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If only building owners knew the fire dangers their buildings posed ...

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As the services content of buildings becomes more extensive and complex, arrangements for containing fire and maintaining the integrity of floors and walls penetrated by services becomes ever more difficult.

For example, most new student residences are provided with en-suite bathrooms in order to satisfy today's lucrative conference markets where there is a growing demand for self-contained arrangements rather than shared bathroom facilities.

Indeed, it is this demand for en-suite facilities which traditional Oxbridge colleges, or such fine modern work as Denys Lasdun's accommodation at the University of East Anglia, fail to satisfy. In contrast, I recently attended a conference in Birmingham and was billeted in a new student residential block which, albeit of miserably low ambition in terms of design, had met the client's criteria for en-suite facilities. But, as I lay in bed, aware of every bodily function performed in the bathroom above, I wondered whether the service ducts had been properly 'fire-sealed' as they passed through the floors.

In a recent case, a London college sued its architect and service engineer when it was discovered that 'fire stopping' work had been improperly carried out. The fire strategy, in design terms, met the Building Regulations, and yes, the detailing and specification of this immensely complicated area had been properly worked through. But the builder's efforts had left much to be desired ...

Fire dampers and intumescent collars were generally in place, but the fire-stopping materials that were supposed to pack the gaps between pipes and concrete slabs at each floor level were, in many cases, poorly installed. Holes through the structure had been crudely formed and were often oversized; also, as false ceilings were dismantled for inspection, it became evident that substantial and expensive remedial work would be needed.

This was clearly the builder's prime responsibility: there is no way that an architect's duties extend to inspecting every service entry position! (Indeed, I was told that, in that case, 100 study bedroom units had generated some 1100 penetrations).

The contractor responsible for that work was one of the more distinguished national building companies, whose marketing material has long laid claim to traditional values, care and competence. What was found, of course, was the extensive and shameful evidence of slipshod and incompetent work by 'slaphappy' main and subcontracting outfits. Typically high on quality assurance, this builder was predictably low on quality delivery.

This raises another point of interest, especially with respect to the future safety of the occupants of such buildings. For, however expedient it might appear to the qs to transfer responsibility for detailed design and site inspection to builders, there are lives at risk. In this context, can clients really afford to trust builders to carry out work properly and diligently? Well, as so many architects know, the answer is all too often no! Buildings are becoming ever more complicated in terms of their services, and the associated construction work is, in consequence, ever more demanding.

In relation to matters of fire, there are essentially three stages where care is needed:

Firstly, the fire strategy must be resolved - that is, escape routes, compartmentationand general organisation. And this must be clearly communicated to the remainder of the design team.

Secondly, the detailed arrangements for meeting that strategy must be identified and incorporated into the contract information and it must be impressed upon the builder that it is the duty of the site team to understand that strategy. Finally, the work must be carried out competently and thoroughly. As I have inferred above, the evidence shows that with grim regularity builders fail abysmally at that last hurdle. As a result, the reduced involvement of architects in site inspection roles, which is ever more a consequence of modern procurement methods, is leaving clients very exposed.

So exposed, in fact, that many owners simply cannot afford to learn how dangerous their buildings really are. Sadly, in some cases, it may be left for the coroner to tell them.

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