Tuesday 29th May 2018
The Hackitt ‘Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety: Final Report’ was published on 17th May 2018. The publication of Dame Judith Hackitt’s Review is the beginning of a process and not an end. Whatever the final reforms might be, the clear message is that fundamental change is required. The review allows scrutiny to begin, evidence to be assessed and recommendations to be made to the Government. The Housing, Communities and Local Government (HCLG) Committee of MPs will now hold continuing evidence sessions about the implications of the Hackitt Review.
The review was commissioned in the wake of the Grenfell Tower tragedy and has concluded that “the current regulatory system for ensuring fire safety in high-rise and complex buildings is not fit for purpose”. Significant systemic reform is needed spanning every aspect of the life of a high-rise building - from design and construction, to ownership, on-going management and maintenance.
The changes recommended by the Hackitt Review are necessary and, some would say, overdue. The great shame is that it took the Grenfell tragedy to force the Government into action.
It is difficult to speculate with any accuracy, but we at Martin Arnold think that combustible cladding material will be banned. We expect that testing of materials will become more common, but is unlikely to be as extensive as suggested by Dame Judith’s review. We think that “desk-top” assessments will still have their place, we expect (and applaud) more stringent proposals will be implemented to control who is qualified to carry out a fire risk assessment and we expect much greater emphasis on meeting fire safety legislation day-to-day: fire doors, signage, lighting etc.
We have highlighted some key points and outcomes from the review and what the Regulatory Framework may look like: -
Lack of clarity on roles and responsibilities
MA: There is currently ambiguity over where responsibility lies, worsened by a level of fragmentation and inconsistency within the industry, preventing robust accountability. This needs to be tightened up, clear responsibilities are to be defined and those appointed to be held accountable.
The review has found that regulations and guidance are misunderstood and, in some instances, not even read by key responsible parties and found that supervision and enforcement is inadequate. The recommendations set out a new regulatory framework. Dame Judith says a collaborative approach is crucial, bringing together government, industry and the community. Many of the ideas proposed could be applied to a wider range of buildings and aim to drive a broader culture change.
MA: For culture change we must collaborate across all sectors in the built environment, we must engage fire engineers, designers and other stakeholders at all stages of design and construction. The design and specification needs to be robust and fully understood by the building owners and managers.
Banning Combustible Cladding Materials
The report has not called for an all-out ban on combustible materials.
Dame Judith Hackitt writes: “A totally prescriptive system creates an over-reliance on the system by those working within it, discouraging ownership and accountability for decisions.”
MA: Although we agree with the principle here - we all have a duty within the construction industry to take responsibility for the delivery of safe buildings - what harm would come from a ban on combustible materials in cladding systems? This should not encourage over-reliance on the system, but make specification simpler.
The report adds: “The aim of this review is to move away from telling those responsible [for tall buildings] ‘what to do’ and place them in a position of making intelligent decisions about the layers of protection required to make their particular building safe.”
MA: Despite the recommendations of the report, widespread outcry over this decision has the pushed the Government to ignore Dame Judith’s suggestion and potentially implement a ban regardless!
High Rise Residential Buildings
Dame Judith Hackitt recommends a “new regulatory regime” for tower blocks. Interestingly, this new regime will only apply to buildings with 10 or more storeys. The report does not specify why this particular threshold has been chosen other than the likelihood of fire is greater in buildings of this height.
MA: It’s likely based on an assumption of 3m per storey, which coincides with current Approved Document B1 reference to tall buildings over 30m. This height is also where sprinklers in new builds are a requirement.
Up until now, building regulation guidance has drawn a distinction between buildings with fewer than six storeys and those with six or more (around 18m), recommending that greater care be taken for fire safety on taller buildings.
MA: This would mean that buildings between 6 and 9 storeys would be left under the current regime (which we know is flawed), as the proposed changes apply only to buildings above 10 storeys. This fails to address risks with 5 storey buildings and there have been calls for the limit to be reviewed. Although the emphasis is on 10 storey plus, the report recommends that the Government reacts quickly in light of new information such as whistleblowing. There could be ambition for Government to broaden the definition in due course to include a wider set of residential buildings below 10 storeys.
Fire Risk Assessments
Until recently, the majority of fire risk assessments commissioned were only ‘type 1’, meaning they are a non-intrusive, visual only inspection of common parts, not including external walls or cavities.
Currently fire risk assessments are carried out by a ‘competent person’, but regulations provided no specific definition of competency.
Despite significant criticism of this system, Dame Judith does not recommend any change to the type 1 practice on the basis that government should not dictate what makes a competent person.
One of her recommendations is that professional bodies should come up with set criteria for competence but does not recommend this be made compulsory.
