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Seeing the whole picture

The Grenfell Tower fire continues as a major focus for all in the fire safety and construction sectors in the UK, as the investigations into the fire and its ramifications seem certain to result in a change in culture in the construction industry, and hopefully improvements in fire safety design, specification, installation and maintenance in new and existing buildings.

As the consultation on the Terms of Reference for the Grenfell Inquiry closes, it is clear to many in the fire sector that the Inquiry should be wide ranging and must consider the regulations and approval processes in place, as well as way in which legislation is enforced and compliance checked.

The ASFP is concerned that, according to Government statements, all of the cladding taken from buildings and tested ‘failed’ its screening regime i.e. was not A2 or limited combustibility. The Association recognises that at this stage the requirement for cladding to meet this class has not been clear to all stakeholders. Similarly, such requirements may have been bypassed by the use of desktop studies, which may have resulted in many of these installed systems not meeting that requirement.

This shows a disconnect between what was designed, supplied and approved and the Government’s expectations for the fire performance of the cladding. The Public Inquiry needs to investigate why this is, examine the processes used to justify any system and investigate why products supplied do not meet the expected performance. Furthermore, if third party documents were used to allow a lower performance; the Inquiry must examine how this was justified.

The ASFP believes that the initial focus on the cladding alone was too narrow and welcomes the move by Government to undertake further large scale testing which will more faithfully model the installed systems. As with many forms of construction, and for that matter fire protection, looking at a single element without considering the whole of the system cannot supply a true picture of how a building or structure will react. In the case of the cladding system, it is vital to investigate the geometry of the whole system, the insulation, the cladding, the fixings and all the other components.

While accepting the importance of insulating buildings for environmental reasons, the ASFP believes the Public Inquiry should also consider whether, it is appropriate to use combustible materials at all in these high rise building applications, or whether their continued use should be permitted only with much more stringent controls and safeguards, or with other mitigating measures.

Enforcement processes

The ASFP believes that the Public Inquiry needs to look at the building control processes to ensure there is adequate rigor. There needs to be appropriate scrutiny of all of the documents relating to the refurbishment and approval process at Grenfell, and similar buildings and of fire related inspections or audits carried out before during and after the refurbishment.

Inspection of installed fire protection at each stage of a construction or refurbishment project is crucial, but these do not necessarily have to be done by Building Control; they could be conducted by a competent third party.

The ASFP also believes that Approved Document B needs to be revised to take into account changes in the built environment. This was requested by the Fire Sector Federation in the wake of the Lakanal House fire in 2009, where 6 people died. Recommendations were made there to review AD-B in respect of its usability, guidance in respect of cladding and to consider retrofitting sprinklers. The ASFP supports the Fire Sector Federation position.

Furthermore the Association believes that the interaction between Building Regulations during construction and refurbishment; and the risk assessment process once a building is occupied, must be examined.

Once a building is constructed or a significant alteration is made to an existing building, Regulation 38 of the Building Regulations requires that all relevant facts pertinent to the fire performance of the building are handed over to the owner (Responsible Person). This will allow them undertake a suitable and sufficient fire risk assessment to comply with the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order.

The Association is aware that such information is seldom passed on to building owners and occupiers, meaning that occupiers are often unaware of the presence or location of installed fire protection systems within their buildings or of major changes to the building which may affect its performance in fire.

The ASFP has been working since June 2016 to address issues associated with fragmentation and a lack of transparency and accountability in the construction industry. Together with a number of other stakeholders, it has been working under the RIBA umbrella on a Plan of Works for fire safety.

A small stakeholder group has met four times in 2017 to give the ‘Plan of Works’ some form and has developed a series of matrices which link to the RIBA project management stages.

At each key stage a matrix will identify all the stakeholders and link them to the tasks required of them. The role of design, specification, contracting and installation are paid particular scrutiny, with each stage requiring sign off by the relevant stakeholder and/or a third party as appropriate.

Once complete the initiative will offer access to key documentation at each stage, helping all in the process from design to maintenance to have access to relevant information on installed systems. As the Public Inquiry Team retires to deliberate its terms of reference, the ASFP hopes that it will see that a number of wide-ranging issues may have come together to result in this tragedy. As with the systems installed in the building, we hope that the Inquiry Team will agree that examining only one small part of the system will not deliver a true picture of the issues at stake or address the problem as a whole.

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

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<p>Niall Rowan is Technical Officer at the Association for Specialist Fire Protection</p>

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