Dame Judith Hackitt’s review into fire safety – prompted by the Grenfell disaster – will have consequences for every aspect of how we build homes. Many of the potential changes will favour the medium-sized building
Since last year’s tragic fire at Grenfell Tower, in which 71 people died, the question of what on earth to do with the hundreds of tower blocks with comparable fire safety issues has loomed large and unsolved – like the charred remains of Grenfell itself – over the industry. A stalemate appears to have been reached, with landlords keen to start work, but the government seemingly unwilling to provide the funds to make the changes, and unable (given ongoing reviews and inquiries) to say exactly what should be done in any event.
So far, however, comparatively little attention has been given to the wider issue of what the inevitable regulatory changes flowing from Grenfell may mean for new-build housing. Certainly, if the requirements for refurbishing existing towers are unknown, they are equally so regarding new home development. And with developers right now in the market to buy land that may not be developed for four or five years, they need to be able to factor in any big changes in the standards they have to build them to. Despite the paucity of hard information, some in the industry are speculating that a regulatory revolution could potentially sweep away the types of city development we have become familiar with, replacing the high-rise towers of the past decade with a new generation of shorter “mid-rise” schemes.
Design and dump
In December, former HSE chair Dame Judith Hackitt’s interim findings from her post-Grenfell review of fire safety regs didn’t pull any punches, declaring the whole regulatory system as “not fit for purpose”. Hackitt’s report, which looked beyond building regulations at the entire system of processes, competencies and structures designed to ensure fire safety, has been welcomed as a necessary wake-up call for the industry. It clearly indicated she intends to review issues such as the use of so-called “desktop studies” (whereby developers ask a fire specialist to take data from other fire tests to show a solution complies with the building regulations) and the processes that allow materials to be substituted during the construction process to cut cost (see Hackitt interim report findings, below), as well as the systems that ensure the competency of key individuals.
Hackitt’s report blamed these deficient processes for an identified “widespread deviation from what is originally designed to what is actually built”. Most relevant to housebuilders, she blamed both inadequate enforcement and use of sanctions by Building Control, alongside the prevalence of design-and-build contracting in a system fixated on reducing costs. Jim Martin, executive chair at consultant Martin Associates, says: “In a culture of lowest cost, design and build becomes a race to the bottom.” However, he cautions that homes could be made more expensive if it is got rid of entirely. “Design and build can make buildings more efficient and buildable. You’ve got to give a builder the ability to substitute materials,” he says.
Likewise, reform of Building Control – both in terms of process and the competence of officers – could have a significant impact on housebuilders. Independent sustainability consultant David Strong says: “The big question is whether we are finally going to take [Building Control] enforcement seriously, or allow the current cosy system to continue. If the rhetoric does result in a robust enforcement regime it’s going to be a major issue for housebuilders, as at the moment so many things are just waved through without proper checking.”
Furthermore, Simon Bayliss, managing partner of housing architect HTA Design, says that if the building control process is tightened up, this would also have the effect of speeding the move away from traditional build techniques toward factory-based construction methods, where consistent quality is easier to deliver.
“When [HTA] deliver modular schemes, the project is always fully designed before the contract is agreed, so thereafter there are very little changes,” he says. “When everything is built in a factory, there’s a much higher chance the quality of finish will prevent problems later on. I think the response to Grenfell will drive the industry even faster toward modern methods.”
What the regs say
On cladding and insulation: The general principle in the guidance document covering fire safety, Approved Document B, is that material on the outside of a building taller than 18m should be of “limited combustibility” and have adequate surface resistance to flame. However, confusion has stemmed from the fact the relevant paragraphs don’t mention cladding specifically, and because the guidance also sets out a number of alternative routes for complying. These include through passing a desktop study or a whole system test, in which individual elements of a system can be combustible.
On sprinklers: Since 2006 Approved Document B has included a requirement for buildings of more than 30m in height – around 10 storeys – to have sprinkler systems fitted.
On means of escape: The general principle in the approved document is that buildings of more than 4.5m in height should have two means of escape. However, this stipulation can be avoided as long as all flats are within a specified maximum distance from the escape stairwell.
However, while Hackitt’s report said a lot about how processes needed to change in order to create a robust regulatory structure, it contained precious few hints of the actual likely future content of the building regulations and guidance themselves. She determinedly didn’t address any of the questions that have most exercised the media and the public since the blaze – such as what cladding and insulation materials are safe, whether sprinklers should be required more often and whether additional means of escape are necessary on high-rise structures – saying to do was “beyond my area of competence.”
