On 6 June the Government launched a major consultation covering proposals for a new fire safety regulatory regime primarily for high-rise residential blocks as well as consultation on a significant updating of the Fire Safety Order 2005 (FSO) for occupied non-domestic buildings.
The Government’s intent after all the shocks to fire safety is very clear: enforcement will be tightened and much better compliance achieved by holding named individuals responsible and accountable, subject even to legal process.
The proposals amount to a major revolution in the regulatory regime for fire safety in buildings. Fire safety will not be the same in the future as it has been in the past. The Government is seeking endorsement, but their course is clearly set. They are not asking questions over the structure of the changes – which is effectively fixed – but only on some of the associated finer details.
In May Communities Secretary James Brokenshire had made a clear that the scandal of unsafe fire risk cladding was a matter of Public Safety and could not be tolerated. Now we see the follow-up. There will be a new control system. A new Safety Regulator will be created to monitor, oversee, direct and take action, bringing even criminal charges if necessary. And there will, for sure, be less likelihood than in the past of fire safety not being given the focus that the risks of fire demand.
The main theme in the proposed reform of the building regulatory system is to tighten fire safety by focusing on a whole building and whole process approach concentrated and based on the risks of fire. Better compliance and stronger enforcement are the aims. Named individuals in key roles – for example the person owning and operating the building when occupied, the client for building projects, and key actors in the process such as the Principal Designer and the Principal Contractor – will be named, registered and held responsible and accountable as key recognised duty holders.
The scope concerns at this point high-rise residential buildings (over 18m) concerning new build from the beginning of the approvals and planning process through design to occupation. That’s where the most urgent response is needed. It is also proposed to extend the system to embrace refurbishment as well. But there are pointers in the consultation that the new system will not stop there. Higher risk types of buildings and occupancies are included in the consultation, for both building regulations and the FSO.
It isn’t sensible to have more than one building regulatory regime in action. So the common expectation is that the principles declared in this regulatory reform will come to be applied to all types and functions of buildings covering fire safety.
As paragraph 238 of the reform declares, the Government are considering placing all duty holders under a general duty to promote building safety and the safety of people in and around buildings. A duty is an implicit obligation. And duty holders are expected to be self-aware, to self-evaluate their competencies to discharge their core duties.
The Building a Safer Future consultation proposes that the central Building Safety Regulator (BSR) responsible for the new regime will provide what are referred to as “effective incentives” to those responsible for buildings (including those in responsible roles in the design, supply and build process) “to deliver high standards of safety”.
Those high standards cannot be achieved by just ticking boxes or doing just the bare minimum the reform makes unambiguously clear.
- A three-step approach is proposed:
- Reinforcement of operating standards and provision for professional guidance, on an “informal” basis (it is said) to secure compliance. What one could say is “friendly but firm advice”.
- Proactive (and forceful) intervention and monitoring by the BSR to secure compliance, perhaps involving stop notices or improvement notices: effectively determined policing.
If non-compliance still persists then the Regulator can take formal enforcement action, which can include formal orders, penalties, perhaps revocation of the building safety certificate and even prosecution (which includes mention of criminal offences): a resort to unbending legal action.
A risk-based approach to building safety linked with the aim to develop high standards means that there will need to be a whole range of measures employed to minimise fire hazards and to reduce potential fire risks to manageable and controllable levels.
Clearly different building risk and occupancy profiles need to be countered by packages of fire safety provisions and precautions that are aligned and in accordance with those risks. That’s the central rationale for risk-based design.
Discussions within the fire safety sector are already talking of considering the measures that are necessary for property protection (not currently a main objective of building regulations).
It is natural that building owners and principal designers will now look ever more towards enhanced levels of protection against fire to protect both people and property assets.
The higher standards that come from considering property protection implicitly and automatically lead to higher standards to counter the higher risks from fire to people, especially in large and tall multi-occupancy buildings where escape is not so easy given major fire occurrence either inside or outside and where there is little margin for mistakes and assumptions on what might or might not happen.
Time is critically important in fire. And the threat of rapid fire growth in modern combustible building environments means that secure fire containment linked with effective suppression to minimise fire intensity and spread will become more important. Thoughts naturally lead to the application of sprinklers. And to longer fire resistance times for barriers intended to provide fire compartmentation. For protected escape the minimum standard is to provide 30-minute fire-resistant barriers determined in a furnace standardised test, when exposed to full fire development from one side.
Given the delays and confusions that can so easily arise in complex and congested buildings, 30 minutes is barely enough. In some cases, 60 minutes may be specified, but on a limited basis. But for more intense and longer fire times much longer fire resistance capability enhanced levels of resilience exposure are really required if risks are to be minimised to the lowest possible level.
The new system will be much less tolerant of unwarranted risks being taken with people’s lives.
Much longer robust resistance times are possible. FireLite ceramic because of its nature is effectively immune to thermal stress and has a high melting point well above typical temperatures in developed fire conditions. It has a well-established record of testing for a four hours exposure – retaining a transparent whole barrier, without any significant change. FireLite is also comfortable if sprayed by water from a firefighter hose stream or from an array of sprinklers. It is entirely possible to combine FireLite ceramic with sprinkler arrays to form a water curtain glazed array if designers want to search for the highest levels of assured protection against fire.
If better fire safety and higher standards are the aim now as this building regulatory reform intends, then the designer needs to look further afield than just on the standard minimum provisions that have come to be regarded as all that is necessary. If they do look further afield, then the designers and specifiers will find that there are solutions there, available to provide enhanced levels of fire-resistant protection against fire up to and including four hours under furnace test conditions of robust resistance using resilient ceramic glass which remains unchanged under aggressive fire conditions.