09 July 2021
Maintaining the ‘golden thread’ of information throughout the life cycle of high-risk residential buildings is a key element of the Building Safety Bill, which is now beginning its journey through the Houses of Parliament. What exactly is the ‘golden thread’ and what is its role likely to be in terms of fire safety in new buildings? Yusuf Muhammad investigates
THE GOVERNMENT’S definition of the ‘golden thread’ is “…both the information that allows you to understand a building and the steps needed to keep both the building and people safe, now and in the future”. This is important in any building, of course, but is particularly crucial in the social housing sector due to the fact that hundreds of thousands of new homes will be built in the coming years to meet escalating demand, many of them resident in high-rise buildings.
The Social Housing White Paper entitled ‘The Charter for Social Housing Residents’ displays a significant focus on the safety of homes. Indeed, it places: “To be safe in your home” at the top of its list of seven key pledges to residents. The theme of resident engagement – specifically the provision of safety information – runs throughout the document. Consultation as part of the White Paper process revealed that “residents want more effective, tailored and regular communication around fire and structural safety issues”.
What, then, are the fire safety challenges faced by the social housing sector and how can technology support its drive for improvement, while also being mindful of obligations – legal and moral – to engage effectively with tenants?
In construction, the ‘golden thread’ of information is used as a shorthand for an accurate and up-to-date record of building data. It would be fair to say that information and record-keeping around buildings and construction projects has often been incomplete, found across different locations and inaccessible. For some buildings, it’s unclear as to whether the finished structure is the same as the original design. Limited records of when materials have been changed can negatively impact a building’s safety.
This makes it harder for the building owner or landlord to efficiently and effectively manage the building, as well as complicating any renovation work and operational maintenance. It’s also difficult to see who made which decision and who authorised what.
We’ve worked on a few projects where our fire safety system has been selected as the fire suppression solution of choice, but post-installation key stakeholders have left without providing colleagues with comprehensive details regarding the decision. This leaves them uninformed about the reasons why the system was chosen, the fire safety challenges that needed to be overcome and how technology will mitigate the risks.
To manage fire risk and share information with residents in a timely and appropriate manner, social housing providers need detailed and accurate information to hand that focuses on the methods of construction throughout the life of a building.
Once a building is occupied, this brings new challenges that may alter over time as the occupants change or become older. Indeed, it’s widely recognised that the risk profile of the occupants of a building has a major impact on safety. The ‘Fire Fatalities in Scotland’ report recently issued by the Building Research Establishment (BRE) reviews fire investigation reports on accidental dwelling fires for the period 2013-2017. Over this period, 19,645 accidental domestic fire incidents resulted in 147 serious injuries and 126 fire fatalities.
The document highlights the characteristics of those who are most vulnerable to fire. It states: “Factors such as living alone, being vulnerable or elderly, falling asleep or being asleep, having medical conditions, illnesses or temporary lack of physical mobility or not hearing the alarm all contribute.”
The UK has an ageing population and rising cases of dementia. The social housing sector plays host to a disproportionate number of vulnerable residents compared to the general population. The most recent (ie 2019-2020) English Housing Survey identified that, of the four million households in the social sector, 54% have at least one member with a long-term illness or disability. This compares to 31% for owner-occupiers and 25% for private renters.
Social housing providers cannot rely on traditional fire strategies or technologies as a guarantee of safety for vulnerable residents. The BRE’s research highlights the role technology-based solutions can play in improving fire safety protection for more vulnerable people.
There are a range of such solutions available to housing providers that match the individual needs of tenants and cater for varying property types. These modern technologies also generate a large amount of performance data which can be used as part of the ‘golden thread’. This digital information can be verified to ensure that it continues to meet housing provider requirements if the fire strategy changes over time.
Changing nature of fires
Earlier this year, behavioural consultant David Wales published a report evaluating the role of fire extinguishers. It details the fact that the types of fires commonly occurring today are continually changing. Despite some tragic incidents in recent years, Wales’ report points to evidence that the size of fires – in terms of those attended by Fire and Rescue Services and those dealt with by the public – is decreasing. This is set against the backdrop of a growing population and an increased number of dwellings.
In addition, the number of dwelling fires attended by Fire and Rescue Services over the last 25 years is on a sustained downward trend. Official data shows a decrease from 64,000 fires in 1994-1995 to just over 36,000 in 2018-2019. The response time has increased by nearly 50% over the same period.
