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Speaking for the sector

20 January 2020

Dennis Davis takes a look at the relationship between fire and construction in light of the release of the Phase 1 Grenfell Tower Inquiry (GTI) report

Everyone knows fire and construction can be difficult bedfellows. A simple illustration is that in any home with an open fire the hearth and chimney have to be built precisely and to specification if the householder is to achieve success and avoid disaster, so in the month which saw the release of the Phase 1 Grenfell Tower Inquiry (GTI) report it was inevitable serious attention would be given to the fire-construction relationship.

Reading the GTI report resulting from hearing the narratives of those who witnessed the fire, or are now having to carry the brunt of the burden in its aftermath, makes very sombre reading. The clarity of the commentary made by Sir Martin Moore-Bick is therefore welcome in distilling the substance from the detail and helpful in understanding why his significant findings and recommendations, some of which include a stated requirement that they be enshrined in law, and which are, as Sir Martin puts it “grounded in evidence”, demand our fullest consideration.

The GTI report also perhaps reflects to some extent the unintended consequences of a basic failure in the essential fire-construction relationship. In the commentary Sir Martin makes apparent, without trying to anticipate what will be learnt in Phase 2, how the use of combustible materials were involved in causing the fire to spread so quickly, adding that if we mitigate these circumstances, we could remain reliant upon fire compartmentation as a fire safety strategy. Such straightforward comments are welcome since we are soon to enter a phase of inquiry that no doubt will become more confused; perhaps deliberately so, as personal and corporate responsibilities are examined under the microscope in an open public arena.

Construction sector initiative

About a week after the publication of the GTI report the government announced that the then Housing Minister Esther McVey MP had launched an important construction sector initiative. The aim we are informed is to drive the construction of 300,000 new homes; homes which are sorely needed and where the government believes 80% fewer defects will exist and heating bills reduce by up to 70%. 

Backed by a £30 million investment this initiative involves modular building methods and is supported by having its own modern methods of construction (MMC) champion, Mark Farmer, and the backing of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Timber industries. Dubbed by some in the media ‘new prefabs’ and built in factory conditions, the initiative is set to transform housing development. 

Caution is required however, because inherent in the fire-construction relationship are possible conflicts and different success perspectives. As the GTI report highlights, even though Phase 1 was not focused on fire spread, the drive to reduce energy and improve sustainable energy use can, if care in specifying and installing materials becomes unduly focused on one outcome, pass over safety critical considerations and be missed by the safety net of building control. This new ‘must build more homes quickly’ initiative is therefore a reminder that fast build modular construction must not compromise good compartmentation and fire safety. 

Another control system needed

Dame Judith Hackitt has advised, and the government has accepted, we need another control system to make buildings safer. Although progress is underway many close to fire safety feel there are still too many people in denial or ignoring what can and should be done now to tackle this weakness in our national consciousness of fire. The call is to reinforce a requirement to understand fire’s behaviour and thus avoid unwanted compromises and mistakes.

This includes the careful design, selection, procurement, installation and maintenance of the products and materials used together with full integration of all those systems and practices involved in the industrialised process we call MMC. 

Seeking a solution means the fire-building relationship has to improve. If a partnership is to exist there has to be a deeper level of respect and understanding, where dialogue and technical expertise are embraced so all objectives are achieved. The loss of contemporary buildings like those recently in Crewe, Bristol and London, which utilise timber and modularisation, and where firefighters say they are baffled by a building’s behaviour in fire, or the fire spread so fast it threatens lives and prevented internal firefighting, all point to poor performance and highlight the level of the challenge.

The Fire Sector Federation is starting its own review to try and find a way to improve MMC fire performance. Although this will help, having a sustainable solution requires a balanced outcome enabling both the fire and construction sectors to achieve their objectives. 

Dennis Davis is executive officer at Fire Sector Federation. For more information visit: www.firesectorfederation.co.uk