We cannot wait for longer-term regulatory change to come into force, fire safety guidance is needed now – says Lucy Carmichael, RIBA Director of Practice

Lucy Carmichael BW 2018

After the tragic fire at Grenfell Tower, which resulted in such devastating loss of life – including two young people training to become architects – RIBA responded immediately, establishing an expert group to drive forward necessary change, calling for a public inquiry and a strengthening of requirements on cladding, sprinklers and means of escape.

In Dame Judith Hackitt’s subsequent ‘Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety’, commissioned by Government and published earlier this year, she called for ‘greater transparency, accountability and collaboration’ from industry and we, at RIBA, have since been working to directly address this call. 

Taking the lead in shaping the industry’s response, we are now seeking views on a new Plan of Work for Fire Safety which has been developed to clarify where fire safety responsibility lies at each stage of a building’s life. Developed in collaboration with the Association for Specialist Fire Protection, the new process map and management tool sets a framework for best practice behaviours to ensure the life safety of building users - and it’s the start of a long overdue change to our industry’s processes.

But how exactly will a new Plan of Work for Fire Safety address Hackitt’s proposals for ‘culture change’ and make buildings safer for the people who use them?

Designed to apply to a broad range of building types and scales, the Plan of Work brings fire safety to the forefront, from the very outset, when the need for a new building is decided. Fire safety is then woven through the design and construction stages and embedded in the building’s lifetime management.

It’s a tool for the industry – the guidance clearly maps roles, responsibilities and deliverables for fire safe design and construction. It emphasises the duties of those involved in making buildings safer within a collaborative framework; bringing the construction industry, statutory bodies and building owners together. The simple and clear structure incorporates Hackitt’s reference to a ‘golden thread’ to ensure consistency and stresses the importance of coordinating, reviewing and carrying-through fire safety information.

Picking up on the Hackitt Review recommendations for a new regulatory regime, the framework builds in the proposed gateways and designated statutory duties of the building owner, and design and construction leads - to strengthen regulatory oversight and project team accountability. It reinforces that construction must not start before detailed full plans Building Regulations approval, work must be independently inspected on site, and residents must not move in until the fire safety of their building has been certified.

If followed, Building Control and the Fire and Rescue Authority will be more closely involved from an earlier stage. To safeguard specification and detailing, fire safe design will be locked-down and signed-off before a contract is tendered and building work starts.

So, what else must change?

Tenants should be included in the design, management and maintenance of the buildings they occupy - with a direct route to the fire and rescue authority at regular reviews. Where in the past, they may have had little more than a superficial involvement, the new Plan of Work for Fire Safety recommends that building managers engage residents in decisions which will affect the safety of their building.

It is without question that the construction industry needs clear guidance following the Grenfell Tower tragedy. Built environment professionals cannot wait for the outcomes from the lengthy inquiry when there are proactive steps that can be taken right now. We must ensure that the buildings we build are fit for the future and, most of all, safe for all those who live in them. The RIBA Plan of Work for Fire Safety is a step to lead industry in the right direction. 

The RIBA is now inviting detailed feedback on the Plan of Work for Fire Safety from construction industry professionals to ensure that the full range of fire safety considerations are included in a comprehensive roadmap.

The consultation will be open until 11 October 2018. You can respond to the draft RIBA Plan of Work for Fire Safety here.