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Grenfell: RIBA demands sprinklers and fire escapes for new and refurbished homes

Grenfell tower fire crop
  • 3 Comments

The RIBA has called for sprinklers to be fitted to all new and refurbished homes and has demanded extra fire escapes in its response to the Grenfell Tower fire 

In its submission this week to the Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety led by Judith Hackitt, the institute called for every new multiple-occupancy residential building of more than three storeys to have more than one vertical means of escape.

The RIBA also demanded sprinklers in all new and refurbished residential buildings – as is already the law in Wales – and called for the scrapping of the ‘desk-top’ study approach to demonstrating compliance with regulation B4 on external fire spread.

The RIBA has asked too for ‘clearer, prescriptive and design process-driven guidance’ in approved document B and that external walls of buildings more than 18m high should be constructed of non-combustible (European class A1) materials only.

Hackitt’s call for evidence was launched in July following the tragic fire in the west London high-rise block which claimed the lives of around 80 people.

Studio E Architects designed a £10 million refurbishment of the west London tower block, completed in 2016. The construction work included the installation of Reynobond PE cladding over PIR insulation boards – a system that has come under intense scrutiny for the way it appeared to speed up the spread of the fire up the outside of the building.

Documents seen by the BBC and The Times in the summer appear to show that the fireproof zinc cladding specified in Studio E Architects’ original 2012 planning application was effectively downgraded to a cheaper aluminium panelling system to save around £300,000.

The RIBA urged the review team to also ‘give significant consideration to the impact of procurement decisions and allocation of project responsibilities on project quality and safety, and the role of clients in ensuring independent scrutiny of construction work’. 

Jane Duncan, former RIBA president and chair of the RIBA Expert Advisory Group on Fire Safety, said that while the group welcomed the chance to submit evidence to the review, it felt the remit could have been ‘more comprehensive, addressing the details of Building Regulations guidance as well as the broader regulatory system.’

She said: ‘The review should cover all building types and construction methods; not just those relating to high-rise, multiple occupancy residential buildings. In addition to submitting evidence, the RIBA has also proposed a number of significant recommendations to the review, to enhance the future fire safety of buildings for all residents and users.’

The full RIBA response to the call for evidence can be downloaded here.

The RIBA’s initial detailed recommendations:

 

  • R1 Repeal of The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005, under which building owners undertake their own fire risk assessment, and the reintroduction of mandatory fire certificates for designated premises, based on independent inspections by the fire brigades, with statutory powers of entry to individual dwellings where necessary.
  • R2 An enhanced role for the fire brigades in assisting Building Control authorities in the fire risk assessment of Building Regulations Full Plans Applications for works involving higher risk buildings that will require mandatory fire certificates. 
  • R3 Review of the ‘stay put policy in high-rise, multiple occupancy residential buildings, first introduced in British Standard Code of Practice CP3: Chapter IV (1962) Part 1: Fire Precautions in flats and maisonettes over 80ft (24m) in height. For new buildings, the RIBA has a preference for simultaneous evacuation, or phased/staged fire alarm systems, alternative means of escape options, and increased escape stair widths.
  • R4 Introduction of a Building Regulations requirement for central fire alarm systems, with phased /staged capabilities, in multiple occupancy residential buildings.
  • R5 Removal of the ‘desk-top’ study approach to demonstrating compliance with Regulation B4.
  • R6 Introduction of requirements for sprinklers/automatic fire suppression systems in all new and converted residential buildings, as currently required under Regulations 37A and 37B of the Building Regulations for Wales, or at least for residential buildings over three storeys in height.
  • R7 Introduction of a requirement for more than one means of vertical escape from new multiple-occupancy residential buildings of more than three storeys in height, and no use of compensatory features for the omission of a staircase or alternative means of escape.
  • R8 Review of the requirements for natural and mechanical smoke vent/exhaust provisions to corridors, lobbies and stairs to ensure current performance capacities are sufficient.
  • R9 Development of clearer, prescriptive and design process-driven guidance in Approved Document B, written in plain language with straightforward diagrams. Any test-based solutions to be based on full-scale fire testing and not use desktop studies.
  • R10 External walls of buildings over 18m in height to be constructed of non-combustible (European class A1) materials only. (The independent review should also give detailed consideration to much greater restriction on the use of combustible materials and materials of limited combustibility in external wall construction more generally.)

Extra recommendations

The RIBA added that the independent review should also make recommendations in regard to ensuring the fire safety of the UK’s existing stock of high-rise, multiple occupancy residential buildings, and recommends: 

  • R11 Retrofitting central fire alarm systems in existing residential buildings over 18m in height.
  • R12 Retrofitting sprinklers/automatic fire suppression systems to existing residential buildings over 18m in height, and perhaps extended to all existing residential buildings above three storeys in height.
  • R13 Consideration of the construction of alternative vertical means of escape, or escape safe havens/refuges, for residential buildings over 18m in height when there is currently only one staircase.
  • R14 For new refurbishment projects involving ‘material alterations’ to high-rise, multiple-occupancy residential buildings, the retrofitting of central fire alarm systems and sprinklers/automatic fire suppression systems should be mandatory. This could be structured on a similar basis to the ‘consequential improvements’ required under Part L of the Building Regulations to the energy performance of existing buildings where they are subject to renovation and/or extension.

