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Industry warnings over eye-opening scope of ventilation standards failures

As RIBA commits “in principle” to raise concerns on ventilation maintenance with the HSE, some experts have warned about the potential number of enforcement failures that may exist in buildings

A range of associations and bodies that have spoken to H&V News in recent months have cited how a lack of clarity in building regulations and the limited enforcement of these rules, particularly for existing properties, is creating poorly ventilated dwellings and office spaces.

Some of those interviewed said any widespread review of ventilation systems maintenance could prove “eye-opening” when considering the scale of compliance failures and the related health risks, particularly in refurbished properties.

The claims have been made as the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) said it has agreed “in principle” to raise concerns with the Health and Safety Executive about evidence of a wider systemic issue around ventilation design and maintenance standards in UK buildings. This would look specifically at health and safety considerations from current practice and fears about mould growth.

However, no formal date has yet been provided for when these concerns will be raised with government.

“Adequate” ventilation

David Bleicher, publications manager with UK-testing body BSRIA and a lecturer and consultant on building regulations and design issues, said that current legislation requires an “adequate means of ventilation” in a structure, yet the open-ended nature of ensuring this was a major cause of concern.

He said that any widespread future review of how buildings were ventilated in the UK could now be hugely important for ensuring health and safety in workplace buildings considering the amount of time the population spends in offices.

Mr Bleicher added that it was Approved Document F of the existing Building Regulations that offered guidance on how to meet the legal requirement of ensuring adequate ventilation systems are in place in different types of properties. However, he noted that the flexibility of the document allows various approaches to meeting these requirements, which require ventilation systems to be commissioned in non-dwellings through a range of testing and adjustments.

Mr Bleicher argued while this work was generally done right, the likelihood of commissioning being hurried to ensure a building is delivered on time, as well as general flaws in the design or installation process, was expected to compromise effectiveness in testing.

Mr Bleicher said that a lack of clarity in the guidance also posed significant difficulties for domestic properties.

He said, “Building Regulations require testing of mechanical ventilation in dwellings – anything from bathroom extract fans to whole-house ventilation systems with heat recovery. There is evidence that this testing is often carried out incorrectly or omitted altogether. This may result from a lack of enforcement, which in turn may result from a lack of understanding of the requirements.”

While guidance in the Building Regulations was viewed as being relatively clear for the design of new buildings, Mr Bleicher said that there was much less clarity for refurbished constructions, with concerns that work on existing properties may actually make ventilation worse.

He added, “An example of this would be an open plan office building which is partitioned into conference rooms and cellular offices, with supply grilles ending up in separate rooms from return grilles.”

Building Regulations are presently only being applied during the period where construction work was being carried out, adding a further complication to enforce adequate standards of ventilation.

Jurisdiction

Mr Bleicher said, “They have no jurisdiction over the ongoing operation and maintenance of buildings. So they can’t force people to (for example) change dirty filters, switch off ventilation in unoccupied parts of the building.”

He said a wider scale review of the various building types in use across the UK and how they are being ventilated - some with “better maintenance regimes than others” - could pose some tough questions over current standards.

“Finding out just how effective these ventilation systems are, through large scale monitoring and evaluation, could be a real eye-opener. Results from such research could feed into changes to regulations and good practice guidance, and help highlight the importance of good ventilation.”

Post-Grenfell spotlight

Industry body the Property Care Association (PCA) said it shared similar concerns over enforcing ventilation standards in retrofit properties.

A spokesperson for the group cited the findings of Dame Judith Hackitt’s report into Building Regulations, published earlier this year, that found the current approved documents supplied to industry as often being “ambiguous and inconsistent”.

This was seen by the PCA as a significant challenge concerning meeting requirements to provide a fresh air supply in buildings such as high-rise dwellings, which do not have opening windows.

A key conclusion of the Hackitt Report was that not enough was being done to enforce the existing Building Regulations. But what specifically is being done to police the ‘adequate ventilation’ requirements?

The PCA said, “When it comes to providing the correct levels of ventilation it would seem very little. One classic example is the requirement of a competent person to commission a ventilation system.”

“At present, in existing buildings, the majority of retrofit ventilation is installed without Building Control Body being notified in the correct manner.”

Conclusions in the Hackitt Report warned that the primary motivation in construction was for introducing systems as quickly and cheaply as possible, rather than ensuring quality was seen as a major setback to address standards in areas such as ensuring a fresh air supply.

A recent H&V News roundtable (see the October digital edition of the magazine) that was held with industry body BESA to look at fire safety, saw stakeholders from across the industry warning of the level of price cutting being forced onto building services planning at the expense of standards.

The PCA spokesperson expressed scepticism over the construction industry’s current ability to address ventilation quality in refurbished buildings.

“If we can’t get this right with fire regulations when the consequence are so tragic and high profile, what hope do we have with ventilation? When often the effects are not as catastrophic.”

The PCA added that Approved Document F requires purge ventilation is in place to ensure the removal of high concentrations of pollutants and water vapour in each habitable room. These systems must be capable of extracting four air changes an hour at a minimum for new properties.

The organisation added, “This is normally via openable windows and doors but in tower blocks without these, this requirement must be met by a mechanical ventilation system. In addition to this, the ‘wet rooms’ require mechanical or passive stack ventilation which needs to be sufficient to purge those rooms.”

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Readers' comments (1)

  • The RIBA promise was made to me in reporting to them the HSE criminal cover up on www.thehsetruth.co.uk
    Given you know the story of HSE deliberate complicity in a blatant breach of ventilation minimum standards surely you can now link to this item?

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

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