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A 'non-risky' business

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technical & practice

Minimising fire risk in sandwich panels might be sensible but it depends on what you understand it to mean

Due for release last month, the Association of British Insurers (ABI) has postponed indefinitely the publication of its new guidance document on the fire performance of sandwich panels. A conference about the guidance, which had been organised for 9 October, was also cancelled at the last minute.

Nobody seems willing to explain the reasons why, but the AJ has been informed that it is due to a legal challenge by a particular manufacturer regarding what it perceives to be misleading content. Hardly surprising really, given that some products come out of the review badly.

Since various manufacturers' interest groups have lobbied hard for their products' fire safety credentials, in recent years, some campaigning has turned nasty: no one wants to admit that their product has failings in this particularly fraught, costly and litigious area of the construction market.

Avoiding the risk of fire in buildings, the fire performance of various insulation products in composite situations, and the minimisation of risk in the insurance industry have jointly and severally created a minefield for specifiers, clients and contractors alike. Each party seems to have a different interpretation of the requirements, and of the performance characteristics of their own particular product, and this has led the insurance industry - the sector that, apparently, picks up the tab for fire damage - to seek to harmonise the standards and give a clear lead to manufacturers. Unfortunately, this harmonisation will have to wait.

Money to burn

Commercial and local authority fires exceed £1.2 billion each year.

Taking into account the knock-on effects of fires, the Norwich Union Risk Services assesses the cost to the UK economy to be nearly £7 billion each year. Most of these fires are minor incidents and relatively few, as it happens, relate to sandwich panels.

But the insurance industry, for its part, has responded in a sweepingly arbitrary fashion. First, it has taken a broad-brush stroke approach to the subject and, instead of understanding the various pros and cons of different composite insulants, tends to brand all foam-based materials in the same flammable risk category as polystyrenes. Insurance agents do not have the time, it would seem, to realistically appraise the fire performance of polyisocyanurates, for instance, or even rigid polyurethane, in situ.

Second, on major projects, insurance companies are pushing manufacturers (and ultimately, architects) to provide disclaimers showing that the composite panel system in situ will not pose a fire hazard. Aside from the ludicrous scenario of insurance companies only providing risk cover after they have been assured that there is no risk, the consequent risk assessment process can bring liability back to unsuspecting parties to the contract.

The idea that the insurance industry should be in a position to determine design and specification decisions, over and above Building Regulations compliance, should be troubling to many of those involved in architecture and construction. It is hardly surprising that some members of the industry have taken umbrage at the ABI document; perhaps it is more surprising that other parties have not.

The issues

The issue is fairly straightforward.

The insurance industry is demanding a high standard of fire resistance and condemning some materials because they fare less well in fire tests than others.

For example, the ABI describes sandwich panels (designed for food prep locations) tested for relative fire growth performance. It indicates that mineral wool/rock fibre performs 'best' (achieving ABI 'non-combustible' classification); polyisocynurate (PIR) is classified 'combustible' and warrants 'caution';

whereas expanded and extruded polystyrenes (XPS/EPS) are deemed to be 'highly combustible'.

While certain manufacturers such as Rockwool are delighted at such a clear endorsement, other manufacturers point out that the insurance industry needs to fall into line with current fire safety practice and adopt a more holistic appraisal of panels in their particular circumstances. Kingspan, for example, which uses rigid urethane cored panels, argues that: a) they should not be equated with polystyrene products as they have much better fire retarding characteristics; and b) they should be assessed together with the actual building's overall fire engineering strategy.

Obviously, in terms of clients now having to provide their own fire risk assessment (see box), commissioning a fire engineering strategy is commonplace, but this is often undermined, or distorted, by insurance demands for greater risk aversion - and hence more precautionary measures than might realistically be necessary.

Ultimately, all insulation products have their pros and cons which should be rationally determined by independent test centres, but, at the moment, the insurers are in the driving seat and do not seem to be listening.

