According to a recent survey conducted by the Business Sprinkler Alliance (BSA), although two-thirds of participants were fully aware of Dame Judith Hackitt’s Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety, it’s thought that the review process itself has actually made little-to-no impact on changing their perception when it comes to the importance of sprinkler installation. Clearly, suggests Iain Cox, more work needs to be done, even though the Hackitt Review has made notable recommendations designed to motivate the industry to build better for the future.
It’s encouraging to see that the Government is launching a consultation and agreeing to implement the Hackitt Review’s recommendations in full, but what will this mean for the industry in practice? Does it go far enough?
In a consultation released in June, the Government has offered more direction over its thoughts on the implementation of the recommendations from the Hackitt Review. The Hackitt Review explains that the planned regime will apply to multi-occupation residential buildings taller than 18 metres. It offers more detail on a rigorous regulatory and accountability framework. It confirms both the gateway process for buildings in construction and the building work competency obligations and also explains the planned use of fire safety cases which will be supported by a “golden thread” of building information to be controlled by a new role for building safety managers.
A key element is better communication with – and the involvement of – residents with oversight of the whole process by a new building safety regulator which will be responsible for standards setting, competency and enforcement.
The proposed management structure is designed to ensure safe buildings and to assure more power is given to those who live in the buildings such that any safety concerns can be quickly reported and not brushed under the carpet. Safety will be actively documented, checked and managed. Those who don’t follow requirements to improve safety will be held accountable by the regulator.
While it’s understandable that Dame Judith’s report focused on high-risk residential buildings, this is now being extended to multi-occupancy residential buildings taller than 18 metres. This means that the benefits provided by the system will only be realised by a limited number of buildings.
This extension may be eminently sensible as we start to build expertise and operate a separate system for defined buildings. Either way, running a two-tier system will pose challenges in the longer term as it offers opportunities to ‘play’ the system. It also overlooks the fact that fire safety challenges are found across the whole built environment.
Quantifying risks and outcomes
The implementation of the proposed framework will mean a shift from a singular focus on compliance with guidelines to actively demonstrating an understanding of the risk in a building. This will mean defining the desired outcomes in the face of risks for safety in the event of fire, implementing systems to achieve them and actively managing change to ensure the outcomes are achieved over time.
Defining outcomes is fundamental and we’re seeing a shift in expectations – notably about the ability to return to using a building quickly after a fire. The recent fire in Barking provided a stark example of the broader consequences of fire. Thankfully there were no injuries, but the outcome is that 20 families and residents will have to be housed elsewhere for many months to come.
Fires such as this highlight the rationale for greater consideration of property protection alongside life safety as a reasonable outcome. Such an expectation would result in more buildings being designed to be resilient to disproportionate damage, using combinations of passive and active fire safety measures.
The BSA believes that sprinkler systems would be a major part of this change. They should be considered more readily as a viable option right across the built environment, whether it’s a block of flats, a hospital, a school, a retail or leisure facility or a commercial/industrial building.
Doing so would be in line with the “layers of protection” which Dame Judith has called for in her report to make buildings safe. Sprinklers are proven time and time again to be both effective and efficient in a wide range of fire scenarios and building types. Evidence has shown sprinkler systems have an operational reliability of 94% and that, in those cases, they extinguish or contain the fire on 99% of occasions across a wide range of building types*.
Understanding the risk
Building sophisticated fire-resilient buildings is good for everyone. It means understanding risk and the outcomes people want from their buildings in the face of fire. While it could cost a little more up front, the buildings will be safer and more sustainable. The problem is that this isn’t recognised in the current property marketplace.
The Government is proposing regulatory change to ensure that a segment of the built environment is safer. It’s doing so by focusing on standards, competence, communication and outcomes. While more detail should be provided to allow a clear understanding of the Government’s plans, the broad approach is appropriate and there’s also still room for debate on means to address safety across the built environment.
Importantly, this includes room for discussion about the desired outcomes whereby the BSA would advocate that an holistic approach designed to make buildings resilient to fire – and so be both safe and sustainable – is long overdue.
Iain Cox is Chairman of the Business Sprinkler Alliance
*’Efficiency and Effectiveness of Sprinkler Systems in the United Kingdom: An Analysis from Fire Service Data’, Optimal Electronics (May 2017)