Our discussion on Passive Fire Protection, sponsored by Walraven, which took place just days before the Grenfell Tower fire, discussed many of the issues that have since become front page news
As is well known by now, the police and public inquiry are in the midst of examining all the factors involved in the Grenfell Tower tragedy. Amongst them are whether the building was adequately fire-protected and compartmentalised by design; whether the materials used were appropriate; whether the Building Regulations were complied with; and whether the certification process was adequate.
And so it is with a tragic irony that precisely these sort of questions were being discussed by the delegates at the Round Table, just days before the fire occurred.
When reading the discussion, it is thus important to bear in mind that none of the delegates were aware of the way events could go on to bear out their concerns. But the consensus, from experts across the fire safety and building services sectors, that something has to be done to improve co-ordination amongst the various stakeholders in a building and that there needs to be a collective responsibility, has a chilling edge to it in the light of the events at Grenfell Tower.
Darren Webster, technical manager at Firesafe Fire Rated Ductwork kicked off the discussion by saying the issue of how penetrations are rendered fire-safe was particularly challenging: “When we manufacture a ventilation system we exclude penetrations simply because we are not able to control any part of those operations when we get to a construction site, particularly because there is never a penetration purely for our system.”
“Through all the fire tests that I’ve been involved in, that is probably the key area where the real issues are. The duct itself functions fine. It is only where you go through the wall that you will have the issues. The multiservice holes are usually the ones that are the biggest concern.”
Single service penetrations, he said, enable the fire-stopping around them to be better controlled.
In fact, Mr Webster, who chairs the Association of Specialist Fire Protection task group on fire-resistant ductwork, went as far as to say that in an ideal world, multi-service penetrations should be avoided altogether – thus avoiding the difficulties in firestopping appropriately around each individual service - but the onsite reality is this is rarely going to happen.
He suggested the reason this happened was down to a common theme: “The vast majority of it is down to a lack of co-ordination. It is not physically that we do not wish to [provide the best possible fire protection]; rather, it is the stage at which the designer actually starts to consider what is required.”
For this to work requires early engagement, he said: “When it comes to the fire strategy for a project with passive fire protection systems, it really needs the architects to ask: ‘What is it I’m actually trying to achieve?’ They should then engage those companies that understand the systems, both manufacturers and installers [at the design stage].”
By including the fire engineering expertise as early as the tender stage will enable the building to be designed with the right systems and to ensure that the building itself is constructed with the best possible fire protection in place, he added.
For Tim Clements, director of fire safety engineering at International Fire Consultants, a lack of fundamental understanding of the issues at play often gives rise to poor installation on site. He said: “What I see going out on site is that the vast majority of air vents are never fitted the way they have been designed to be fitted within the wall. Invariably, even using tools such as BIM, we have walked onto sites and had to ask questions like: ‘Why is your damper 500 mm away from the wall and how is the damper now going to be supported?’ Or ‘How are you going to deal with the penetration where the ductwork passes through this fire resistant barrier?’”
Part of the problem also stems from looking at fire and ductwork in isolation, according to Jim O’Neil, electrical engineering manager of NG Bailey: “[In the real world], you never get it in isolation. What we increasingly see is the use of prefabricated pipework module hangers and multiservice support systems which have cable trays, ladders, ductwork, pipework, all in the same hanging system.”
He said that while best practice dictated buying the right components at the best price rather than the cheapest, too often the involvement of procurement teams acted against this. He said: “The problem is you have procurement people who are overriding engineering decisions across the industry and that is wholly wrong. For me, it all comes back to having a properly thought out design at the start, instead of the cost consultant having the biggest voice.”
Gary Gardner, sales and marketing director for Walraven pointed out that in the manufacturer’s home territory of Germany, attitude to materials is markedly different – effectively the polar opposite of value engineering. He said: “In Germany they are prepared to pay for their fire protection. The German regulations also state that it is the manufacturer of the service that is going through the penetration’s responsibility to tell you how to firestop the penetration. So if we want to sell a firestopping product for a plastic pipe in Germany, we would work with the plastic pipe manufacturer because it’s their responsibility to tell the engineers how to firestop their pipe.”
