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A near miss too many?

ASFP COO Niall Rowan comments on recent failures in the quality of construction and fire-stopping installation in a number of Edinburgh schools.

The Report of the Independent Inquiry into the Construction of Edinburgh Schools, commissioned by the Chief Executive of the City of Edinburgh Council and published in February 2017, makes salutary reading for those involved with the specification, procurement, and installation of passive fire protection.

The Inquiry followed the collapse of part of an external wall at Oxgangs Primary School Edinburgh on 29th January 2016 in the hours prior to the normal school opening. This was primarily due to incorrect installation of wall ties between the outer brick leaf and the internal construction.

But the failures in the construction process did not end there; they were also replicated in the installation of suitable fire-stopping. As with many other examples of deficient PFP installation, the shortcomings in PFP may never have been discovered if the collapse of the external wall had not occurred.

Subsequent investigative surveys of defects in the construction of the external walls and the fire-stopping of 16 other schools in Edinburgh resulted in the enforced closure of all 17 schools for a period of several months. All these buildings had been built as part of the same Public Private Partnership (PPP) contract with Edinburgh Schools Partnership Limited.

What went wrong?

It was the unequivocal view of the Inquiry that there were fundamental and widespread failures from the various contractors and sub-contractors, who built or oversaw the building of the schools. They failed to identify and rectify both the defective and inadequate construction of walls and the provision of adequate fire-stopping, both of which were only discovered during the subsequent inspection and remediation process.

Given the widespread nature of the presence of these defects in the Oxgangs and other schools, one can only conclude that those responsible for the supervision and quality assurance of the work either did not inspect the work adequately or did inspect it and failed to take appropriate action to have it removed or remedied.

The Association for Specialist Fire Protection (ASFP) has heard this before; in fact this was the subject of the Association’s article in the last issue of IFP, which commented on the Lakanal House tragedy. The fire safety of the building simply deteriorated. Over the years vital fire protection to stairs within flats was not reinstated properly in various refurbishments and facades to the outside of individual flats was replaced with ones made from inappropriate materials.

However, there were differences between the two scenarios; the Lakanal House tragedy was the result of poor maintenance and unrestricted alterations over many years; while the Edinburgh schools problem was due to a lack of diligence during the construction of the schools. However, the problems stem from a similar cause; namely an over-reliance on ‘the professionals in the supply chain’.

The Edinburgh Schools Inquiry highlighted a failure to prepare or maintain appropriate as-installed records despite the Public Private Partnership Contract containing a requirement for the preparation of as-installed drawings and related documentation. This is a common failure observed by ASFP in respect of installed passive fire protection, with there often being no documentation to enable installed works to be checked.

The report also found that despite multiple and widespread occurrences of missing and/or poorly installed firestopping in the schools – a proportion of which appeared to date from the original construction – none had been detected until the recent surveys.

The Inquiry found that these breaches should have been identified either by the original contractors or by Building Standards inspectors at final inspection stages. And if not identified during construction, they should have been identified by the Duty Holder or the facilities management company through regular inspections of the integrity of the fire-stopping in the building as part of a fire risk assessment under the Fire Scotland Act.

Potential solutions

It was the view of the Inquiry that consideration should be given to requiring better practice methods in the construction industry that would provide Buildings Standards with the proper level of assurance.

The principle of certification by approved certifiers of areas of construction such as electrical and plumbing installations has already been established in the current Buildings Standards system for Scotland and the rest of the UK.

The evidence provided in the report would indicate that the two types of defective construction found in the schools, wall construction and fire-stopping could perhaps be quite common occurrences in new buildings but their presence is concealed due to a combination of the difficulty of access and inadequate inspection.

The report of the Inquiry states that in these circumstances, where works are concealed once completed, there may be a benefit in extending the mandatory certification by approved certifiers to elements such as wall construction and fire-stopping. Furthermore, information provided by several Local Authorities in Scotland indicated that where a Clerks of Works is retained to provide independent inspection it ‘impacts positively on their approach to the quality of their work.’

It recommends that third party inspection must be dramatically increased ─ either as part of a third party certification process for contractors or independently, for example, on behalf of the eventual building owners.

The ASFP is convinced that the presence of a Clerk of Works, or some other inspection body or process independent of the installing or commissioning contractors, is essential to ensure adequately and correctly installed passive fire protection. It is a requirement of membership for all installing contractor members of the ASFP that they must hold third party certification from a UKAS accredited third party certification body.

While welcoming any requirement for mandatory certification, for example via independent third party certification, the ASFP acknowledges that this may never occur. The Association believes it is incumbent upon the construction industry to develop and promulgate best practice methods that can be relied upon to provide the necessary level of assurance.

The ASFP is currently working with a number of stakeholders from across the construction process to investigate how fire protection is considered and improve interaction between all construction industry disciplines.

The goal is to develop a ‘Plan of Works’ process for fire, to ensure that there is a detailed specification for fire protection at the design stage and a schedule for fire throughout the construction process. This will include a sign-off process for all stakeholders at each stage of construction and hand-over and supporting guidance which will provide consistent and simple information to highlight what needs to be done at each stage of the process and by whom

The report of the Inquiry for Edinburgh Council shows that there is a need to change the culture and the processes for certain elements of construction – particularly those that are invisible once installed.

Without such a change we cannot rule out further construction failures. And the next time a wall collapses on a windy day or a fire spreads rapidly through breaches in compartmentation or concealed spaces, we may not be so lucky.

For more information, go to www.asfp.org.uk

Niall Rowan is Technical Officer at the Association for Specialist Fire Protection

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