Regulating the industry
20 December 2017
Mark Harris takes a look at the key considerations that he feels need to be included in the review of the Building Regulations.
The interim report from the ‘Independent Review of the Building Regulations and Fire Safety’ led by Dame Judith Hackitt Review was released on 18 December 2017. One thing the report highlights, and that all parties agree about, is that a revision to the current building regulations governing fire safety in buildings is long overdue.
It is more than a decade since the last major overhaul of the requirements, and in that time, there has been a rapid increase in the use of modern methods and materials to meet the increasing demands of the built environment today. Before considering what changes need to be made following the review, it is worth revisiting how things currently stand.
What are the Regulations?
The last really significant change was the implementation in October 2006 of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order [FSO]. Previously the fire and rescue service was responsible for assessing the building fabric and issuing a fire certificate. Under the FSO it became the responsibility of the building occupier or the building owner to undertake a fire risk assessment focussing on “safety in case of fire” for all relevant persons. The FSO presented the biggest single reform of fire safety legislation in over 30 years and was aimed at simplifying the law whilst placing a greater focus on fire prevention. It is now coming under increasing criticism for removing one of the key safeguards in having building safety signed off by a fire and rescue service professional.
The introduction of the FSO was followed in April 2007 by a revision to Approved Document B (ADB), which although not earth shattering, was intended to support a strategy of fire prevention through building design and management. The changes also provided a new focus for domestic properties by splitting the guidance into two distinct documents – Approved Document B – Volume 1: Dwellinghouses and Approved Document B – Volume 2: Buildings other than Dwellinghouses. This move acknowledged the very different issues surrounding each type of construction, in theory allowing greater design flexibility within an appropriate regulatory framework.
There were several key changes to the Approved Document for non-domestic buildings, including elements such as an emphasis on the use of sprinklers, a new requirement for information to be made available to building managers, an increase in competent persons self-certification schemes and fresh guidance on the use of internal compartmentation to reduce and contain fire spread.
Minor amendments followed in 2010, mostly to update references to European Standards, and in 2013 with slight changes to the guidance surrounding thermoplastic rooflights and lighting diffusers, references to decorative wall coverings, and general guidance on materials and workmanship, and the Construction Products Directive, being replaced by a reference to Approved Document 7: Materials and Workmanship.
As you might expect, tall buildings have specific regulatory requirements for the construction of external walls. However, there is more than one way to achieve compliance.
The basic step is to implement the ‘linear’ route of requiring some, but not all components to be either non-combustible or of limited combustibility. This approach relies on the performance of products in isolation, and does not consider how the different elements might interact. The fact is that all façade systems contain combustible components to a greater or lesser extent.
The updated BCA Technical Guidance Note 18: Issue 1 Jun 2015 highlighted the fact that there are three other allowable options. The first of these is a standard performance based route, which uses large scale testing to demonstrate fire safety. The second is to conduct a desktop study report, using data from large scale tests. Lastly, a holistic, fire safety engineering approach can be taken, looking at every aspect of the building both internally and externally, including occupancy and use.
What should change?
As the rate of innovation in the industry increases to meet other requirements, such as energy efficiency, speed of build, and future proofing our buildings, the approach to fire safety also needs to evolve, both to preserve life and protect property. It is essential therefore, that the regulations are clear, robust and balanced to allow for future developments.
One way to achieve this is to have more large-scale testing of entire systems to gain a better understanding of how facades will really behave in a fire, not simply products in isolation. All products in facade systems with a storey above 18m should be tested as a system, regardless of whether they are classed as combustible, non-combustible or of limited combustibility. This is vital to ensure that the façade, as a system, including all components and appropriate cavity barriers, combines together to give a solution that does not propagate fire.
It is also crucial that strict guidelines are met for both the parameters of desktop studies, and the required competency of those who are qualified to carry them out. They are an important tool in an industry that is evolving and innovating to meet new challenges, but they must be better regulated, and to be grounded in actual test data rather than opinion.
The next aspect that must be addressed is the construction process itself. The role of the architect has changed, so that often they are only involved in the early stages of the design and specification. The project is frequently handed over to the contractor, who is asked to ‘value-engineer’ the design. This can lead to fundamental changes to the specification of materials, which may appear on paper to have similar characteristics, but that can have a significant on the overall performance of the building envelope. There are calls from more than one quarter to put architects back in charge of over-seeing projects to ensure that the design intention is not com-promised.
A crucial aspect of the construction process is the part played by Building Control. There is a suggestion that there should be BCOs who are specifically trained and qualified to oversee the construction of complex and occupancy sensitive buildings. Another frequently mooted point is to bring back the role of clerk of works – a central, independent figure making sure that work is being carried out to the correct standards and to the specification.
Ensuring that ‘as-built’ meets design is a bone of contention that has been raised for many years, often in relation to the thermal performance of new buildings, and is even more applicable when it comes to fire safety. A building can be impeccably designed, and the materials of the highest specification, but if the quality of the build is not up to standard it simply will not perform as it should.
Therefore, the last, and possibly most important part of the push to make sure that our buildings are truly safe, and perform to the standard they are designed to, is to provide the necessary support and training for the people on the ground delivering the construction.
Adequate resources must be made available to ensure proper training, registers should be held of suitably qualified personnel and of tested systems. There should be greater clarity within the guidance of what can be considered compliant, and a clear trail of accountability across the board. Manufacturers also have a responsibility, to provide the best information that they can, about the tested performance of their products, and the applications they are suitable for.
When we change the regulatory system, it is also crucial to remember why the regulations are there in the first place, and to make sure that our buildings become places that not only keep us sheltered and keep us safe, but that also nurture people and the environment, long into the future.
This means taking a holistic approach to how and what we regulate. Instead of focussing purely on single issues, such as energy efficiency or fire safety, we need to consider all the different requirements of modern living. Because it is perfectly possible to create buildings out of tested systems that can deliver to the highest standards on every front.
Mark Harris is divisional building technology director at Kingspan Insulated Panels. For more information, visit www.kingspan.com
- Approved Document B2 Section B4-12 - Construction of external walls1, for England and Wales (ADB2), and Technical Handbook Section 22 for Scotland (THB2)
- ADB2 only