Fire safety has been at the forefront of conversations around building architecture and construction since the tragedy at the Grenfell Tower in 2017. With a recent fire at a New Providence Wharf tower block, which used the same cladding as the Grenfell Tower, fire safety is once again in the headlines.
The acceleration of the Building Safety Bill, which is currently in draft and expected to become law later this year, was announced in the Queen’s Speech on 11 May 2021 in response to the latest incident. The draft bill was described by Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick as ‘the biggest change to our building safety regime for 40 years’.
This and other new regulations including the Fire Safety Act will impact everyone involved in the design, build and management of high-rise properties, from designers to architects and housing associations. Here, we look at the current state of play of fire safety and regulations in 2021 and how it impacts all areas of the built environment sector.
The Building Safety Bill
The Building Safety Bill focuses primarily on high-rise buildings because of the pressing nature of the safety regulations surrounding these structures. The regulations cover the entire scope of constructing new high-rise buildings, from design to construction and completion. According to the draft document, the bill will introduce a ‘new era of accountability’.
Competence tests for architects
Architects are essential in the built-environment sector, and this was recognised in the Architects Act 1997, as was the need for standards of competence amongst architects. One of the most interesting elements of the Building Safety Bill is the amendment to this act, with more rigidity around how architects prove their competence.
The bill will allow the Architects Registration Board to remove architects from the register if they are unable to prove they’ve undertaken recent training to keep their skills up to date. Architects will have the opportunity to complete their training under an extension before being removed.
According to the government, this move will echo the requirements of other regulated professions, many of which have strict continued professional development requirements, and bring the practice in line with these professions.
New regulatory powers
The Building Safety Bill will establish a number of new regulatory bodies to ensure safety procedures are being adhered to. The Health and Safety Executive will form a Building Safety Regulator who will monitor the lifecycle of a building from conception to creation and management and will ‘oversee the safety and performance of all buildings’.
This role will act as an intermediary between architectural and construction firms, landlords and building regulators to ensure fire safety is embedded at every stage of the process. Importantly, the Building Safety Regulator will have the power to impose sanctions on responsible parties who aren’t complying with the new regulations. Those who are non-compliant will be served a notice with required remediation and if this isn’t actioned, they could face a fine or a prison sentence.
The Fire Safety Act 2021
In addition to the in-progress Building Safety Bill, the Fire Safety Act 2021 recently received Royal Assent and became an act of parliament. In particular, this act defines building owners and duty holders as responsible for ‘reducing the risk of fires’ in built homes. This has amended the Fire Safety Order (FSO) 2005 to cover residential multi-occupancy properties whereas previously, the FSO applied only to commercial properties.
The regulations apply to the doors of flats that lead to communal areas and the ‘structure and external walls of the building’, which covers cladding, windows and balconies. This new act places accountability on the owners and managers of these properties to ensure that fire safety is at the core of multi-occupancy property management.
Funding for the removal of unsafe cladding
Much of the focus on current fire safety focuses on the use of safe and unsafe cladding, as highlighted by the Grenfell Tower tragedy. The building, as well as the New Providence Wharf property, used aluminium composite material, which is highly combustible. Cladding that features wood and paper elements is, unsurprisingly, also highly flammable.
Following a review of cladding materials, the government also expressed concern over cladding with metal composite materials, which can include copper, steel, or zinc. In February 2021, a £3.5 billion fund was announced to help building managers remove and replace unsafe cladding, with a recently announced claim extension period, giving owners until 30 June 2021 to apply for the funding.
Experts recommend replacing flammable cladding with fireproof solutions such as A1 cladding, which is a type of rainscreen cladding that is rigorously tested for fire safety. This cladding helps buildings withstand weather conditions including wind-driven rainfall, and offers heating benefits due to its thermal properties.
Fire safety has been on the agenda in recent years and it shows no signs of going away, which is good news. A number of new initiatives are being implemented to ensure that everyone involved in the built environment sector is responsible for fire safety. Not only will this apply accountability to all involved but it will keep residents – particularly those in high-rise properties that are high risk – safe. Overall, we’re making positive strides towards making all multi-occupancy properties fire-safe once and for all.
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