A major intent of Government is to implement the recommendations of the Hackitt Review which was set up as an immediate reaction to the Grenfell catastrophe. The report especially suggests attention on building products and systems as well as on designs and details of building work. Hackitt emphasizes the need for a fundamental change in culture. In effect that means a re-balancing of priorities with a re-setting of objectives, with much more of a focus on fire safety in construction.
The fire safety sector for some time before and especially since the Lakanal House fire in 2009 has raised concerns over modern methods of construction and new building materials and systems that are less resilient in fire than traditional materials and constructions.
The Fire Futures Review in 2010 for the coalition government made clear in its built environment report that trends towards lighter and less robust building structures presented a slide towards higher fire risks if not countered by responses in the wider use of effective combined fire protection systems.
And a poll of members of the Fire Sector Federation (FSF) at the time made clear a consensus for re-vamping guidance in Approved Document B (AD B) to better reflect modern building methods and materials. Today’s buildings were seen to be relatively more sensitive to the outbreak of fire.
But that call was not picked up by Government until after Grenfell. When the request for input to the AD B review agenda was made in Feb 2019 Government referred to the potential difficulties from higher levels of building insulation which could lead to more intense fires. There have also been concerns often expressed over higher levels of combustibility, especially where the levels of compartmentation are less robust and building structures less protected by fire stopping against penetration and spread through internal and external constructions.
A factor in the development of more highly insulated structures has been the dominance of energy-efficient and more sustainable building designs, in response to global climate change and the carbon footprint of materials that has come to be such an important environmental concern. Concrete is the second most used substance in the global economy after water, a major element in today’s buildings, but also one of the world’s biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions mainly because of its cement component and the sheer mass of material used on a world scale.
Concerns over the wider environmental impact of concrete is reported to be causing designers to think more in terms of sustainable timber as a structural material, including in high rise residential buildings (The Guardian, 29 Feb 2019). In countries where timber is more recognised as a customary building material (such as Norway, Canada and Japan) there are already advanced plans on projects that are between 14 and 18 storeys based on engineered timber beam structural elements. It should not be ignored that timber-based constructions are likely to be relatively higher risk in fire than concrete buildings. That in turn should lead to equally advanced thinking on the use of available fire safety design measures.
Novelty and originality in building should not be stifled. Innovations and advanced concepts are important generators for economic growth. But it should be clear that creativity in building design needs to be progressed in step with the optimum use of the robust fire safety products and technologies that are already available – for longer resilience and better integrity containment for several hours to protect structures against intense fires, so that new risks can be more effectively countered and neutralised.
It isn’t appropriate to design buildings for the mid-21st century city environment using outdated and limited fire safety concepts. Modern design needs to be integrated with the best of available fire safety solutions. In that respect, as Hackitt suggests, fire safety has some catching up to do. But it shouldn’t be necessary for architectural design simply to go back to the stone age.