MA: There are several certification bodies whose ‘Fire Risk Assessor’ Registers require an auditing process to demonstrate competence. A collaborative approach between these bodies could ensure an agreed standard of competence is required across the board. We have seen a shift in Client’s requirements, particularly with tender opportunities for Fire Risk Assessments now requring third party certified or accredited Fire Risk Assessors only. We expect that fire risk assessments will now increasingly pay commentary to the external façade, albeit visual only. Where there is any doubt over the integrity of the cladding system, a type 2 or type 4 (intrusive) Fire Risk Assessment should be instructed.
A More Rigorous and Transparent Product Testing Regime
To reform the large-scale cladding testing regime, the report recommends that test houses produce an annual report providing summary details of tests carried out and the number of passes and failures be provided to a new joint competent authority (JCA).
The report does not, however, recommend any new oversight to the testing regime or that reports should be made public. Current test reports are considered commercially confidential and are the property of the material manufacturer.
‘Desktop studies’ have been used by industry to clear untested materials for use by extrapolating results from previous tests. MPs from five political parties have called for this controversial practice to be banned.
The report does not ban but recommends that desktop studies should only be carried out by organisations accredited to run large-scale tests. The Building Research Establishment (BRE) runs the only large-scale cladding testing facility in the UK, so it would likely take on much of this work.
One aspect of desktop studies that has been criticised in the past is the substitution of products. Dame Judith appears to sanction the substitution of products in limited circumstances, recommending only the “significantly reduced scope for substitution of any products used in a system without further full testing”.
Clear statements on what products can and cannot be used should be developed and their use made essential. This should ensure significantly reduced scope for substitution of any products used in a system without further full testing.
MA: Large scale testing should remain the focus, but there is still a place for desktop studies in very limited circumstances providing they are carried out by suitably qualified people and to the satisfaction of the regulator.
MA: Many in the industry have claimed the use of Approved Inspectors and privatisation of building control has led to a ‘race to the bottom’. Dame Judith specifically recommends that the regulatory function for buildings above 10 storeys must be undertaken by a new body comprising Local Authority Building Control (LABC), the fire service and the HSE.
This, in effect, excludes Approved Inspectors from such buildings, except if employed by dutyholders to provide consultancy and verification services to dutyholders to help them meet their new responsibilities. They may also be appointed by Local Authority Building Control to provide extra capacity/expertise to the JCA/LABC where needed (although where utilised LABCs would retain oversight and their processes would be followed).
Approved Inspectors currently offer a more hands-on approach and will offer advice and guidance on routes to compliance. Current Local Authority Building Control departments have limited capacity to work with a project team to a compliant solution and our experience is that this can conflict with Dame Judith’s call for a collaborative approach. If Approved Inspectors are no longer able to undertake their full role on such buildings, then in order to achieve the collaborative approach recommended by the report, a change in culture and structure will likely be required from Local Authority Building Control.
The report recommends the rebranding of the Local Authority Building Control as ‘Local Authority Building Standards’. This new body would have power to issue ‘stop’ notices to contractors, request changes to building work and work with an increased time limit for bringing prosecutions.
Contractors would also be required to prove fire safety to building control more regularly e.g. before receiving planning, again before commencement, again pre-occupation and regularly after occupation.
Approved Document B
Approved Document B (ADB) is the Government’s guidance on how to comply with building regulations on fire safety. The Government is currently working with the Building Regulations Advisory Committee and industry experts to redraft the document, including “clarifying the language used”.
This could be aimed at removing some of the ambiguities around the use of combustible materials in cladding. Although Dame Judith insists that there is no room for interpretation of the document around that point, we believe that there has been misinterpretation in development of some aluminum composite materials with insulating core and that the current guidance is at best confusing and in our opinion contradictory.
The report also recommends the publication of a new “over-arching Approved Document” that would cover how different parts of a building interact with each other, this will help with overall specification clashes and compliance and ultimately building safety.
MA: It is clear that reform is needed to improve building safety and to rebuild trust among residents of high-rise buildings. The report addresses this and recommends that residents of high rise residential buildings (HRRB) should be consulted and involved in decisions affecting the safety of their home and listened to if they have concerns. This will mean clear channels for reporting their concerns throughout the lifecycle of the build.
We agree with Hackitt’s opinion “prescriptive regulation and guidance are not helpful in designing and building complex buildings, especially in an environment where building technology and practices continue to evolve”. We must continue to innovate within construction and particularly when focused on building safety. The Outcomes and Principles approach is suitable in theory but the competency of all those involved in delivering the solution is key to its success.
Collaboration is so important from all aspects of the construction and safety industry. The Fire and Rescue Service could be key to bringing the cultural change and ensure this collaborative ethos is applied across all sectors.
Responsibility must be enforced, once defined those being identified as responsible need to be held accountable. As an industry we have an obligation to ensure residents and building users are safe in their homes, public buildings or places of work.
You might find it helpful to review the slides from our recent seminar "Fire Risk Management - Post Grenfell", particularly the slides presented by London Building Control expert, Alan Stokes, which can be found here.