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Material fire testing ‘utterly inadequate’, insurers claim

Grenfell tower guido van nispen flickr
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The insurance industry is calling for an overhaul of fire testing for building materials after a post-Grenfell study exposed its ‘utter inadequacy’ in reflecting real-world conditions

The Association of British Insurers (ABI) commissioned the Fire Protection Association (FPA) to carry out a study of the British Standard testing system in response to the Grenfell Tower fire, reports the AJ’s sister title Construction News.

The FPA aimed to create tests that reflected ‘real-world’ conditions, following suggestions that BS tests were carried out under ideal conditions with pristine materials and lower-temperature fires.

Its tests looked at the types of fire that commonly occur, how well cladding is installed, and how cladding can be altered by factors such as vents and ducts.

The FPA reported that its ‘real-world’ parameters led to larger areas of cladding being consumed more rapidly by fire that was significantly hotter.

One test, which involved burning plastic commonly found in homes and commercial premises, had to be halted as the heat of the fire threatened the safety of the lab.

The ABI said: ‘Research conducted on behalf of the insurance industry in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire has exposed the utter inadequacy of the laboratory tests currently used to check the fire safety of building materials.”

It has called on the British Standards Institute to overhaul its fire testing standards ‘as a matter of urgency’.

Referring to the interim report published by the Hackitt review into Building Regulations and fire safety, ABI director-general Huw Evans said: ‘Judith Hackitt’s important work post-Grenfell has already recognised the building control system is broken.

‘This latest research is yet more evidence that fundamental reform is needed to keep our homes and commercial premises safe from fire.

‘It is a matter of urgency that we create the right testing regime that properly replicates real-world conditions and keeps pace with building innovation and modern design.’

A BSI spokeswoman said it took the FPA findings seriously and would share them with its standards committee, which will consider whether the evidence supported a change to the system.

Any changes will take around 18 months to be adopted, as the evidence is reviewed and the BSI findings opened to public consultation.

Three FPA tests

Test 1

  • Issue: BS tests use wood-fuelled fires, whereas FPA claimed that around 20 per cent of material in a modern fire will be plastic.
  • Result: Adding plastic created a larger fire that was significantly hotter than a wood-fuelled equivalent.

Test 2

  • Issue: BS tests cladding sections that are fully sealed all around, whereas the FPA test used a section with ‘leaky’ sides and gaps at the top and bottom.
  • Result: On the BS test the fire ran out of oxygen at about 1.5m, but on the FPA test the whole 6m structure was ‘rapidly’ engulfed in flames.

Test 3

  • Issue: Cladding is often altered from the manufactured form with the installation of vents and ducts.
  • Results: The vent provided a route for the fire to travel from outside into the void between the cladding and the wall, which allowed it to spread faster than if it had to burn through the cladding.

FPA managing director Jonathan O’Neill said the results confirmed ‘long-held concerns’ over the current testing system.

’We urge the British Standards Institution to urgently reconvene the group responsible for this standard to consider the results of this research and to make changes to the standard as required,’ he said.

Following the Grenfell Tower fire, the government appointed Hackitt to review fire safety regulations.

Her interim report, published in December, said testing of materials needed to be improved along with quality assurances over installation.

Leaked findings from a report by BRE into Grenfell found fire-resistant materials had been installed incorrectly, reducing their effectiveness.

The full Hackitt review is due to be published this spring.

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