For too long construction fire safety has been an afterthought. Now it is top of the agenda, with a Government prioritising building safety. Standards will be driven up by forthcoming new regulations, including a new fire safety bill, along with the combustible cladding ban.
However, Dame Judith Hackitt, government advisor on building safety, stated at the NBS Construction Product Leader Summit, this must also be backed up with a sea-change in culture and practices. Hackitt focused on the lack of industry initiative to “change as soon as [they] can” and “right those sins of the past, rather than waiting for the regulator to tell [them].” She also called for greater involvement of fire safety experts as well as highlighting the idiocy of ignoring their advice.
Marginalisation of fire experts in construction is a pressing issue. Everyone agrees we need to build safer homes, so why is invaluable advice from Building Control Bodies and the Fire and Rescue Authority so frequently omitted from the building process? So far the overarching drivers have been cost-reduction and meeting project timelines, not quality and safety.
From the beginning
As with many things, this lack of prioritisation starts at the beginning. While Building Control Bodies and the Fire and Rescue Authority have a statutory role at the design and planning stages, too often their advice is ignored. As Hackitt expressed, “when you ask experts if they can fight a fire in a building if you build in a particular way… You don’t ignore that advice.” This approach is folly yet all too common.
Construction projects are incredibly complex and involve a myriad of choices, regardless of scale. Each decision has a potential knock-on effect and poor design or installation can generate lethal combinations, putting lives at risk. Ultimately, buildings are constructed by numerous professionals, yet with the current adversarial culture the shared goal of completing a project is too often overlooked. Social housing giant L&Q said they had to get an academic to create a new shared responsibility construction contract. Currently the culture is focused on blame shifting and trying to claw back margins.
This leads to fragmented projects with unreliable record keeping and cloudy responsibility for decisions. Currently it’s too easy to swap superior products for inferior ones and the testing regime is weak. The whole system has little oversight and it is too easy for people to shirk responsibility with a minor rap on the knuckles when something goes wrong. Forthcoming regulation needs to be coupled with changed practices, including improved record keeping with a clear construction chain of custody.
Increased expertise in building processes
The RIBA Plan of Work for Fire Safety attempts to determine roles, procedures and responsibilities for fire safety in new builds. RIBA investigated how fire protection can and should be improved during construction making responsibilities clearer at every step between design, specification, construction, installation and maintenance.
RIBA revealed a number of key issues within the construction cycle. This includes inadequate building inspections taking place during and upon completion of construction, as well as involving multiple sub-contractors creating an overwhelmingly disjointed building process.
RIBA proposed a highly regulated and systematic approach to ensure fire safety is digitally recorded throughout a build, referencing a ‘golden thread’ which can be referred to by all involved in the project. The golden thread of information is used as a shorthand for an accurate and up-to-date record of building data. Although not standard practice yet, it will detail how a building was designed, built and maintained. The golden thread is a live document, held digitally. This gives a clear accountability trail, as it captures the digital fingerprints of those making decisions.
This would be a huge step in the right direction for our industry.
Carefully considered product specification and substitution
The current post-specification approach is heavily flawed, with un-suitable substitution rife in the name of value engineering. This is blatant cost-cutting. While it is inevitable that elements will change during the construction process, a recent CPA report revealed that the performance criteria wasn’t compared during a substitution, in up to half of builds. Products are substituted recklessly and in isolation without considering the impact on other products. This is terrifying and yet it isn’t hyperbole, it is in the CPA study.
Fire safety criteria needs to be properly considered in substitution, these decisions have the potential to have life-threatening knock-on effects.
Testing, testing, testing
Beyond a more responsible attitude to value-engineering, the sector also needs an improved and realistic testing regime. Taking a systematic approach still involves the specification of individual components required by specifiers during the construction process. While each element must be individually fire tested, the testing system needs to be built out. Products used need to be tested in groups and mimic very possible real-life scenarios and assessed by fire professionals to ensure fires can be fought effectively.
Certification should only be granted by third party test specialists, ensuring corners have not been cut. The days of manufacturers marking their own homework with the culture of self-certification has to be stamped out. There also needs to be auditing and spot inspections to check items still perform as certified.
Three years on from Grenfell, this raises a recurring question – why has the construction industry waited for regulations to actively start making changes to the status quo? Hackitt is right, “there has been a lack of…collective effort to make these changes happen,”. Enough is enough, the time for change is now. Hackitt says, “I still get the strong sense that the industry is waiting to be told what to do by the regulator and I don’t know why – you know what to do.”
The industry needs to have the initiative to change ahead of regulation. Part of this is challenging the current marginalisation of fire safety experts in the building process from start to finish. While the new regulator looks set to have real teeth and fire-safety experts will be more involved, there has to be concerted outreach across the industry, from the trade bodies down to those on-the-ground. There needs to be much more grass-roots education as to the impact of poor decision making along with practical education on what needs changing.
Construction process shouldn’t just be about box-ticking, fire safety is about saving lives.
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