The Hackitt review shows that the government urgently needs to fix the Building Regulations with regard to fire safety, writes the RIBA’s Adrian Dobson
Dame Judith Hackitt’s Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety is entering the final straight and its recommendations are eagerly awaited by a construction industry still in shock following the Grenfell Tower fire disaster. In her interim report, Dame Judith identified a host of systemic failures, including lack of independent oversight of the quality of construction work and inadequate enforcement of building control, and raised very reasonable questions over the competency of the industry and the role of value engineering in product substitution.
She quite rightly delivered a damning verdict on the overall building control and construction industry eco-system. However, she seems remarkably reluctant to address the obvious core regulatory failure that has been revealed in the aftermath of the tragedy at Grenfell Tower. When so many high-rise residential and complex buildings are no longer deemed fire-safe by their local authorities, there is clearly something wrong with the Building Regulations guidance.
It is now widely accepted that Approved Document B is flawed, but it continues to be used by the industry for want of any replacement and Dame Judith’s report seems highly unlikely to tackle this core issue. Indeed she stated, to our great concern, in her interim report:
‘A systemic review of the regulations by a non-expert in construction was never going to recommend detailed changes to the technical requirements – this is beyond my area of competence.’
So, an Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety is not going to review the technical requirements and guidance in the relevant Approved Documents. How is this possible or acceptable?
The RIBA’s Expert Advisory Group on Fire Safety has argued that we need a return to baseline prescriptive requirements based on common sense approaches to fire-safe design that have been developed over decades, indeed centuries. We are calling for:
- External wall construction for existing or new buildings with a storey 18m or more above ground to be comprised of non-combustible (European class A1) materials only.
- In all new multiple occupancy residential buildings, a requirement for at least two staircases, offering alternative means of escape, where the top floor is more than 11m above ground level or the top floor is more than three storeys above the ground level storey (as required for commercial buildings in ADB - Vol 2: B1 Section 4).
- Retro-fitting of sprinklers / automatic fire suppression systems and centrally addressable fire alarm systems to existing residential buildings above 18m from ground level as “consequential improvements” where a building is subject to ‘material alterations.’
- Mandatory requirement for sprinklers/automatic fire suppression systems and addressable central fire alarms in all new and converted residential buildings, as currently required under Regulations 37A and 37B of the Building Regulations for Wales.
Dame Judith seems unaccountably set against strong prescriptive guidance and is determined to stick with the complex and messy regime of guidance, testing, desktop studies and fire engineering that constitutes the ambiguous and unworkable eco-system that has been developed by the MHCLG and BRE. In March 2018, in a letter to the Chair of the Communities and Local Government Select Committee she wrote:
‘I believe that only an outcomes-based system can deliver this, as opposed to a system that tells people what to do.’
The relaxation of baseline requirements and an over-reliance on unregulated fire engineering approaches, including desktop studies, has been a key factor that has led to the regulatory and systemic failures that have prompted the Independent Review in the first place.
Surely this is the time for the UK Government to elevate its duty to safeguard the safety of its citizens. It should look beyond the failed systems that it has relied upon historically to develop and interpret its Building Regulations and guidance, and bring in truly independent international expertise. All successful building control systems around the world, including the International Building Code, rely upon a significant element of prescriptive regulation.
In the meantime, architects, as the only independently regulated profession in the construction industry, need to exert pressure wherever they can for projects to adopt the minimum provisions proposed by the RIBA’s Expert Advisory Group.
Adrian Dobson is executive director – members of the RIBA