In fact for housebuilders the interim findings have made it, if anything, even harder to judge where regulations might be going. Hackitt has pushed the task of streamlining and simplifying existing building regulations guidance back on to government, a process Hackitt admits “may take some time”. She also calls on the government to at the same time reconsider the scope of the body that advises it on it, BRAC, noting that up to now it has focused largely on sustainability and less on fire safety, and to further distinguish between the regime for simple homes and more complex taller structures.
Hackitt also made clear she believes it is for the industry itself to determine the detailed building solutions that meet fire regulations, rather than government to prescribe. The implication of lower levels of regulatory prescription in future could give housebuilders more flexibility – but is something many have found alarming. Jonathan Evans, chief executive at steel frame supplier Ash and Lacy, says a greater reliance on individual competence rather than prescriptive standards to meet regulations is “a potential nightmare of confusion and lack of standardisation”.
“Tall buldings will come down in height, and lower buildings will come up”
David Birkbeck, Design for Homes
“It could confuse the hell out of building control, who will be faced with an infinite variety of systems, materials and assessments that they have no way of keeping track of,” he says.
But despite this lack of direction on building regulations, the many industry submissions to Hackitt’s review – the final version of which is due out in the spring – and the practice on the ground is already giving a sense of where new regulations might go. Changes to what is required on the big issues of cladding systems, sprinklers and means of escape (see What the regulations say, above) could undoubtedly have a big impact on construction cost. For example, requiring a second means of escape on all residential buildings above 18m – as called for by the RIBA – would both add cost through the need for an additional or larger core, while simultaneously cutting potential returns for developers by using valuable space that might otherwise generate returns. Meanwhile, installing sprinkler systems also adds cost and plumbing complexity, while mineral fibre insulation can cost more and take up more room than flammable foam versions, again taking up saleable real estate.
Hackitt interim report findings
What it said: Responsibility for meeting building regulations should go to “identifiable senior individuals”
Industry response: Brian Berry, chief executive of the Federation of Master Builders, says: “The existing CDM rules are a framework where people understand who the duty holders are and could be adapted to building regulations. Clarity about responsibility is a good thing, it drives professionalisation and continuous professional development.”
What it said: There is a lack of systems for ensuring building control staff competency, and a failure by staff to enforce regulations
Industry response: Simon Bayliss, managing partner at architect HTA, says: “Changing the system of building control would be such an about face from government, and the point will be made that more building control staff will slow down delivery of homes.”
What it said: The “desktop study” route of complying with building regs should be “significantly restricted”
Industry response: Jim Martin, executive chairman of consultant Martin Arnold, said: “The desktop route has been used widely. But in future the studies are going to have to be much more detailed and take more time.”
What it said: Possible reinstatement of the “clerk of works” role on building sites
Industry response: Rico Wojtulewicz, strategic policy advisor at the House Building Association, says: “They may push up the price of development but a good one is a valuable asset for both client and developer. If reinstated, the government would need to make sure that the appropriate training and qualification period was implemented as many clerks of works have retired.”
Richard Steer, chairman of consultant Gleeds says that all of these changes together could easily add 15-20% to the cost of a residential tower block. “It’s not just private developers but housing associations that will have to spend more on high rise. Social housing costs could increase significantly,” he says. The first thing this could do is exacerbate the existing geographical focus of high-rise residential development on London. David Birkbeck, chief executive of Design for Homes, says: “London’s sales values often cover higher costs, but what if you’re trying to get schemes off the ground in Ipswich or Newcastle where the crash is still holding back apartment values.”
More fundamentally, big changes could affect what forms residential buildings commonly take. Birkbeck says that on many sites, a requirement for two means of escape could cause inefficiency as more of residential’s typically shallow floor plates are dedicated to extra cores. This is likely to see a reduction in height to avoid regulation, with the habitable space lost transplanted to building up other parts of a site. “Tall buildings will come down in height, and lower buildings will come up,” he says.
HTA’s Bayliss agrees these drivers could affect site viability for traditional building types. “There would be an impact, say, of two means of escape. It would move us away from taller, thinner buildings. You can possibly see a move to medium-rise development driven by viability.”
But some of these changes are already happening. For a number of years housebuilders have been moving toward cladding towers in brick for reasons of cost and aesthetic – after Grenfell, suggests Birkbeck, this shift will consolidate for a generation. “The brickwork ‘new London vernacular’ facade is the fashion of the moment,” says Birkbeck, “and after Grenfell I can’t see the public trusting much else.
Meanwhile architect Make is now promoting two means of escape on its projects to clients, even where not currently required by building regulations. Likewise, HTA’s Bayliss says clients on recent projects are already asking for mineral wool insulation, GRC (non-flammable) cladding and sprinkler systems even where not necessary for current regs compliance. “Whatever the regulations say, I expect there will be very little use of ACM cladding in future,” he says.
So while it’s not possible to say exactly what’s coming down the track, the sense of a major imminent shift is undeniable.