All wrapped up
28 May 2022
IN ITS role as the UK’s national standards body, the British Standards Institution recently published a new Code of Practice for the fire risk appraisal of external wall construction and cladding of existing multi-storey and multi-occupied residential buildings. Mike Fox examines why the publication of PAS 9980:2022 could be the moment when the Government finally abandoned short-termism in its post-Grenfell approach to legislation and regulation and began to focus instead on long-term outcomes.
Since June 2017 and the tragedy that unfolded at the 24-storey Grenfell Tower on the Lancaster West Estate in London’s North Kensington, it’s fair to suggest that the Government’s approach towards issues concerning fire safety has been one of reaction to the mainstream news agenda, the substantial outpouring of public opinion and, of course, the findings of Dame Judith Hackitt’s Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety.
Parliament’s reactions have been both necessary and welcome in equal measure, but have also led to a degree of confusion and uncertainty in a fire industry that has often seemed as though it’s something of a rabbit caught in the headlights. Put simply, the industry knows full well that something needs to be done, but isn’t quite sure what that something is. It’s also an industry left constantly wondering if vitally important matters – regulation and legislation among them – might change again tomorrow.
While a good many buildings are now fully remediated thanks to them having been summarily stripped of potentially defective cladding or, at the very least, fitted with new and upgraded fire and evacuation systems, a clear long-term strategy from the Government has been the overriding necessity.
That strategy finally came into being when the Fire Safety Act 2021 was passed into law on Thursday 29 April last year, in turn duly showing us all the intended direction of travel.
Now, PAS 9980:2022 is highlighting how we can reach the desired destination. The Publicly Available Specification is by no means perfect, and there are still several questions to be answered, but at least it’s a start.
PAS 9980:2022 explained
PAS 9980:2022 Fire Risk Appraisal of External Wall Construction and Cladding of Existing Blocks of Flats is an all-new Code of Practice for England and Wales, prescribing how the fire risk appraisal of the external wall construction in all residential buildings of multiple occupation (ie two units or more) should be conducted. In particular, the document outlines how the cladding of existing multi-storey buildings should be treated and defines what is – and, just as importantly, what isn’t – fit for purpose.
In essence, the primary purpose of the Fire Safety Act 2021 and PAS 9980:2022 is to close a loophole, made glaringly obvious by the tragic fire at Grenfell Tower (which claimed 72 lives and injured 70 other individuals), that left external walls beyond the scope of fire risk assessments and appraisals.
Developed by a Government-appointed Steering Group of experts in the fields of construction, fire safety and housing (including representatives from the Building Research Establishment, the Construction Products Association, the Consumer and Public Interest Network, the Fire Industry Association, the Institution of Fire Engineers, Local Authority Building Control, the London Fire Brigade, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, the National Fire Chiefs Council, the National Social Housing Fire Safety Group, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, the Scottish Government and also the Society of Façade Engineering), the Code of Practice is intended solely for use by certified fire engineers and other similarly qualified building professionals who are undertaking a fire risk appraisal of external walls.
It’s expected that the key outputs of any such appraisal will also be useful to those for whom such appraisals are conducted, so too those taking decisions based upon their outcome. Those in scope include advice agencies, architects and architectural technologists, building control bodies, building owners/landlords (and others with functional responsibilities for management of the external walls and cladding under a building’s lease), building surveyors, contractors, façade engineers, Fire and Rescue Authorities, fire risk assessors, insurers, local housing authorities, managing agents, facility managers, project managers, valuers and mortgage lenders.
PAS 9980:2022 governs not only the materials that should be used for cladding (where it’s present), but also the method of installation and how cladding interacts with other elements of the building’s construction.
The methodology set out in PAS 9980:2022 uses a five-step assessment process to help the assessor identify all risk factors and assign a risk rating to the building. The guidance contained within the British Standards Institution’s document is scalable according to the size and complexity of each individual building. It’s worth noting here that not all buildings will require a full and intrusive external risk assessment, although this is a judgement that only a qualified expert should be making.
In the interests of resolving any issues, provision is also made for the assessor to outline any steps that can – or, indeed, must – be taken in order to remediate the building under inspection.
Finally, and in a welcome move, PAS 9980:2022 affords clear guidance on the skills and competency of individuals needed to undertake ‘fit and proper’ risk assessments under the new rules. This is important as it’s a vital cog in the wheel when it comes to rebuilding trust in the fire industry, but also presents challenges as it emphasises the shortage of individuals available with the right skills and qualifications. That’s an issue which is going to take some years to resolve, even with a new-found dedication to training and Continuing Professional Development in the sector.