I am indebted to Anna Cherry for her assistance with this article Fire safety reform In July, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM) published 'A consultation document on the reform of fire safety legislation'which outlines proposals to 'simplify, rationalise and consolidate the law with respect to fire safety in buildings in use'. Public comment in this document is required by 22 November - although the consultation is actually reserved for a selected collection of vested/expert opinion - and it is expected that the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order arising out of this process will be brought into force from spring 2004.

The proposals enshrine the risk and goal-based approach to fire safety that was introduced a few years ago and encapsulated in the Fire Precautions (Workplace) Regulations 1997, as amended in 1999.

Compliance is now the duty of the employer rather than the fire authority, although the fire authorities will be expected to identify and pursue all high-risk premises. The proposed changes to fire legislation could result in more fire safety provisions being required.

Currently, fire safety legislation mainly concerns itself with life safety provisions for building occupants. Requirements under Building Regulations and the Fire Precautions Act are geared to ensure that people in a building get adequate warning of a fire and are able to escape from the building in a safe manner. It does not concern itself with property protection, environmental issues, or even the safety of firefighters.

The new fire safety legislation is likely to see substantial changes - so firefighter protection will be embraced, for example. Property protection, and the need to limit damage to the environment, may be included, thereby lifting community fire safety onto a statutory footing.

It is also proposed to reinforce the fire authorities'powers of investigation, and the ability to prosecute deficient contractors. If this proves to be the case, more money may well need to be spent by industry and commerce on effective fire protection measures. It could also result in more contractors going to the wall as industry will be required to gear up for tougher performance standards.

Another aspect of the reform of fire safety legislation is that we are likely to lose the Fire Precautions Act. The introduction and use of this Act has improved fire safety considerably. Losing it could mean that businesses will no longer benefit from fire service inspections of their premises and the subsequent provision of a Fire Certificate. The statutory duty for fire safety will lie with the employer.

The cost of fighting fires

There are more than 200 fires in the workplace every day, although most of these are minor.

Fire losses in food factories (the highest risk category) have risen in the past 10 years, from £12 million in 1991 to £65 million in 1999, although that does not mean there are more fires, or that they are more severe.

One in four businesses never recovers from a serious fire.

The total fire and business interruption claims for commercial premises reached almost £960 million in 2001; more than £2.6 million every day.

67 per cent of fires occur at times when the building is closed (after 6pm).

48 per cent of all serious (classified as causing damage in excess of £50,000) is arson related, although with reference to fires in external claddings this amounts to just 30 incidents per year.

All data sourced from latest Home Office and FPAS/ABI figures

'Designing and building fire-safe buildings of stone wool panels requires knowledge in how such constructions behave in case of fire. A fire-proof stone wool panel is not a fire-safe solution without correct fastening systems and details.'

John Brauer Lynderup, manager, marketing communications, Paroc Panel System

'Current insurance issues with insulated panels appear to relate to concerns about the risks of polystyrene panels - particularly in the food and drinks sector. The record of rigid urethane external cladding panels - both polyurethane and PIR cores - over the last 30 years has been excellent and this should be taken into account when assessing risk and insurability.'

Mark Harris, fire engineering services director, Kingspan

'Composite panels are only one issue of many affecting the insurance market. All types of composite panel have their virtues and vices and unfortunately many have been inappropriately selected for their specific purpose. It will be extremely difficult to insure a large warehouse or factory at affordable rates unless sprinklers are fitted and the presence of composite panels is almost a secondary issue. In the current hard insurance market it is essential that the designer and specifier consult with insurers at the earliest possible stage.'

Mark Newton, property technical manager, risk control, Royal & Sun Alliance

'As a manufacturer of insulation products derived from non-combustible volcanic rock, we welcome the more stringent demands of insurers. However, we would not like to see business livelihoods jeopardised by impossible premiums. Our interest is in the underlying message - buildings which contain fire-resistant insulation materials are inherently safer, so why even consider combustible products in the design?'

Craig Bligh, marketing director, Rockwool

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