The development of new materials and methods of construction and constantly evolving knowledge about the fire performance of buildings means that fire regulation needs to be regularly updated. The lack of a periodic timetable for updating of the Building Regulations Approved Documents, which has allowed review of Approved Document B to be almost indefinitely delayed, is highly problematic. 

R15 The RIBA proposes that a formal, predetermined programme for review of key Approved Documents should be adopted, as is the case with the Australian National Building Code. The CDM Regulations (Health and Safety) are reviewed every five years.

Grenfell tower (34552739503) chiraljon

Grenfell tower (34552739503) chiraljon

Principal designer recommendations

Consideration should be given to the adoption of the ‘principal designer’ and ‘principal contractor’ roles set out in the CDM Regulations 2015, with regard to ensuring so far as is reasonably practicable the health, safety and welfare, including fire safety, of those constructing, maintaining and demolishing buildings, within new regulation to also encompass ensuring the fire safety of building users. The ‘principal designer’ should have powers during the design and any ‘contractor design’ periods of projects to enable safe design and construction. This will need greater level of approvals and inspection by building control officers and independent clerks of works/site architects. The ‘principal contractor’ role should have a greater responsibility to work collaboratively with the fire brigades, client and ‘principal designer’ to achieve these fire safety objectives. Such a regulatory framework could include:

  • During construction: Building Inspections conducted formally by the principal designer, principal contractor and the building control officer, and recorded in writing by the principal contractor that the building is constructed in accordance with the approved plans, relevant Building Regulations and codes of practice.
  • Before the issue of the Final Certificate: The Principal Contractor confirms, in writing to the principal designer, that the works to any building have been built in accordance with the approved plans, relevant Building Regulations, codes of practice, fire and HSE legislation.
  • The Final Certificate: Cannot be issued until this written confirmation has been received by the principal designer.
  • Regulation 38: The principal dDesigner shall give all the fire safety information critical to life safety in and around the building. 
  • H&S File: These statements are to be recorded in the H&S File for the life of the building until its demolition.
  • 3 Comments

Readers' comments (3)

  • The RIBA submission should be supported as necessary and overdue changes needed to ensure people in buildings feel safe - and are safe in the case of fire.

    There are a number of points to comment or elaborate on.

    1. The need to re-introduce fire alarm systems so that occupants in a building are aware of a fire and when they should evacuate and use the protected escape routes. The people who sadly died in the EfflinTower fire died because they were not made aware of the fire and to get out of the building until it was too late.
    2. All residents should be provided with clear instructions as what they should do if the fire alarms sound and hen to evacuate the building.
    3. Regular testing of the alarm systems should be re-introduced.
    4. If residents are advised to stay in their flats on the basis the fire will be local and contained There must be a secondary warning that makes it clear to residents that they should evacuate immediately.
    5. It should be clear who instructs that warning should be given. If a Fire Officer is in charge - they will give this warning. If not - it must be clear who has that authority.
    6. If sprinkler systems are to be installed in residential buildings they must be controlled so that only the sprinkler immediate over the fire
    source activates.
    7. Those sprinklers should be the concealed type to prevent them being maliciously or mischievously activated.
    8. The Efflin Tower Inquiry should provide answers to the what caused the initial fire and why it was so intense and spread so rapidly inside as well as outside the building. If as it seems possible the gas installation then this needs to be established as quickly as possible so that appropriate changes or precautions are made to other buildings. Also whether the introduction of sprinklers would have prevented the intensity and spread of the Efflin Tower fire? Owen Luder PPRIBA

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  • I support these proposals generally but R7 - The requirement for multiple vertical means of escape in apartment buildings of 4 storeys (and above) is impractical in many urban infill contexts. Multiple escapes for tall buildings yes, but in a typical narrow London infill - usually 4 storeys - two staircases would leave inadequate space for a flat per floor at London Plan standards. This bit needs a rethink. What would really help these small buildings would be better fire detection and residential sprinklers.

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  • Does Owen’s spellcheck substitute Efgllin for Grenfell? Easily missed. What happened to Lead Consultant, usually an Architect? Sprinklers are always local these days.

    And there has to be an annual fire Escape drill, in the summer, with a Barbie party/good food and a band? Knowing the other residents is very important, and makes for a good party! And part of the problem at Grenfell were the number of sublets. Who was in the building on that fateful morning? If In any doubt, get out before you obstruct the fire brigade climbing the stairs?! And are those stairs clear of rubbish and old furniture? Can lifts be made fireman’s lifts?

    The building Standards for fire were not detailed enough, and confusing. What was mandatory, what was not? Ventilated Fire lobbies at flat entrances applied to 3 storeys as well as 38!

    It has to be economically doable. Sprinklers for all Tower blocks won’t come cheap, and asbestos will have to be encapsulated or removed by more specialist subbies.

    Carry on No 1!

    David

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