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News feature: why the Building Regs are failing on fire safety

Grenfell red sky
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In their requirements on cladding, sprinklers and escape routes, the Building Regulations regarding fire safety came up fatally short – as experts had been warning for years. Ella Braidwood reports 

After retired architect and fire safety expert Sam Webb was woken by a phone call in the early hours of 14 June, he was deeply saddened to see the flames engulfing Grenfell Tower on his television screen – saddened but not surprised.

Webb had been telling the government it urgently needed to review the Building Regulations ever since the 2009 Lakanal House fire, which killed six people.  

‘I had said to the people from the Building Regulations: “What will it actually take to convince you? I have a dread of waking up one day, and a tower block has burned down in the middle of the night and killed hundreds of people. What will you say then?”,’ he relates.

On the phone to Webb was Ronnie King, chair of the all-party parliamentary group on fire safety and rescue. In the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire, BBC1’s Panorama uncovered a dozen letters sent by this group to the government.

Startlingly, these letters revealed that since 2010 the fire safety group had warned four separate government ministers that its fire safety Building Regulations were not keeping people safe. 

The last plea, to Gavin Barwell, housing minister until last month’s election, had been sent just two months before the Grenfell Tower fire. 

A review of the Building Regulations promised since 2013 has never taken place. 

The criticism of the regs is that they are confusing, too open to interpretation, and at times contradictory

Understandably, following the tragedy in west London, which has so far claimed at least 80 lives, there has been a renewed and intense scrutiny over the perceived flaws in the regulatory system. 

So, what do the current regulations demand? Why have they failed? And, how can they be changed to ensure people are safe in tall residential buildings?  

Building Regs confusion

As part of its response to the fire, the government has predominantly focused on the cladding used at Grenfell Tower: an aluminium composite material (ACM) with a Reynobond polyethylene core. Experts believe these layered panels contributed to the fire spreading so quickly up the building’s exterior.

This speculation prompted the government to launch a programme of testing cladding samples from about 600 high-rise buildings across the UK. At the time of writing, samples from 181 had failed the tests – a 100 per cent failure rate.

According to the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), cladding is judged to have failed when the samples do ‘not meet the requirements for limited combustibility in current Building Regulations’. 

Getting a definitive answer on whether cladding materials meet the regulations’ requirements is far from simple

But trying to get a definitive answer on whether cladding materials meet the regulations’ requirements is far from simple. 

A quick survey of industry leaders reveals clashing views about whether or not Grenfell Tower was compliant.

Building inspector and AJ Specification columnist Geoff Wilkinson believes the cladding was not banned. A completion certificate for Grenfell Tower’s refurbishment, leaked to the AJ, shows that the works were certified as meeting the Building Regulations. These works were signed off by Kensington and Chelsea Council’s own building control, rather than by an inspector employed in the private sector. 

Similarly, HTA Design managing partner Simon Bayliss points out that Camden Council’s own approved building inspectors signed off on his practice’s refurbishment of five tower blocks on Chalcots Estate. Yet these blocks have since failed the government’s tests, and four are having their cladding removed

Hta chalcots projects 52 0 large

Hta chalcots projects 52 0 large

Chalcots Estate, Camden, refurbished by HTA Design

The basic criticism of the regulations, therefore, is that they are confusing, too open to interpretation, and at times contradictory. 

And what is tragic is that the need to resolve these ambiguities has been known about for years. Indeed similar action has been demanded ever since the 2009 Lakanal House fire.

Following her inquest into that fire, coroner Frances Kirkham wrote to then communities secretary Eric Pickles in March 2013, recommending that the government review Approved Document B. This sets out how to meet the Building Regulations on fire safety, but she described it as a ‘most difficult document to use’.

She argued that it needed to provide ‘clear guidance’, in particular to the ‘spread of fire over the external envelope of the building’. Kirkham urged these regulations be ‘expressed in words and adopt a format … intelligible to the wide range of people and bodies engaged in construction, maintenance and refurbishment of buildings’. 

King, who sat in on the Lakanal House inquest, recalls how people – including Kirkham, the expert witnesses and a QC – ‘did not understand what they were being told about the Building Regulations and [Lakanal House] being compliant or not compliant.’ 

What do the Building Regulations say about cladding materials?

The Approved Documents set out the ways to meet the legally binding Building Regulations, though they are not in themselves legally binding. 