There was also a critical practical consideration, Mr Webster added, when it came to ventilation particularly: “Ventilation is always the biggest service to pass through holes [in fire compartment walls]. It’s usually stuck way above everything else to keep it out of the way. You then find that you have no access to actually do any fire stopping in any physical manner.”
The construction industry has almost gone full circle, according to Mr Clements: “When we started fire engineering in the late 80s and early 90s, we consultants were employed primarily to fix a deficiency in a requirement - A typical issue would be justifying an extended travel distance – and we would produce that justification. Then we got to the point where we started to write fire strategies, so we were doing everything from the means of escape to fire brigade access and all points in between, and at the end of that that might be the training and fire risk assessment.”
“Now, we’ve almost been drawn back to the point where people come to us and say, ‘Can you give us a stage C strategy?’ But it’s not really a strategy, just a collection of ideas… It’s very conceptual and, unfortunately, people are stopping at that point.”
The fact that lowest price too often trumps best quality in the construction sector is typically driven by the project owner, Mr Webster said: “For me, the fundamental point is how do you get the owner of the project to really appreciate the value of having the project built correctly and given to him in the best state possible?”
Part of the problem, Mr Clements suggested, is that with projects increasingly parcelled out to a range of different contractors, who takes responsibility for something that is as broad-based as fire safety: “I find when I go on site and we start talking about penetrations and fire protection, and so on, there is a disjoint between the work packages. So who is actually responsible? The ductwork guys say ‘It’s not in our package of work’ and the M&E guy says, it’s not in our package of work’. Then the partition guys says: ‘’We’ve erected the partition, but if you make a hole in it than that somebody else’s responsibility.’”
So, he said, it is vital that we understand who takes responsibility for the different work packages and make this explicit.
Another common critical safety issue is the lack of real monitoring of the performance of passive fire protection products once they have been installed – particularly since the circumstances of their application could have implications on their performance. Mr Webster said: “The vast majority of those running buildings now are trying to ensure that all fire dampers are serviced annually to check and verify that they are operating, but that is a far cry from the issues with penetration. The fact that a damper may function doesn’t mean that the penetration is appropriately sealed.”
This might be again a consequence of lack of awareness from those required to perform the inspections – it might be a facilities manager, rather than a fire specialist, the delegates noted.
Given the lack of awareness, said Mr O’Neil, the need is try to stop the ubiquitous, but damaging, practice of working in silos and look to understand – and collaborate with – the various disciplines: “It is absolutely essential that each discipline – mechanical, electrical, architects, structural, whatever – has a modicum of knowledge about the other disciplines… We are not asking them to be multi-disciplinary engineers, but they absolutely need a certain amount of familiarity of the other disciplines… so arguably there is more education needed.”
Mark Hughes, senior mechanical engineer at building services body BESA, agreed with the need for increased collaboration, but stressed that this needed to be joined by accountability, particularly when it comes to signing off work on site. He said: “Collaboration is critical, but I think part of that is a functioning ownership and accountability from design through to commissioning through to facilities management. So, for anyone involved in retrofitting or doing any contractor works, someone needs to be accountable for any changes and be prepared to sign them off.”
Gary Gardner agreed with the sentiment: “Accountability is fine, but a lot of the time on the site everybody seems to be trying to pass it to somebody else with nobody really taking responsibility. I think if we take responsibility at an early stage through collaboration and best practice, we have a chance.”
However, he stressed it was important to make every effort to disconnect safety from the commercial function. “I believe, as an industry, we have a responsibility to self-regulate in a responsible and proactive way.”
It is this very accountability throughout the construction process that is now set to come under the spotlight, as one of the many interwoven factors involved in the Grenfell Tower fire, which will now come under official scrutiny.