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Is there still a place for desktop studies?

One of the recommendations of Dame Judith Hackitt’s Interim Report on the Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety was that the Government should significantly restrict the use of desktop studies to approve changes to cladding and other systems and that those undertaking desktop studies must be able to demonstrate suitable competence. In response to this, the Ministry for Housing Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) has issued a consultation on the use of ‘desk top studies’ (or more correctly, assessments in lieu of fire testing), as part of a clarification review of Approved Document B. It has put forward several options on which it is seeking opinion:

  • To do nothing
  • To exclude all assessments in lieu of fire tests
  • To exclude all assessments in lieu of fire tests for ‘cladding’ only
  • To create new rules for assessments in lieu of fire tests so that:
  • Where a standard for extended application exists, this should be followed.
  • Where there is no standard for extended application, the principles of BS EN 15725:2010 should be followed.
  • To require that only UKAS accredited test laboratories or Notified bodies can undertake assessments.

So what are the issues that should be considered in the formulation of position on this subject?

Taking into account the huge number of combinations and variations of passive fire protection products on the market, the Association for Specialist Fire Protection (ASFP) argues that it is impractical to exclude all assessments in lieu of fire tests. For similar reasons, excluding all assessments in lieu of fire tests for ‘cladding’ might be impractical, although there is support for this from some ASFP members and others from the fire sector.

Nevertheless, there is a clear need to significantly tighten up the assessment process, particularly for cladding systems. The market in assessments in this product area is not as mature as it is for other passive fire protection products, with fewer assessors with appropriate qualifications, experience and training.

In considering the proposed new rules for assessments, even if the use of Extended Application (EXAP) standards is agreed there may still be a need for assessments. Often this is because the resulting scope is too narrow to reflect all products in the market or all the potential end use applications.

Similarly, it is probably not realistic to permit only UKAS accredited test laboratories or Notified bodies to undertake assessments. There is no UKAS accreditation for ‘assessments’ (only testing or certification) and so UKAS accreditation is not a valid arbiter of expertise (although it is an indicator). Furthermore, Notified Bodies both in UK and overseas may have little experience of cladding, whereas there are many fire consultants/ fire engineering consultancies that do have the requisite expertise but who would be excluded under this proposal.

While there is a potential conflict of interest where manufacturers undertake assessments, many manufacturers possess the best expertise, have qualified and experienced engineers and know their products better than anybody else. One solution could be to allow manufacturers to undertake assessments but insist they are checked by a third party such as a UKAS accredited laboratory, Notified Body or suitably qualified fire consultant.

Potential solutions

Perhaps consideration should be given to writing a national code of practice for undertaking assessments – possibly in the form of a British Standard which utilises elements from existing guidance documents. Guidance is available including the PFPF Guide to Undertaking Assessments in Lieu of Fire Tests (http://pfpf.org/pdf/publications/guide_to_uailoft.pdf) ; and a recent LABC Cladding Technical Memorandum. Similarly, European standard BS EN 15725 offers principles of undertaking an Extended Application i.e. an increased scope of applicability of the test result based on rules, calculations and agreed expert judgment.

Such a code of practice could dictate levels of complexity of assessment as well as the necessary experience and qualification of assessors. It should contain requirements on the quality and provenance of the test data used to support the assessment; require impartiality; and contain an acknowledgement that if a product subsequently fails a test, the assessment must be withdrawn. Such a code should contain a requirement for a five year review for each assessment and contain a code of conduct for practitioners.

Since fire tests will never be able to reflect every product combination or every end-use application, assessments in lieu of fire testing are a necessary and technically justifiable process to cover the huge variety of fire protection products and their installations. However a clear, detailed and mandatory framework must be put in place to ensure that existing loopholes can no longer be exploited.

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

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