Approved Document Part B states: ‘The external walls of the building shall adequately resist the spread of fire over the walls and from one building to another, having regard to the height, use and position of the building.’

This guidance appears, at first glance, fairly straightforward. However there are several ways to meet this requirement. 

The document reads: ‘The Requirements of B4 will be met: (a) if the external walls are constructed so that the risk of ignition from an external source and the spread of fire over their surfaces is restricted, by making provision for them to have low rates of heat release.’

Ronnie King is concerned the government will hold off reviewing the regulations until after a lengthy public inquiry 

Later it states: ‘Provisions are made in Section 12 for the fire resistance of external walls and to limit the susceptibility of the external surface of walls to ignition and fire spread.’

And in Section 12, it states: ‘In a building with a storey 18m or more above ground level, any insulation product, filler material … used in the external wall construction should be of limited combustibility.’

The guidance then offers several different ways materials can be defined as of ‘limited combustibility’, including any material of density 300kg/m³ or more, which ‘does not flame and the rise in temperature on the furnace thermocouple is not more than 20°C’; and any material classified as European standard Class A2-s3,d2 or better. 

But as a leading construction industry expert says, it is easy to be confused by Diagram 40 on page 95, on the provisions for ‘external surfaces or walls’ for buildings of 18m or more.

The expert suggests that specifiers of materials are judging the polyethylene core (filler) against the external surfaces guidance rather than the more stringent insulation rules. 

According to him, external surfaces must meet Class 0 (national class) or European class B-s3,d2 or better; whereas insulation – including filler material – must be of limited combustibility, meaning European standard Class A2-s3,d2 or better.

As the expert says: ‘It is very easy miss the inclusion of “filler” material, under the heading of “insulation” and to be confused by apparently contradictory information given in Diagram 40 and Paragraph 12.7.

‘It is more than likely that this may have occurred with some designers and less-skilled building inspectors.’

But there are ways other than using Approved Document Part B, to meet the Building Regulations on cladding. 

Cladding can be deemed compliant through a full-scale test to BS8414. This is described in the BRE publication BR135, which covers ‘external thermal insulation for walls of multistorey buildings.

The regulations can also be met through a so-called ‘desktop study’, when a qualified fire specialist can compile data from other tests and prove the cladding materials would meet BR135. 

Part of the rules’ flexibility seems to be deliberate, to allow design teams creativity in how they solve problems. 

However the upshot is a further lack of certainty. 

What’s more, experts complain that the regulations have not been updated to take in new materials and construction methods. 

Fire sprinklers – a jumble of rules

Approved Document Part B acknowledges that sprinkler systems can ‘reduce the risk to life and significantly reduce the degree of damage caused by fire’. It also states that sprinkler systems need to be installed in new-build blocks of flats more than 30m high. However, this rule does not apply to refurbishing buildings such as Grenfell Tower, which was built before the Building Regulations were introduced, despite the refurbishments taking place after these rules came in.

The fire wouldn’t have even gone out of the room if there were sprinklers

King strongly believes that had fire sprinklers been fitted at Grenfell Tower, the fire – caused by a faulty fridge freezer – would never have spread from the fourth floor where it started.

‘This wouldn’t have even gone out of the room if there were sprinklers,’ he says.

He also points out that the rules in England are less stringent than those in Scotland, where sprinklers must be installed in new-build blocks of flats above 18m in height, and Wales where sprinklers are required in all new-build homes. 

King advocates retrofitting sprinklers in all tall tower blocks in the UK, a solution also recommended by the coroners’ inquests into both the Lakanal House fire and the 2010 Shirley Towers fire in Southampton, which killed two firefighters.

Lawyer Matthew Needham-Laing of law firm Katten Muchin Rosenman, who is also a qualified architect, adds: ‘[There] have been at least two coroner’s reports recommending the retro fitting of sprinklers - the government does not need a panel of experts to opine changes to the Building Regulations in order to introduce this requirement.’ 

Fire escape routes

In Approved Document B there is no requirement for flats above a certain height to have more than one fire escape route. At Grenfell Tower, there was just one escape route via a central stairwell, which rapidly filled with smoke. 

However, this guidance is based on several assumptions, including that there is a ‘high degree of compartmentation and therefore a low probability of fire spreading beyond the flat of origin, so that [mass] evacuation of the building is unlikely’.

New non-residential buildings above 11m must have an alternative fire escape.  