While data is not routinely collected about fires that Fire and Rescue Services don’t attend, Wales’ report suggests that 70%-80% of fires are dealt with by the public without requiring professional assistance. The English Housing Survey also found that, during 2016-2017, Fire and Rescue Services only attended 25% of the 332,000 fires during that period.
The causes of domestic fires are changing. Every year, around 50% of accidental domestic fires in the UK are now caused by cooking appliances (accounting for 48% of such fires in 2018-2019). Most of these episodes are the result of misuse or faults often involving electrical goods.
Meeting the challenge
Given the changing nature of the fire challenge and the obligation to focus on the needs of residents, particularly so where they are vulnerable, how can innovative technology help to ensure safer buildings that deliver against those changes outlined in the Building Safety Bill?
We believe that tackling present-day fires requires an holistic approach and new solutions. This is the best way to keep people safe. In our Continuing Professional Development sessions for building control officers, we demonstrate that there are several stages to a fire. The first is before the fire starts. This could be someone cooking or lighting a candle which can result in the early stages of a fire, then a dangerous fire and, finally, a spreading fire.
Traditional fire suppression systems tend to be activated at the fourth stage to prevent the fire spreading from the room of origin. A fire sprinkler, for instance, requires sufficient heat to build up before activating. When introduced in the 1990s, smoke alarms gave residents a warning at the early stages of a fire, affording additional time to leave the building, but didn’t actually tackle the fire.
Technological advancements have enabled solutions that are able to not just give a warning, but activate and tackle the fire at the very earliest possible time. Watermist technology, for example, is a viable sprinkler alternative for active fire protection. In the event of a fire, the system is triggered automatically by a ceiling-mounted detector. Once triggered, it scans the room to locate the hottest point before targeting the fire with a plume of watermist.
Watermist removes heat and displaces oxygen from the fire zone, resulting in fire control, suppression or extinguishment. The intention is to lower the temperature, lessen the radiative heat and reduce the oxygen concentration to such an extent that combustion can no longer be maintained. Watermist is recommended for use on a range of fires, including electrical fires. It can even tackle difficult concealed fires as small droplets are entrained into the fire plume.
In addition, the capture of data in more modern fire suppression systems allows for live data to be become part of the ‘golden thread’, helping to improve fire safety and meet the requirements of the Building Safety Bill. For instance, this information can demonstrate that a fire safety system is operating correctly, hasn’t been tampered with or isn’t faulty and can provide early warning of potentially dangerous behaviour or valuable incident data.
Embracing the use of the cloud in this way to store anonymised digital information realises benefits. Information can be organised to make it structured and interoperable such that it can be made freely available to all required parties on a secure basis. A clear audit trail allows components to be traced and a record maintained of the training of individual installers, service and maintenance providers.
A further benefit is the provision of a digital record of the fire safety product including its test results, conformity with regulations and third party assessments. This should be made available for the transparency of sensitive information, published securely and in an uneditable format.
Product data, performance and compliance information is made available to everyone in a building’s management and supply chain. This helps to manage risk and allows suppliers, vendors, designers, contractors and asset owners to work collaboratively with a single and reliable source of information. This will also assist in demonstrating a building’s safety to residents.
Keeping residents safe
We believe the implementation of the ‘golden thread’ as planned provides the opportunity to achieve greater resident safety, while also ensuring those residents have access to the safety information they want. Greater transparency will also help to ensure there’s alignment between the fire safety plan for the building and the measures in place and that the fire safety solutions chosen have been installed with adequate consideration for the individual needs of occupants.
There’s a danger that any reliance on prescriptive standards can result in a ‘tick box’ mentality rather than the comprehensive assessment needed to select the best solution for particular projects. While encouraging greater accountability, the requirement to document decision-making will also result in a valuable record of why particular products and solutions have been chosen.
While the Building Safety Bill should deliver on Dame Judith Hackitt’s recommendation of the use of a ‘golden thread’, the difficult task for many building owners and housing providers is going to be working out how best to implement this approach and which technologies will achieve the intended – and absolutely key – outcome of keeping residents safe.
Yusuf Muhammad is Co-Founder and Chief Design Officer at Plumis (www.plumis.co.uk)