FunderMax’s Paul Hughes questions whether the UK is doing enough to prevent further disasters following the Grenfell fire, and suggests where improvements should be made.
In the early hours of 14 June 2017 Grenfell Tower, a 24-storey social housing tower block in the borough of Kensington & Chelsea became engulfed in flames.
Almost instantly following the disaster which claimed 71 lives, the cladding system retro-fitted to the building became the main focus of attention for the media, grieving families and the UK Government. A rapid response from Governmental leaders then followed, to quickly establish and deploy initial blanket-testing measures on all residential buildings above 18 metres high.
It is worth considering this initial reaction in greater detail. In doing so, we can not only understand the implications for the UK’s rainscreen industry, we may just be in a better position to adopt the changes needed to ensure the safety of Britain’s high-rise buildings and more importantly their occupants.
Missing the point
It has been widely reported from numerous sources that the building’s facade presented risks to fire safety and as such, the UK
Government in collaboration with the Building Research Establishment (BRE) took immediate steps to conduct an audit of all similar tower blocks across the country. The prime motive was to ensure risks were identified and addressed.
However, it has become apparent that these initial tests were merely to check whether the core, or filler, of the Aluminium Composite Material (ACM) cladding panel samples, were of a type that would fail the limited combustibility test for an individual element of a wall in a tall building. As the panels only form one part of a whole wall system, rather than isolate and individually test a single component, BRE should actually have audited and fire tested ‘complete systems’ more akin to the system used at Grenfell.
The reality today is that a building and its rainscreen cladding might be deemed safe if it is installed as part of a whole wall system. One that when all elements are combined, offers sufficient fire spread resistance in-line with required standards.
Arguably, the immediate reaction to deploy tests that are not as robust as they could be, and that do not check whole wall systems, has resulted in tower block residents up and down Britain being evacuated from their homes needlessly. It could also be argued that, because the focus has been almost exclusively on the cladding systems, failures and fire hazards of whole systems could well be overlooked, potentially posing future risks.
What’s more, creating this sense of urgency could well prove to be counter-productive; as many landlords begin to remove and replace cladding, the question to be asked is; are they also considering the impact that this action may have on the remaining wall elements, and therefore, the overall fire integrity of the building?
The initial tests that have been carried out so far have resulted in a 100 per cent failure rate. However, this may not be a true indication of the current risk potential; BRE should be testing fire resistance holistically, and in the context of the entire building.
Omitting industry experts
Another area that would benefit from a rethink is the “expert panel” that has been assembled; to provide advice to the public enquiry. At present it does not include professionals drawn from the rainscreen industry, who would be able to contribute from both a relevant and ‘real’ perspective, thereby providing more rounded, suitable and robust guidance.
For example, the insight and market knowledge which architects and manufacturers of non-combustible materials could bring to such an advisory panel would prove invaluable – providing assessments and viewpoints to ensure the immediate response and subsequent ongoing guidance is suitable, adequate and safe.
While the UK Government understandably needed to mobilise quickly, and take visible steps to ensure the risk of a similar tragedy occurring again is minimised, there are some weaknesses in its response that need to be addressed.
Firstly, avoid creating any further alarm among the British public and landlords by taking a more considered approach and consulting industry experts such as architects and manufacturers at an early stage. This will provide a more responsible and informed response that focuses on the facts known at the time, and would also deflect the array of supposition and assumptions that we have seen. A single source of information would also be beneficial, where actual facts can be provided to the media, and disseminated, simultaneously depoliticising the issue.
It’s clear that BS 8414 standards are simply not robust enough and as such, an urgent review of current Building Regulations has begun. The damning interim review, chaired by Dame Judith Hackitt, has already found that the whole system of Building Regulations in the UK is “not fit for purpose” thanks to confusing rules and a lack of enforcement enabling abuse of the system.
In the next phase of the review, regulators will come together with the construction industry, councils and the Government to establish a new system with improved safety standards.
As an industry, we should be striving for every material used in high-rise buildings to be non-combustible. Only then can we feel truly assured that buildings are meeting modern day standards, occupants’ safety is at the forefront of design intent, and that standards are both enhanced and maintained.
The classification of products used in the construction of rainscreen systems should now be done using the European coding and standards, which are clear and cannot be compromised by interpretation.
It is also apparent that there is a lack of knowledge in the construction industry with regards to rainscreen technology/design, and fire performance requirements. The Government should look seriously into funding a school of technology where courses in building envelope design – including rainscreen technology – are taught, maybe through the network of UTC training centres.
Finally, we need to lower the 18 metre height rule to include any buildings above 11 metres, and apply the same non-combustible requirements to them. By making this significant change, regulations would then encompass a wider range of buildings where there could be an unexpected and significant risk. This would also aid in the development of future professional design teams, whom would instinctively look to implement fully fire resistant cladding solutions as a first resort, rather than as an afterthought.
If this change is made, consideration also needs to be given to supporting regulations and advisory notes, which should be amended to ensure any contradictory terms are removed so that it is crystal clear what the requirements are.
With so many innovative building products available in the market each year, it is evident that an evolving approach to safety standards is required. As an industry, we need to review current Building Regulations as a priority and ask ourselves, in modern day construction, are they adequate and do they provide sufficient levels of protection?
Paul Hughes is director of sales UK at FunderMax