Devastating fire must lead to overhaul of construction practice, say experts
The fire that caused devastation and the suspected loss of at least 80 lives at Grenfell Tower in Kensington, London must lead to a thorough overhaul of construction practices relating to fire safety.
That is the consensus from the HVAC industry and fire experts, who called for the Building Regulations relating to fire to be urgently reviewed; for its rules to be properly enforced; and for the construction industry to scrutinise the way fire risks are addressed throughout the entire construction process.
But at the same time, the tragedy has prompted a series of wider-ranging questions covering subjects such as: collaboration between construction parties; better understanding of fire-safe design and construction; the role of ‘value engineering’ in construction; and attitudes to health and safety and the role of risk.
As H&V News went to press, the government and local authorities were in the midst of an extraordinary and unprecedented urgent review of the materials specified in Grenfell Tower, with inspection and testing of similar installations up and down the country.
While initial concern has surrounded the materials used in the cladding on tall buildings, which may have contributed to the spread of the fire at Grenfell Tower, equal questions have been raised over the fire rating of insulation materials used in construction of many buildings nationwide.
At the time of going to press, police said they were considering manslaughter charges, following the revelation that both insulation and tiles used at Grenfell Tower had failed safety tests. The insulation had been found to be more flammable than the cladding, according to the Metropolitan Police, which added it was seeking to establish whether the materials were illegal.
At the same time, the scrutiny of the circumstances around the fire have uncovered what are alleged to be endemic failings in the handling of fire risk throughout construction and then in the management of buildings:
• The government is accused of stalling on the review of Part B of the Building Regulations – a review that was called for as long ago as 2013 following the fatal fire at Lakanal House, London in 2009;
• Fire experts have pointed to the fact that former Communities Secretary Eric Pickles repealed the London Building Act, which had a requirement for one-hour fire resistance for the outside of buildings. Architect Sam Webb told sister magazine Construction News that Grenfell Tower was built to what were known as Section 20 standards, which meant that additional safety measures were imposed on the design.
He said: “One of the things that the London Building Act specified is that the outside of all buildings had to be fireproof.”
The problems now being uncovered have not surprised many fire and buildings experts, who have long argued that fire measures are not well enough understood throughout the construction process and that responsibilities often get lost.
A particular concern among the HVAC industry has been to ensure that everyone on site understands the importance of correctly sealing penetrations in fire compartments. Our round table discussion, convened before the tragedy (see p14) concluded that the packaging of modern construction projects didn’t help communication of such issues. Tim Clements of International Fire Consultants said: “I go on site and talk about penetration and fire protection and I find 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 say: ‘We’ve erected the partition, but if you make a hole in it then that’s somebody else’s responsibility.”
Furthermore, the potential risks of deregulating safety, and its potential impact on fire safety, have been pointed out in a remarkable rebuke from 70 safety organisations to the Prime Minister.
The letter sets out many of the concerns of industry: “We believe it is totally unacceptable for residents, members of the public and our emergency services to be exposed to this level of preventable risk in modern-day Britain. Central government and the Kensington and Chelsea local authority share responsibility for building standards and their enforcement locally, as well as for the funding and management of the maintenance of social housing. These responsibilities must be backed up with good, essential regulations.”
However, for many years, ministers – and others with influence over them – have called for regulations, including in health and safety, to be axed as a matter of principle. Arbitrary rules were imposed to establish deregulation of health and safety, such as a requirement to abolish two health and safety regulations (and more recently, three) for any new one adopted.
This mindset has meant that, even when it was recommended and accepted that mandatory fitting of sprinklers would make homes or schools safer, this was rejected in favour of non-regulatory action. In practice, this approach favours inaction.”
It concludes: “Good, wellevidenced and proportionate regulations in health and safety, based on full consultation, are developed and adopted because they save lives and protect people’s health and wellbeing. They are not burdens on business but provide essential protection for the public from identifiable risks.”
The Building Engineering Services Association (BESA) has led the calls from the HVAC industry for the role and status of the Building Regulations to be reviewed. Tim Rook, technical director said: “While our thoughts remain primarily focused on the suffering of the victims and the human cost of the fire, it is already clear that this terrible event will be seen as a defining moment for the whole built environment sector. With tall buildings set to be an increasingly large part of our cities in the future, it is vital that the highest standards of safety in design and construction are enforced to keep occupants safe.”
Mr Rook welcomed the criminal investigation announced by chancellor Phillip Hammond, but pointed out that measures recommended after the Lakanal House tragedy in 2009, which led to six deaths, were still not in place. He said: “Evidence was presented to ministers [after Lakanal House] that supported the use and retrofitting of fire sprinklers in many tall buildings. Further recommendations were made about the use of fire protection and fire compartmentalisation. By the end of that review in 2013, it was agreed that Part B should be revised, but this has still not happened.”
Mr Rook pointed to a worrying trend regarding engineering-led regulation. He said: “Repeated delays to the process of revising regulations and the history of incidents are symptomatic of a wider culture of undervaluing and undermining the expertise of engineers and other professions. This should no longer be allowed to continue in the wake of Grenfell. Whatever cause is finally pinned down, the failings of the regulatory system and sector have been thrown into sharp relief by this horrifying fire.”