

A change of attitude needs to occur throughout the industry, that includes how we improve buildings. Cladding was too often more about environmental impact rather than safety and changes should be made based on an improvement to high quality and safety, not just to not making things worse.

This article is based on an interview with Nick Coombe MBE, Deputy Head of Protection Policy and Reform Unit at the National Fire Chiefs Council.