Regulations are changing and some are still ambiguous, so it makes sense to go above and beyond official current standards when it comes to specifying safe materials, says Peter Long of Optima Systems

One concern I hear voiced regularly in the world of office development and fit-out is that, due to increased competitiveness in this sector, some specifiers are doing the bare minimum in terms of safety. Needless to say, this will cause issues down the line, when product fire ratings and safety records will be needed by building safety managers using strict new “golden thread” digital documentation, expected to become mandatory in the near future.

Peter Long Headshot

Peter Long is fire and certification director at Optima Systems

Although Grenfell was a wake-up call for all of us, the Building Safety Bill has mainly focused on the residential built environment. Commercial buildings’ regulations are still quite lenient, and there is ambiguity around what good fire safety systems management should look like today, and indeed how to be prepared for incoming building regulations.

What is certain is that office interiors specification and ongoing checks and understanding of fire safety ratings for things like interior doors, panels and partitions are likely to be hugely challenging for landlords, building owners and facilities managers in the coming years.

For this reason, I would strongly recommend going beyond current standard building regulations when it comes to specifying materials for office interiors, to future proof and to keep everyone safe.

Fire safety R&D has reached new heights

Help is at hand because we have seen great improvements across the industry regarding the development of fire safety rated products and materials. With suppliers working alongside designers and fire regulatory bodies there has been an increase in the number of project-specific developments. As a result, projects are now being offered bespoke fire solutions as opposed to simply installing the best fit.

Meanwhile, continued R&D has led to many organisations looking ahead and anticipating the changing needs and trends within built environments. This leads to more testing and more product development for applications not already covered by existing systems.

This commitment to providing projects with the best performing fire solutions generates a constant drive for new and better products.

CPD and training is essential

It is worth pointing out that specifying fire-rated products does not inherently make the space fire-safe. You have to put in place a systems approach so that the installation and risk assessment of fire-rated products are regularly overseen once the building is in use.

Even the slightest modification to a fire-rated product – such as changing a glass door’s opening system, for example – can compromise its integrity. So detailed training and continued professional development (CPD) for specifiers, and people managing office buildings, must be factored in.

It is vital to fully understand the product being specified, to be sure that it is used in the correct ways. 

It is vital that those specifying and installing these systems have a detailed understanding of their characteristics

Increased training and CPD will keep us on track to cope with the degree of detailed knowledge required to specify in line with need, and meet the high standards of the near future. The latest high-performance glass doors in offices today are specialised pieces of technology, and fire-rated systems behave very differently to other glass partitions or doors. Therefore, it is vital that those specifying and installing these systems have a detailed understanding of their characteristics.

The introduction of the RIBA’s new educational and professional development framework reinforces this increased focus on training and development, and many companies across the sector have created their own internal training and certifications. This ensures that employees are receiving the correct training while allowing companies to tailor development to their own specific requirements.

Can fire safety and great design coexist in the office space? Yes definitely. This is because the latest glazed and sliding doors, “office pods” and acoustically-optimised partitions are manufactured with fire safety, sustainability and sleek design in mind. Many office partition systems also allow for natural light and air circulation to flow through the space, which helps improve staff wellbeing in the office.

Act now for safer workplaces

Fire safety is of the utmost importance and it is time for the industry to get up to speed with understanding fire safety standards, testing and reporting regimes and ongoing compliance as the rules tighten. Thankfully there are fantastic fire-resistant solutions coming to market, and a great deal of help is available from materials manufacturers and suppliers, to bridge the knowledge gap responsible parties might be experiencing today.

Peter Long is fire and certification director at Optima Systems