So what must change?

The industry is united in demanding a review of the Building Regulations, a view expressed by the RIBA, the Local Authority Building Control (LABC) and the Fire Sector Federation (FSF) among others.

But King is concerned that the government will hold off reviewing the regulations until after a lengthy public inquiry. Change must happen now, he says, and he is calling for the recommendations from the Lakanal House inquest to be implemented immediately. 

Given the outrage over Grenfell Tower, the government could even go further and insist that the existing cladding requirement for ‘limited combustibility’ be replaced with ‘non‑combustible’.

But more than this, the approved documents need to be made absolutely crystal clear – and not just in terms of cladding.

As one expert has told the AJ: ‘The problem is one of both lack of understanding and failure to enforce the requirements.’

Architects should expect significant regulatory change. The government has surely been given enough warnings now.

Parliamentary questions 3 July 2017

Question: Chris Williamson (Labour, Derby North)
Following the wholly avoidable tragedy at Grenfell Tower, will the Home Secretary tell us why the review of the building regulations, which was promised by Gavin Barwell in the wake of the deadly Lakanal House fire, has failed to materialise? Mr Barwell was the Housing Minister at the time; did he suppress the review

Answer: Nick Hurd, the Minister of State, Home Department
’I do not think there is any evidence that our former colleague suppressed any review. There was plenty of work ongoing into the simplification of regulations. I say to the hon. Gentleman, as I have said before, that the Grenfell tragedy should never have happened, and what we have found out since about the fire safety of the building means that we have to do a root and branch review not only of the regulations but of inspection and risk management.’

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Great respect for Sam Webb who resisted the attempts to demolish Ronan Point in such haste as would have destroyed the key evidence of why and how that collapse occurred.

    The following points strike me, but seem to have been submerged in the hue & cry over a single element in this disaster, and as many will know it is far more the alignment of several smaller failings than a single factor that delivers most major building incidents.

    1) Aluminium has been dropped as a material for the superstructure of many warships due to poor fire performance.
    2) Aluminium reacts with water to produce hydrogen with this process enhanced by heat (the reaction with molten Aluminium (at around 700C) is explosive.
    3) Aluminium powder (ie to maximise surface area against material volume) is used in the Thermite process to deliver molten iron at around 2500C - the aluminium is mixed with iron oxide (rust) and with a heat trigger/fuse will then 'burn' fiercely.
    4) putting water on to a fire with aluminium carries a high risk that hydrogen will be produced (blue flames were reported) enhancing the fire.
    5) regulations for cladding carry vague options for a choice of fire break provision which has to operate (ie not a passive system) when heat triggers a system to close off the air-space between the cladding and the core building. The building walls should also be 'sealed' and experience of a building across the street with limestone cladding indicates that this was clearly not delivered on that project. Cladding fire compartmentalisation was either non-existent or failed spectacularly at Grenfell Tower
    6) There were survivors who successfully created a place of safety and stayed in the building. One was reported to have sealed a room and flooded it by turning on every possible source of water in the flat.
    7) The fire stairs escape route filled with smoke. Why and how? In hazardous plant the places of safety have positive pressure and even air-lock access. I learned that some fire stairs used extraction to pull fresh air in - but surely that will also draw in smoke from any poor seals, and compromise the fire door closure sealing. There is an area of research to assess the risk posed by a crash air 'feed' into hot combustion gases and even the fire source, when a fire door is opened to escape to a 'place of safety' under positive pressure. this might also see a requirement for fire escape crash-bar doors, which include a 'venting' port that releases a positive pressure that may be holding them closed.
    8) Key scrutiny of the planning and management of the access to the site - my personal experience of a clear omission of detail from a planning application, and despite various representations, the development blocking fire brigade access to an under-building car park, and the area behind some 70 flats, plus the 2 installed dry rider inlets (these had to be moved when - I raised this with the fire brigade - post construction - they could not get a pump within 1 hose length of the dry riser inlet). I am obviously concerned, but hope this will never need to be tested by a real serious fire.
    9) A bigger question of buildings management also arises - how often for example does any building actually run a fire drill with evacuation to muster points or use of places of safety within the building?

    Buildings with the implicated cladding might still be safe to occupy, if they have clear delivery of 'clean air' places of safety and escape routes, plus a proven fire containment system for the external cladding, preventing the vertical spread of fire seem at Grenfell Tower.

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