Let’s Make High Rise Fire Risk a Thing of the Past

Let’s Make High Rise Fire Risk a Thing of the Past

11th July 2018

It’s been over a year since the whole of the UK watched in horror as Grenfell Tower burned out of control resulting in the tragic deaths of 75 people in an incident that should have been fully avoidable.  This was the worst residential fire in the UK since the Second World War and it resulted in several investigations, including a public inquiry.  Building regulations came under review in the wake of the tragedy in the shape of the Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety led by Dame Judith Hackett, a senior engineer and civil servant with experience as the Chair of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). 

Dame Judith’s final report was published in May, 2018 and outlined a number of key failings and recommendations, although, surprisingly, the report did not recommend a ban on the use of combustible cladding (which was largely to blame for the rapid spread of the fire) on high rises buildings.  The Hackett Report concluded that ignorance and indifference led to a “race to the bottom” in building safety practices, with cost-efficiency given priority over safety!

However, an issue that did become clear is that for any future building projects, full system testing and fire safety are vital elements for any organisation within the construction supply chain.  This extends from the initial design phases to the care taken when installing systems and safety measures to the long term maintenance and upkeep of buildings. 

It seems that focusing on the performance of one standalone product in the event of a fire, without taking into consideration a range of other factors which may allow a fire to spread more easily, is a simplistic approach that does not adequately address all of the risks involved. 

Whilst striking the right balance between the needs to keep costs down and the requirements to comply with health and safety legislation and fire regulations may be challenging for the construction industry, prioritising economy over safety can never be acceptable.  It’s vital that all construction products and building materials undergo stringent full system testing in future. 

The UK Building Regulations require that internal wall linings (for instance plaster, plasterboard, or wooden boards on walls and ceilings) resist the spread of flames and only give off reasonable levels of heat if on fire.  Moreover, when it comes to external fire spread (which was the main culprit in the Grenfell Tower fire) the external walls and roof must resist the spread of fire to walls ad roofs of other buildings.  However, not all buildings are currently required to have non-combustible exterior finishes.

Although combustible materials on the outside of tall buildings must comply with building regulations, this guidance has often been interpreted as applying only to the insulation materials, and not the exterior cladding used.  There are still concerns that fire tests may not accurately reflect real life when a building, cladding and insulation are subject to wear and tear.

Building regulations here in the UK are constantly under review and for those of us working in the construction sector, it’s vital that we keep up to date with all current and new regulations in order to avoid similar tragedies in future.