Four Years on from Grenfell: A Recap of Fire Improvements in Construction
The tragic Grenfell Tower fire shocked the nation and brought into focus how much change the industry needed to commit to. The Grenfell Tower fire began during the night on the 14th of June 2017 and claimed the lives of 72 people. The fire travelled up the building due to the use of combustible ACM cladding.
The awful tragedy has ruined many people’s lives and continues to do so. Many residents continue to live in fear, worry and uncertainty as they feel the regulatory changes do not address current challenges, go far enough in guidance, do enough in funding or enforcing improvements.
Four years on, how much have the regulations, guidance and practices of the residential construction industry changed? While there have been some significant changes, it is clear that we must continue to learn, change and develop both the regulations and industry practices.
Changes to Approved Document B (AD B)
Approved Document B addresses fire safety. Recent changes to the document include improvements to preventing fire spread and measures that aim to increase the safety of occupants, firefighters and those close to the building in the event of a fire.
In 2018, amendments made to AD B “require that materials in external wall systems and balconies have a minimum performance of class A2-s1, d0 or A1 under the relevant European classification system set out in BS EN13501-1.” The changes came into force on 21st December 2018. This means that any balconies located within 1m of a relevant boundary, or on buildings which are higher than 18m, external wall systems and balconies must be entirely formed from non-combustible materials. Additionally, this bans the use of laminate glass in balcony balustrades despite being exempt in exterior windows and doors.
The Approved Document has also since been updated with amendments in 2019 and 2020. Most recent amendments can be found here: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/fire-safety-approved-document-b
Advice Notes from MHCLG
The MHCLG has issued various advice notes regarding fire safety since Grenfell. In June 2019, the MHCLG issued an advice note on balconies in residential buildings. Building owners should be aware of the materials used in the construction of balconies (regardless of height) and the potential for any horizontal and vertical fire spread due to their arrangement on the external wall.
The January 2020 consolidated advice note states “Particular attention should be paid to any risk of fire spread from balconies and other attachments containing combustible materials”. This consolidated note brings the Expert Panel’s advice together in a single document and supersedes the existing Advice Notes 1 to 22. The advice on the assessment of non-ACM external wall systems (previously Advice Note 14) has been updated and incorporated, and some of the advice within the previously published notes has been condensed to make it clearer.
Fire Safety Act
The Fire Safety Act became law on the 29th April 2021, after an extended back-and-forth period between the Commons and the Lords. The new law addresses the challenge of combustible cladding on high-rise residential buildings but has left some concerned about whether the expense of remedial works should fall on building owners or leaseholders.
The Fire Safety Act applies to the structure, external walls and any common parts of multi-occupancy residential buildings in England and Wales. It clarifies that references to the external walls in the Order apply to “anything attached to the exterior of those walls (including balconies)”. This means that building managers and owners will be required to include a fire risk assessment for these areas and take measures to reduce the risk of fire spread. If building owners and managers do not Fire and Rescue Authorities are able to use enforcement powers.
Building Safety Bill
The Building Safety Bill, once made law, combined with the Fire Safety Act will deliver some of the recommendations of the Hackitt Report commissioned after the Grenfell Tower fire. The Building Safety Bill tackles wider safety concerns while establishing methods of improved fire safety.
The Draft Building Safety Bill proposes various major reforms that are aimed at increasing accountability, quality and transparency in the construction industry and is expected to become law later this year. It will solidify the ban of combustible materials on the exterior of buildings over 18m, introduce a new construction products regulator, appoint the new building safety regulator, establish a new gateway system for the inspection and approval of high-risk residential buildings and introduce the ‘golden thread’ of information.
BS 8579:2020 Guide to the design of balconies and terraces
Published in August 2020 BS 8579 provides a clearer definition between balconies and terraces, which is important as regulations often refer to them separately. It also makes a clear distinction between open and enclosed balconies, previously stated by BS 9991 (relating to fire safety in residential buildings).
In line with the combustible cladding ban, BS 8579 recommends the use of non-combustible materials in balconies.
The standard also recommends that all balconies should include drainage and suggesting soffits be included in the design. The inclusion of soffits in balcony design not only provides a sleek finish to the balcony structure but also assists in limiting the spread of a balcony fire.
Laminate Glass & The Combustible Cladding Ban
There has been many confusing and difficult to solve challenges resulting from the ban and accompanying exemption list. Unfortunately, now more than 2 years on there remains uncertainty in particular surrounding laminate glass in balcony balustrades. The primary source of confusion is due to the use of laminate glass in windows and doors being included in the exemption list which is not the case in balcony balustrades.
Specifying laminate glass in balcony balustrades has been hotly debated, as the interlayer – while only 1.5 mm thick – is combustible, and therefore banned on high-rise buildings. However, prior to the ban, due to regulation 7, CDM, etc, the majority of the industry chose laminate glass over monolithic due to the safety risks in the event of broken panels. Effectively, with the ban on laminate glass, glass is no longer considered an option for balcony balustrading.
The London Plan
Introduced by the Mayor of London, the first London Plan was adopted in 2004 as a road map for the future development of the city. Each Local Planning Authority in London has to take the Plan into account when they make decisions on development proposals. The most recent Plan was amended in 2019 and runs to 2041.
Part B of Building Regulations covers fire safety compliance, and the London Plan runs alongside this. It states all planning proposals in London must “create a safe and secure environment which is resilient to the impact of emergencies including fire and terrorism”.
Policy D12 in the plan focusses on three important aspects of fire safety:
- Reducing risk to life
- Minimising the risk of fire spread
- Providing suitable means to evacuate and escape in the event of a building fire.
Interestingly, there is quite an emphasis on resilience and inclusive design and the policy is written in the same vein. It states that access and inclusion must be part of all fire safety design and evacuation procedures. High standards for fire safety are emphasised throughout the document, with an emphasis on development proposals constructed in a way that minimises the risk of fire spread.
Significant changes have been made to the regulations, standards, requirements and guidance to improve the safety of residents, reduce fire risk and fire spread. Much is happening on many fronts to change construction culture to address previous shortcomings. This extensive progress should positively improve safety and quality in residential buildings for future generations.
While considerable change has been made, there is much yet to happen and many in the industry still feel these changes don’t go far enough. With resident wellbeing at the heart of building design, these improvements are just the beginning of a lifelong commitment to improved fire safety.
All of us in the industry owe it to the public and the industry itself to drive higher standards of safety through the design, delivery and maintenance of buildings. Let’s all commit ourselves to building better, safer and ethically.