In this article, Dr Nick Williams, Course Leader on the Building Control Surveyor Apprentice Degree and Senior Lecturer at the University of Wolverhampton discusses the recent updates to fire safety law in the UK and what these updates mean for building management.
Recent changes to Fire Safety Law
The tragic events of the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017 have since led to a tightening of building safety law. For example, the Building Safety Act 2022 which recently received royal assent was described by the former housing minister Robert Jenrick as the “biggest change in building safety for a generation”. The Building Safety Act has understandably been the subject of many recent conferences and articles. However, the purpose of this article is to inform about some other recent less-publicised developments in fire safety design and building management law.
Fire safety standards in new and refurbished high-rise residential buildings
Approved Document B
In 2018, Regulation 7 of the Building Regulations was amended to explicitly ban the use of combustible cladding in the external walls of ‘relevant buildings’ such as new-build high-rise flats, their refurbishment or change of use to such. This was in response to the Grenfell Tower Fire and emerging evidence that the use of flammable cladding on the building was far from an isolated incident. The ban applies to any building with a storey at least 18m above ground level which contains one or more dwellings. It also applies to student accommodation, care homes, sheltered housing, hospitals and dormitories. It requires that all materials which become part of an external wall or specified attachment on such buildings achieve no less than European Class A2-s1, d0. This reduced the potential for misinterpretation of the previously permitted standard of Class 0 (limited combustibility) under British Standard 476 Fire Tests (BS476). This older standard has effectively been superseded in England by the European classes which Approved Document B (AD B) and the Building Regulations in England now primarily reference.
British Standard EN 13501 is a more informative standard as it indicates a materials’ reaction to fire, the amount of smoke it generates, and the extent to which it produces burning droplets. Readers who are following the Grenfell Enquiry (ongoing at the time of writing) may be minded that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower did not meet the combustibility limitations in AD B even prior to this update. However, the change removes room for misinterpretation of the required standards of combustibility for materials used on the external walls of high-rise flats and other in-scope buildings.
Amendments to Approved Document B
Approved Document B was further amended in 2019. At this time, the guidance for blocks of flats was moved from Volume 1 (buildings other than dwellings) to Volume 1 (dwellings). Several previous amendments were consolidated into updated AD B1 and B2 documents.
In November 2020, AD B was again amended to alter the threshold for installing sprinkler systems in residential and mixed-use premises. The requirement applies to work including new-build, changes of use, material alterations and extension. Prior to this, sprinklers were required for any such building with at least one floor above 30m. Since this amendment, they are required where such buildings have at least one floor above 11m. New guidance was also included in AD B requiring the provision of consistent wayfinding signage for use by the fire service in flats. Again, this applies to in-scope buildings with a top floor more than 11m above ground level. Signage should include floor level identification and information about flats accessed on that floor.
Which amendments to regulations are coming into force from December 2022?
The most recent amendments were made to both the Building Regulations and Approved Document B in June 2022. The 2019 editions of AD B1 and B2 (which incorporate the 2020 amendments) must be read in conjunction with the 2022 amendment document. The new Building etc (Amendment) (England) Regulations 2022 and amendments to AD B come into force on 1st December 2022.
- From 1st December 2022, the ban on the use of combustible cladding will be extended to include building work on relevant buildings, such as with at least one floor above 11m in height. The external surfaces of external walls and materials (e.g., specified attachments, insulation etc) should be no less than class A2-s1, d0.
- Previously the definition of ‘relevant building’ (to which the ban on use of combustible external wall materials applied) excluded hostels, hotels, and boarding houses. The rationale for this is that such premises generally have a high degree of fire detection provision with many having a 24-hour desk/concierge. A counterargument to this is that guests are likely to be familiar with their surroundings and in some cases intoxicated, adding to confusion in the event of the need to evacuate. From 1st December 2022, the exemption for hotels and hostels etc will be removed.
From 1st December 2022, all highly combustible Aluminium Composite Material cladding of the type involved in the Grenfell Tower Fire will be prohibited outright for use in the external walls of all buildings during building work, irrespective of height. This applies to types of “relevant metal composite material” specified in the new AD B. This effectively means any cladding panel which has a combustible core sandwiched in-between two thin sheets of metal or alloy.
