Fire safety: best done “Right First Time”

The growing cladding fiasco reminds us of a key principle that fire safety is best done “Right First Time” because trying to correct mistakes later on can be horrendously costly.

The Grenfell Fire catastrophe still casts a deep and dark shadow over fire safety. Residents of high-rise blocks continue to express profound dissatisfaction, more than two years after the fire, that they are living in questionably unsafe apartments and that they are faced by life-changing costs as they are left to shoulder the heavy burden of improvements that they can’t possibly be responsible for.

It is estimated that 196,000 people could still be living in dangerous buildings after the combustible cladding problem was first tragically exposed by the Grenfell fire. Using industry sources, the Sunday Times has reported that their investigation suggests 82,000 flats are potentially affected, and that the repair bill could be of the order of £1.4 bn in total (86% for private residences). That’s at least 6 times the £200 m Government has allocated to help with safety improvements for private  residences. The research is reported to cover residential blocks of all heights with questionable rainscreen cladding systems but excluding those built or refurbished before 2013.

No one, it seems, can really be sure on the full extent of the combustible cladding fiasco. And no one can really get a grasp of the upfront costs and the full lifetime costs accruing on residents from the psychological impacts and long-term loss of property values.

Leaseholders find themselves in a horrible trap, with responsibility and accountability landing at their doors when they can’t possibly be held in any way responsible for the original decisions concerning compliance with building regulations and key fire safety principles.

The Government’s new consultation this summer on the regulatory system talks a great deal at its heart of assigning responsibility and accountability through the design, build and regulatory process from start to finish in the occupation and management of the building. Presumably on that basis the issue of who should be held accountable and who should foot the bill for correcting errors in future will be different if this regulatory structural reform comes through into new legislation. But right now there is a massive problem that no one apparently seems able to solve.

Refurbishment costs for affected apartment blocks are variously estimated in the order of around £5m to even £9m depending on the block and what is necessary. Individual flat owners are reported to face personal bills of £70,000 to £80,000 as a share of the replacement and refurbishment costs. There are also costs on a continuous basis for round-the-clock fire warden inspections of around £16,500 per month per flat. Such costs are intolerable. And completely unreasonable. Residents are justified in thinking that responsibilities outlined in the Government regulatory consultation could quite reasonably be assumed to apply already in the normal course of providing building designs and constructions (just as safety is implicitly part of supplying a whole range of consumer products).

Fire safety crucially depends on three key principles for provisions built-into the fabric of the building.

Firstly, compartmentation to prevent fire and smoke spread to other parts of the building. The aim has to be to restrict the chance of fire spread, to localise the fire and make the job of suppression (for example by sprinklers) and extinguishing by the fire and rescue service as effective – safe, easy and quick – as possible. Secondly, comes fire separation to allow occupants to be alerted and to escape safely before conditions become untenable, physically isolated from fire. Thirdly, the fabric and structure of the building needs to be resilient and robust so that it can continue to stand up and resist aggressive fire spread both inside and outside by limiting destruction, burning and flaming. The best way to achieve those aims is by getting levels of fire protection right from the beginning.

Where lives are at stake then surely people and property should come first? Cost-cutting should be seen as false economy, because trying to modify and correct constructions at a later date is far more costly and dangerous in the long run. Function should come before cost. “Right First Time” for fire safety should accordingly be a key dominating principle that needs far more attention than has apparently been the case so far. Hopefully Government through its reforms will recognise that.


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