Ever since the Grenfell Tower tragedy of the 14th June 2017, fire, and the risk it poses, has entered the public consciousness in a way that has not been observed for many years. Given the tragic loss of 72 lives at Grenfell and the highlighting of major issues surrounding the use of aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding on buildings, it is understandable that many stakeholders in the UK are keen to see improvements to the UK’s building and fire-safety regulations.
Fire-Risk in the United Kingdom
Unfortunately, the 2019 update to the FM Global Resilience Index indicates that significant improvements to the UK’s building regulations have yet to occur.
The Resilience Index is an interactive tool which measures 130 countries and territories according to their enterprise resilience to disruptive events. This enterprise resilience measurement is obtained by aggregating the results of 12 drivers of resilience, which are grouped into three factors – economic, risk quality, and supply chain.
One of the four risk quality drivers is fire risk quality. This driver measures the quality and enforcement of a country’s building code with respect to fire-based design, combined with the level of fire risk improvement achieved, given the inherent fire risks in a country.
For the 2019 update to the Resilience Index, the UK was ranked 35 out of 130, the same rank the UK received in 2015, 2016 and 2017 (in 2018 the UK was ranked 34). Whilst the Resilience Index is a relative tool, this stability of ranking across five years does indicate that the significant changes that would improve the UK’s ranking are yet to occur.
Although a ranking of 35 out of 130 for the fire-risk quality driver may not appear to be overly negative, it is striking that the UK’s rank compares unfavourably with other advanced economies. Notable countries with higher resilience with regards to fire-risk quality include: Singapore (#1), United States (#2), Canada (#6), Hong Kong (#9), Germany (#17), Netherlands (#20) and Ireland (#23).
This comparison seems to illustrate that there are steps that the UK could take to improve the fire safety of its built environment, potentially by drawing on the best-practice guidelines from countries that have achieved a higher rank within the Resilience Index.
Improving the UK’s Building Regulations and Enforcement of those Regulations
Although there are a wide variety of measures that the UK government could take that would improve fire-risk quality, FM Global believes that several key issues should be a high priority.
Resolving Issues surrounding Combustible Construction
Whilst the UK Government has banned combustible cladding on certain types of buildings (announced on 29th November, 2018), including high rise residential buildings, owners and building managers should not be complacent.
Firstly, this ban only applies to residential buildings that are above 18 metres in height, and only to new buildings. Although it is understandable that high-rise buildings were considered a priority due to the impact of the Grenfell tragedy, this ban should go further, albeit in a manner proportionate to the risk. Buildings less than 18 metres can be equally susceptible to fire-risk, as the recent fire in a low rise block of flats in Barking highlighted. This fire spread across wooden balconies destroying many homes.
Secondly, it can be very difficult to identify which buildings contain combustible materials, and which do not. In the case of rainscreen cladding, many external panels appear almost identical, and as such it can be very difficult to determine which systems present a risk to the built environment. This is further compounded by a lack of clarity in the UK on how building materials have been tested to ensure their large scale performance.
A major improvement to regulations would be the guarantee that materials that are to be used throughout the built environment are tested in large-scale systems, reflecting their performance when in use on buildings. FM Global’s own FM 4411 test is a good example of a large-scale, representative test which can measure the performance of a cladding system in a fire.
A move in this direction would minimise the possibility of unsafe materials, such as ACM cladding and high pressure laminate cladding, from being used in all new buildings, which could then reduce the likelihood of a similar fire occurring in the future.
Installing Sprinkler Systems as a priority in at-risk buildings
With regards to active fire protection measures, the mandated installation of automatic sprinkler systems in high-risk buildings would also be a major step to improving the UK’s building regulations from a fire safety perspective.
Automatic sprinkler systems are an incredibly effective method for controlling and suppressing fires, and there is clear evidence to back this up. According to a 2017 study by the National Fire Chiefs Council, sprinkler systems controlled or contained the fire 99% of the time (out of 945 cases). For residential buildings, the average damage suffered by a fire with a sprinkler system installed was 4 sq. m compared to 18 sq. m without. In other words, the average damage sustained for sprinklered residential buildings is less than a quarter of those buildings without sprinklers.
When discussing sprinklers it is equally important to dispel various myths that surround these vital systems.
Firstly, when a sprinkler system does activate in response to a fire the water released is often a fraction of the water required should the fire service need to respond. Sprinklers operate quickly, releasing anywhere between 45-200 litres of water per minute, compared to the 700-4000 litres per minute released by fire hoses and jets, with the result that the water damage suffered is reduced significantly.
Secondly, and although Hollywood may like to show otherwise, not all the sprinklers in a building or facility operate at once in response to a fire. Typically, only those sprinkler heads in close proximity to the fire should activate. The Business Sprinkler Alliance highlights that approximately 80% of fires are controlled or extinguished by the operation of fewer than six sprinkler heads.
Finally, it is FM Global’s experience that many companies may believe that sprinklers are too expensive to be installed, representing an unnecessary burden on the construction budgets. When, in fact, the inclusion of sprinklers can provide additional benefits that offset their costs.
Given the potential for buildings to be protected by automatic sprinkler systems, the argument for mandating them for high-risk buildings within building regulations is clear, particularly when the above myths are dispelled.
Including Property Protection in Building Regulations
Finally, an inclusion of property protection within regulatory guidance could also be a significant improvement to the UK’s building regulations.
Although current buildings regulations focus on life safety with regards to fire risk, this focus can result in instances where a fire is deemed successful if no one is hurt, even if the building is completely destroyed. For occupants and owners, the loss of a building could hardly be deemed as a success.
Given these occupants and owners will be looking to quickly reuse a building after a fire, steps to include property protection would help meet these expectations. This incorporation would also help to ensure that the building structure would remain stable for a lengthier period of time during a fire, which will better enable emergency services to fight the fire.
Although the reform of building regulations and guidance will take time, it is imperative that the Government acts as quickly as possible to protect the UK’s built environment and its people. The adoption of automatic sprinkler systems, the removal of questionable combustible materials from existing buildings coupled with a ban on their use in new buildings, as well as the incorporation of property protection in guidance would all be significant steps to improve the UK’s fire safety.
For more information, go to www.fmglobal.com/research-and-resources/tools-and-resources/resilienceindex