Increased fire standards call for informed specifications

Are efforts to improve the fire performance of residential high-rise buildings creating a risk that fully tested, quality – but not future compliant – building solutions may be replaced by seemingly compliant but lower performance products?

We believe so and are already seeing how the anticipated publication of a new British Standard affecting a very specific part of the build process is sending ripples through the new-build high-rise sector.

BS 8579 Guide to the Design of Balconies and Terraces may be considered one of the regulatory responses to fires in residential multi-storey buildings, including The Cube in Bolton, De Pass Gardens in Barking and Worcester Park, south west London, but work on the standard began two years earlier than these 2019 blazes. Public consultation ended in March and the document is chalked up for release later this year.

The anticipated standard will support Approved Document B, which prohibits the use of combustible materials on new high-rise homes and will, we believe, underline that all construction elements of balconies and terraces located more than 18m above ground level must be non-combustible, including structural joists, flooring and suspension. If we are correct that means no wood, plastic, rubber etc which will, hopefully, give manufacturers, architects, engineers, installers and other stakeholders more certainty and form a basis of what safety parameters we all need to be operating to.

A number of experienced industry experts have been involved in the drafting of BS 8579 and we are confident that it will be relevant, comprehensive and effective. It should give manufacturers, architects, engineers, installers, insurers and other stakeholders a great deal more certainty and form a basis of what safety parameters we all need to be adhering to.

So, we know BS 8579 is coming, we have a fair idea what it might say but until publication we can’t be certain of its final contents or extent of scope. And this is creating a general sense of nervousness and caution; we are taking high volumes of calls from construction professionals, including architects and designers, confused about the current regulatory situation. Designers are unsure what products can and cannot be considered and we worry that there is a real risk of incorrect products being selected and inferior quality, non-compliant or even dangerous products being used in balcony constructions.

We have heard reports of developers and main contractors removing materials from signed-off and completely compliant, legal projects to replace them with Class A systems, perhaps to satisfy insurers and mortgage lenders. There are also stories that some developers are moving to install Class A across entire projects and not just above 18 metres. If true, it highlights industry concerns, with a general feeling that the new standard is going to be interpreted quite strictly. This is why we need to be absolutely sure that the industry is properly briefed to design and specify fully compliant products and systems.

New products are already coming to market that purport to satisfy the forthcoming standard for various elements of balcony and terrace construction but we are concerned about the quality and testing regimes of some of these solutions. Specifiers and clients must be assured that such products can withstand the rigours and loadings of at-height exterior locations; our advice is to consult existing suppliers for their advice on how to achieve compliance. Safety is of prime importance and we do not want to be in the situation where, in our efforts to increase fire safety standards, we replace the fully tested and compliant products currently in use with those that may not have been properly tested or are of a poorer quality but which appear to meet the new standard.

Given that this issue centres around high rise outdoor structures industry concerns about product performance much be given serious consideration; system failure at height has the potential to have tragic consequences.