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RIBA slams government’s failure to ban ‘desktop’ fire-safety assessments

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The RIBA has slammed government proposals to restrict the use of desktop-study fire-safety assessments as merely ‘window dressing’

In the wake of the Grenfell fire last June, Whitehall is consulting on the future of desktop studies – safety assessments used to sign off on high-rise cladding without lab tests.

But the RIBA, which is calling for an end to desktop studies, has said it is ‘extremely concerned’ that the changes put forward in the government’s consultation would allow the continued use of the office-based sign-offs.

The two options offered in the consultation are to ‘do nothing’ or to limit the use of desktop studies, which it calls ‘assessments in lieu of fire tests’. There is no option for a ban, though respondents are asked if they support such a move.

Jane Duncan, RIBA ex-president and chair of the body’s fire-safety advisory group said: ‘The proposed assessment in lieu of a full fire-safety test suggested by the government’s consultation is effectively no better than renaming a desktop study – simply a form of window dressing.

‘Dame Judith’s report [the post-Grenfell review of Building Regulations] is imminent – we strongly urge more significant change. This is a watershed moment. Stronger prescriptive guidance is needed to provide clarity to the industry and most importantly, to protect the public.’

RIBA executive director Adrian Dobson added that the government’s proposals were ‘throwing common sense out in favour of pseudo-science’.

He added: ‘Our view is that when it comes to high-rises, either it should be non-combustible materials or at the very least proper full-scale tests of every combination, not this comparing one set of data with another.’

Dame Hackitt’s interim report, published last year, recommended the government should ‘significantly restrict’ the use of desktop studies.

It follows pressure from various bodies including the Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee, whose chair Clive Betts has written to housing secretary James Brokenshire, describing the use of the studies as ‘clearly dangerous’.

Betts has also called for the government to take a more ‘prescriptive approach’ towards fire-safety Building Regulations after ministers confirmed that material used on the outside of high-rises may be combustible.

The RIBA’s consultation response argues for the use of non-combustive materials on the external walls of buildings above 18m tall.

The organisation is also urging the government to bring in other requirements, including more than one means of vertical escape from new multiple occupancy residential buildings over 11m.

It has also urged for the retrofitting of sprinklers to existing residential buildings above 18m and for sprinklers to be fitted in all new and converted residential buildings.

A Ministry of Housing spokesman said: ‘We are taking comprehensive action to help ensure that people are safe in their homes. This includes plans to strengthen Building Regulations guidance by restricting or banning the use of desktop studies.’

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