Fire Safety (England) Regulations 2022
In June 2022, the Fire Safety (England) Regulations 2022 were introduced, most provisions being enforceable from January 2023. These add to certain existing requirements on building owners and managers to assess and manage the risk of fire in high-rise residential buildings (and others) under the Regulations Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005. The new regulations implement several recommendations made to government in the Grenfell Tower Inquiry Phase 1 report. The enquiry found that on the night that the fire broke out, firefighters arriving on the scene struggled to access the building. Critical information about the building which they needed for firefighting and rescue purposes was passing or inadequate. Control measures designed to reduce the spread of smoke and flame such as fire doors, not function as they should have done.
New regulations for persons responsible for high-rise residential buildings:
- Provide their local Fire and Rescue Service with up-to-date building floor plans which also identify key firefighting equipment
- Provide to their local Fire and Rescue Service information about the design and materials of a high-rise building’s external wall system and inform the Fire and Rescue Service of any material changes to them
- Undertake monthly checks on the operation of firefighters’ lifts and evacuation lifts in their building and check the functionality of other key pieces of firefighting equipment. There will also be a requirement to report any defective lifts or equipment to their local Fire and Rescue Service as soon as possible after detection if the fault can’t be fixed within 24 hours. Responsible persons must record the outcome of checks and make them available to residents
- Install and maintain a secure information box in their building. This box must contain the name and contact details of the responsible person and hard copies of the building floor plans.
- Undertake annual checks of flat entrance doors and quarterly checks of all fire doors in the common parts of the premises
Provide residents with instructions on how to report a fire, information on the strategy for that building and what they must do once a fire has occurred.
New requirements for the assessment and management of fire safety risks
Fire Safety Act 2021
One of the key purposes of the 2021 Act is that it clarifies the scope of the fire risk assessment required under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005. The Order applies to non-domestic premises including workplaces and also common parts of multi-occupied residential buildings.
The 2021 Act makes it clear that in addition to the common parts of flat blocks, the fire risk assessment must also include the structure, external walls (including cladding and balconies) and individual flat entrance doors. This removes any ambiguity and is aimed at helping ensure fire risk assessments carried out on behalf of responsible persons are suitable and sufficient. To comply, responsible persons should regularly review the fire risk assessment of their building(s), particularly if there is reason to suspect that it is no longer valid, or there has been a significant change to the organisation or the building(s) etc. The responsible person/fire risk assessor should also consider whether a more in-depth assessment of the external walls is required. For example, if the building has external cladding, this is likely to warrant a more detailed PAS 9980 assessment. Buildings with masonry external walls and low-risk buildings do not normally present any significant risk of fire spread. In these cases, the fire risk assessor will normally address compliance of external wall construction as part of the routine fire risk assessment process.
How has the 2021 Act impacted fire risk assessments?
Many fire risk assessments have been (or are in the process of being) reviewed following the introduction of the 2021 Act. The demand for competent professionals to update fire risk assessments is understandably high. However, responsible persons should apply suitable due diligence when selecting fire risk assessors. There is currently no statutory registration for fire risk assessors. This places responsibility on responsible persons who own and/or manage buildings to ensure that the persons they appoint have the requisite knowledge and skills. The initial evidence heard during the Grenfell Tower Enquiry is suggestive that not all persons offering fire risk assessments have the necessary competence to do so, particularly concerning high-rise residential and more complex buildings.
The Fire Sector Federation maintain a National Listing useable by anyone who wants to identify an individual or company that can provide fire risk assessment services to a recognised industry standard. They recommend that for the highest fire risks, such as flat blocks etc, the appointed assessors should have Third Party Accreditation, the two widely recognised offering this being the Engineering Council (EngC) and the UK Accreditation Service (UKAS).
To prioritise the demand competent professionals are facing, a Fire Risk Assessment Prioritisation Tool has been developed by the government. The Fire Risk Assessment Prioritisation Tool allocates buildings into five priority categories from Tier 1 (very high priority) to Tier 5 (very low priority). Tier 1 and 2 buildings are afforded the highest priority. More details of the prioritisation tool are provided in the end-references section.
In her 2018 Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety (CM 907), Dame Judith Hackitt identified failures leading to the Grenfell Tower Fire to be “ignorance”, “indifference” and “inadequate regulatory oversight and enforcement”. The subject of fire safety both in the construction and management of existing buildings has recently been (and continues to be) subject to considerable change. Unfortunately, it took such a tragedy to make building safety the priority that it needs to be.
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