While PAS 9980:2022 will almost certainly create more work for external fire risk assessors and chartered engineers, it may conversely reduce the workload of those charged with putting right problems such as defective cladding and compromised external voids, etc. This is simply because, in the absence of any definitive guidance, many perfectly competent experts have chosen to err on the side of caution. That has resulted in increased – and sometimes unnecessary – expenses for building owners and leaseholders alike.
The publication of PAS 9980:2022 was accompanied by the withdrawal of the Consolidated Advice Note, which was introduced by the Government’s Independent Expert Advisory Panel in the immediate aftermath of Grenfell Tower and which, while well-intentioned at the time, has come to be viewed as somewhat overzealous by many professionals in the fire and construction industries. This means that the measures building owners ought to take to review cladding and fire safety are now more measured, which should reduce the need for superfluous expenditure in the future, allowing fire risk assessors and building owners to focus their efforts – and, indeed, their funds – where they’re most needed.
Speaking at the launch of PAS 9980:2022, Michael Gove (Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities) argued that “too many buildings are declared unsafe [by those] seeking to profit from the current crisis”. On the contrary, I would argue that these recommendations have most often been made by qualified experts who are either unsure of the precise meaning of current guidelines or otherwise nervous about signing-off on a given building that one of their colleagues might designate as being ‘at risk’.
Regardless of the motivation, if we adopt an overly cautious approach towards building safety beyond what’s necessary, this takes up precious resources among fire industry experts, not to mention skilled construction engineers and operatives. The fact that PAS 9980:2022 affords clear standards and directives is very welcome indeed.
With millions of people across the UK still living in blighted buildings almost five years after the Grenfell blaze, many of whom are unable to afford the required remediation works or have chosen to take on their developers or management companies in court, much is now riding on the ability of PAS 9980:2022 to propel matters forward.
Some buildings that were labelled high-risk under the Consolidated Advice Note may no longer be considered dangerous under the PAS 9980:2022 guidance, but even in these cases it will take months or even years for every building to be reappraised and freed from the danger list.
Although less likely, it’s also feasible that some buildings previously considered safe could now be classed as ‘at risk’ under the new guidelines.
As previously stated, the biggest challenge for the industry is in meeting the demand for external fire risk assessments, and particularly so intrusive cladding surveys.
By way of example, let’s take the internal vertical voids that were created between the original walls and the cladding on Grenfell Tower, and which are believed to have been a primary factor in the rapid transmission of the fire. It stands to reason that issues like this one cannot be identified by a simple visual check even if that procedure were to be conducted by the most experienced expert. Such a procedure would require scaffolding, safety gear or even a crane to identify the issue and be far more time-intensive for the assessor.
Even deciding whether a detailed external fire risk assessment is needed at all is subjective and open to interpretation, which means that you may have to hire an expert simply to tell you that you don’t need an expert. This will depend on numerous factors such as the age of the building under consideration, the age and make-up of the cladding, the method of installation and the construction of the wall behind.
Then there’s the question of what will render a building ‘at risk’. While most buildings with defective cladding have now been identified, cladding still needs to be correctly and professionally installed, even where it’s not combustible. If legal cladding needs to be removed and refitted to remedy an installation issue, such as the way in which it’s fitted or to remove dangerous voids, this could cost almost as much as replacing defective cladding.
Barrier to success
Most of the challenges presented by PAS 9980:2022 can be overcome through consultation and clarification. The biggest barrier to success is the chronic lack of qualified individuals to monitor and enforce it. There are probably five or six companies in the UK able to offer a comprehensive external fire risk assessment service. Taken together, they will likely struggle to fulfil 10% of current demand levels.
The £700,000 allocated by the Government to train new fire risk assessors is, quite frankly, insulting and, although the industry is doing all it can to boost skills and training, a proper strategy for addressing this problem should have been devised alongside the new guidelines. You cannot simply ask an internal fire risk assessor to take a short course and add external assessments to their skill set. It can be done, but we’re talking years here.
The process of enforcing the Fire Safety Act 2021, making all buildings compliant with PAS 9980:2022 and remediating all ‘problem’ buildings is going to take years. The Government needs to understand this. It can be done, and the fire industry is committed to this endeavour, but the Government must put in place the level of resource needed to boost training, professional development and skills, not only in the fire sector, but also in the construction sphere and also related industries.
Mike Fox is Founder and Managing Director of MAF Associates (www.mafassociates.co.uk)