While the tragedy at Grenfell last year offered us a sharp reminder of the devastating effect that fire can have, it also starkly highlighted the ambiguity within our whole system of fire regulation and surprised many with its lack of clarity.
This has been echoed in the Interim Report into the Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety calling it “not fit for purpose”. As we await the next phase of this independent review, many are expecting significant change to guidance supporting the building regulations. However, there is now real concern that the changes that Dame Judith Hackitt will recommend may well improve the system but leave the guidance itself untouched, we may just end up papering over the cracks.
The concern is that changes will address the issues highlighted by the Grenfell Tower fire, but will not address the concerns about the current regulations and guidance which many in the fire sector have been highlighting to government for many years. There is an urgent need for a thorough review to address these concerns which are a consequence of the guidance not having been amended for more than 10 years. There is also a pressing need for the review to be broad to allow a much wider look at how we make our buildings resilient – resilient in terms of property protection as well as life safety.
A review of the statutory guidance and the building regulations is long overdue. Approved Document B (ADB) was last reviewed in 2006 and there have been many significant changes over the past 12 years – notably construction processes changes, manufacturing innovation and an evolution in the way we use our buildings. Government has announced a review will now take place but the real question everyone should be asking is whether that review will go far enough.
The public has received a consistent set of messages highlighting the challenges within the guidance with many fire experts pointing out gaps and apparent anomalies. A review that essentially shuffles the words but leaves those gaps and anomalies unanswered within the document would be a huge and potentially very costly mistake. The review must be comprehensive and it must also consider the wider impacts of fire by looking at the impact on our communities, businesses, productivity and the economy.
I strongly believe that systems such as automatic fire sprinklers should be considered more readily as a viable option right across the built environment – not just in tall residential buildings, but in hospital, schools, retail and leisure as well as commercial and industrial buildings. Today automatic fire sprinklers are not widely used in the UK because the guidance rarely prescribes their use. Yet automatic fire sprinklers prevent large fires because they activate automatically over a fire, controlling or even extinguishing the fire before the fire service arrives. They therefore save lives – but they also prevent significant damage or destruction of building by fire. Preserving our buildings and infrastructure is should be considered as an essential element of fire safety too.
Whilst there has been a lot of positive talk about the benefits of sprinklers since Grenfell we need to make sure their benefit is understood. Yes, it is about life safety but the debate should also be about protecting property and with it jobs, livelihoods and local economies.
There is also real concern about the detail of the guidance. It has been widely reported that the current ADB guidance stipulates that for life safety, new residential blocks over 30m high must be fitted with sprinklers, but this does not apply to other sectors, such as student accommodation or hotels. This is a cause of real confusion for the industry. Furthermore, the proposed update to Building Bulletin 100: Design for fire safety in schools does not require the installation of fire sprinkler suppression systems in new school buildings for life safety, replacing a previous government recommendation for sprinklers in new schools.
A shuffling of the words in the guidance will not address any of these issues – a thorough review would. Future regulations must not only be clearer and more robust, they must provide improved fire protection for both life safety and property. Now is the time for our government to look at current regulations and recommendations with fresh eyes and provide not only additional protection for life, but also resilience for the built environment.
Iain Cox is chairman of the Business Sprinkler Alliance