New Government guidance just in time for start of Grenfell Phase 2

New consolidated guidance from the Government’s Expert Panel made its timely appearance just before Phase 2 of the Grenfell Inquiry opened on 27 January with initial statements.

The guidance is for building owners of high-rise residential blocks, though its principles apply more widely. It stresses that resident safety should always be an urgent concern.

The focus is on cladding systems and the risks of fire spread over external walls. But owners are also reminded to assess all fire safety risks. They are advised (in effect directed?) to take steps to understand the building construction and its likely behaviour in fire.

Grenfell Phase 2, as well, is expected to focus in a forensic legal way on responsibilities.

That concerns decisions taken along the budgeting, design, specification, supply,construction and building management chain for the main products and product systems that Phase 1 concluded were major contributors to the violence of the fire.

Attention in Government guidance is also drawn to the risks of fire spread via windows, mentioning the surrounds, given that windows are an important element in any façade (and a factor in fire spread to the interior on floors above the initial fire break out).

It should be understood that normal window glazing does not have significant resistance against fire, including standard double glazing.

Glass products that are not specifically fire resistant readily fall apart in fire; and there is clearly a distinct risk of fire transfer both from the inside to the façade and from a burning façade back into the building through a window opening created when glass falls out.

Special fire-resistant glass and glazing systems are necessary to limit the risks of fire spread through windows – though UK practice does not make best use of f-r glazing in that way to limit the chances of fire spread by break out and then break back in from a burning façade.

Yet fire-resistant glazing is well-established for various internal applications, for many decades. It’s a common product, readily available and easily sourced. Fire-resistant glass used in the façade does not need to be particularly sophisticated: just integrity fire resistance performance would be enough to maintain effective containment.

For example, ceramic glass at only 5mm thick is immune to thermal stress. It can happily survive in fire conditions (uniquely) at such a thickness even when impacted with a firefighter cold hose stream, typically demonstrated after 4 hours’ exposure in a full-on standard fire test, sprayed on the hot face. That is a particularly significant benefit.

Glazing solutions are already available to reduce the severe risks of fire spread from inside to outside and from outside back inside. They just need to be specified and implemented.

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The Queen’s Speech signals stronger building fire safety

Rarely has such intent been expressed in a Queen’s Speech to bring into law measures to tighten fire safety.

Two bills have been announced:

The first, on building safety, addresses mainly lessons from the 2017 Grenfell fire with commitment to implement the recommendations from the Hackitt Review. The bill sets out to strengthen the whole regulatory regime – which presumably can be taken to include enforcement – for buildings and products. Part is also to give residents a stronger voice. Emphasis will be on responsibility and accountability. Making sure that the right people who make mistakes are brought to book is there and specifically noted.

Where products and building resilience are concerned then levels of performance will be emphasized.

That could, one can imagine, require a re-consideration towards longer resistance times given the uncertainty of fire and the extreme intensities of modern fires, as so
catastrophically shown by Grenfell. This may also mean wider use of barrier materials that are less vulnerable than others to thermal stress and high temperatures characteristic of modern fires.

The second bill, on fire safety, signals intent to implement the recommendations from the Moore Bick Grenfell enquiry. It aims to make sure that another Grenfell never happens again. And it will update the Fire Safety Order (2005).

That’s to include, for example, risk assessments of the façade concerning potential to affect everybody in common.

It’s possible to see that parts of fire safety building design will have to be reviewed, and they may in part mean improved levels of resilience and better assurance that constructions can adequately resist fire.

Much safer buildings will require better protection for occupiers to get out without risks to their lives, with much more time to do so, especially if circumstances determine they become trapped and more vulnerable due to heat and smoke.

More access may be necessary to more resilient sanctuaries than normally provided. Extended protected times to contain fire spread and protect against flames may well be critical. And construction will need to be robust enough to allow that to happen.

This Parliament will be a major one for fire safety in 2020 as the Grenfell enquiry picks up again on 27 January.


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