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Fire lessons of Grenfell not being learned on site, say experts

Experts call for better regulation of fire engineers and call for their mandatory involvement with M&E 

The lessons of the Grenfell tragedy and the subsequent criticisms of Building Regs from the Hackitt Review have yet to be learned across construction, with many sites showing no signs of changes in practice or culture.

That was the sobering message from a panel of fire and HVAC specialists at the BESA National Conference held on November 1. Real estate and construction consultant Mark Farmer, sharing his direct experience with clients, said: “There was ultimately something very deep seated in the culture that caused Grenfell, but the issues are still being perpetuated…I have seen less change than I was expecting – discussions with clients more about price and in many, Grenfell was not even discussed. And that worries me.”

A show of hands amongst contractors at the debate revealed only a small minority had experienced noticeable changes in enforcement of regulations on site following Grenfell or Hackitt’s review, which called the Building Regs ‘not fit for purpose.’

Design

Panellists called for earlier engagement between M&E and fire specialists and for better understanding of the implications of ‘designing for fire’.

Conor Logan, technical director of Colt International was particularly forthright: “An M&E specification that doesn’t align itself with the fire strategy is going to be a problem…I have heard it said recently that we should be designing these systems for a fire, not just in case there is a fire…We need a total mindset change towards fire engineering. The problem at the moment is that anyone can call themselves a fire engineer.”

Mr Farmer said there was a cultural issue around design: “Design teams are led by architects and design meetings are not about the nuts and bolts – so it is pretty unusual to have the early engagement of fire engineering.”

NG Bailey divisional mechanical engineering manager Will Pitt agreed. “We don’t see fire engineers much [in our work].”

The panel were heavily critical of the way safety critical aspects were being subject to value engineering.

BESA chief executive David Frise asked: “How can it be that something like smoke control is value engineered?”

Mr Farmer said: “Clients simply don’t realise that there are consequences to such decisions…To the client, Hackitt’s proposals will just be something for someone else to sort out.”

Ian Doncaster, MD of Fire and Smoke Solutions added: “Value engineering if it takes place has got to meet the design criterial and be installed by competent installers.”

Mr Pitt added that smoke ventilation was a specialism that required addressing in its own right, with the appropriate competence applied. He said: “Smoke ventilation isn’t fire engineering and it isn’t mechanical engineering, it goes across both.”

Installation

The installation, stressed Mr Farmer, is the key aspect. He said: “So much of the risk is that clients ask for bespoke buildings, where nothing is standardised and every job is different – and built at the cheapest price…But installation on site is the Achilles heel of our industry. We need to use technology to drive the design thread and to ‘digitally verify’ the designs on site… we need to track the design, so that we know where there is substitution…I go on site and some of the stuff I see scares me.”

Tom Barton of the construction industry group, ’the Get It Right Initiative’, noted its research that 21 per cent of turnover is spent on correcting errors. He said: “We need to get to the point where the junior on site can say ‘This firestopping isn’t right, we need to stop work.”

Mr Farmer agreed: “The self-employed culture in construction means that no-one is owning the responsibility, taking pride in the work. This is where technology can come in - video inspection of installs might sound a bit Big Brother-ish, but creating a ‘digital twin’ of the design on site is the aim.”

Bans

The panel agreed that the recently announced ban on combustible materials in cladding in high-rise buildings, whilst prescriptive, was focusing minds.

Mr Logan said: “It was a shame that the ban was limited to high-rise buildings. It should be applied to schools, to hospitals, to all those buildings which are high-risk.”

Mr Farmer added: “The privatisation of building control, in my opinion, was fundamentally flawed, as it led to commercial interests becoming involved. This is where we need legislation [to focus the industry] …more complexity or ambiguity will just lead to politicians trying to simplify. Regulation should be the interim measure…”

Mr Doncaster agreed: “It is sometimes difficult to separate out the commercial interests. So, when it comes to something like combustibles, it does need some red lines.”

Mr Pitt added “The industry needs to be better at demonstrating competence – we hear of Building Control signing off things that simply shouldn’t be signed off… [Also] MEP contractors cannot take responsibility for passive fire protection in my opinion. That should be the responsibility of fire specialists, like members of the ASFP [Association of Specialist Fire Protection] for instance.

Mr Logan said: “We shouldn’t forget that in many circumstances it is the smoke that kills people, not the fire, so it shouldn’t be one-size-fits-all [with regulation] – for instance fitting sprinklers wouldn’t have helped stop the fire at Grenfell once the fire was on the cladding.”

A BESA working group is producing guidance for the sector on best practice in passive fire protection, Mr Frise noted.

Responsibility

Alongside regulation, the panel concluded, the key element which needs changing is a current lack of personal accountability.

Mr Farmer said: “Personal responsibility has to have the pull from the client and in some ways it will only be driven by the state…Certainly with local government, it needs to have someone taking personal responsibility for poor outcomes.”

Both Mr Pitt and Mr Logan called for involvement of fire engineers at every level of a project. Mr Pitt said: “This needs mandatory involvement with the MEP sector from concept to building.”

Mr Doncaster concluded “Cultural change really only comes about through fear, so more regulation is the only thing that will change it.”

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