IMPORTANT Website terms of use and cookie statement

Why we must regulate 18 metres as the trigger point for second staircases

Chair of RIBA Expert Advisory Group on Fire Safety and RIBA Past President, Jane Duncan, explains why this campaign to improve fire safety standards matters so much. 

Chair of RIBA Expert Advisory Group on Fire Safety and RIBA Past President, Jane Duncan, explains why this campaign to improve fire safety standards matters so much.  

Almost six years on from the devasting Grenfell Tower fire, we are at last making progress in a key area of advocacy. Following the fire, RIBA Council set up an Expert Advisory Group (EAG) on Fire Safety, and since then we have been advocating for improved safety in both new and existing buildings. A key demand from the group has been for a second staircase to be made mandatory for new high rise residential and other buildings, and regulatory clarity on the height threshold at which a second staircase should be required. Currently, in England, we have an almost unique system allowing for a single staircase in a building of any height.  

In December 2022, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) announced that they were consulting on the maximum height threshold for the provision of a second staircase in new residential buildings. While the move to regulate a threshold is welcome, we believe the proposals do not go far enough. The consultation proposes a 30-metre height threshold; however, this falls short of what we believe to be international best practice, and we are calling on the government to lower this height to 18 metres. 

Why two staircases, and why 18 metres matters 

Under the current Building Regulations “a person escaping through the common area, if confronted by the effects of a fire in another flat, should be able to turn away from it and make a safe escape via an alternative route” - with a single staircase this is not possible. 

With research highlighting that post-Grenfell the fire brigades have been re-considering the use and efficacy of the stay-put policy, and due to the increasing use of social media, people are choosing to evacuate their building rather than staying put, it has never been more important to provide a second staircase.  Second staircases ensure adequate access for both firefighters and a possible full evacuation of residents in residential buildings.   

Following the COVID-19 pandemic, increased hybrid working patterns mean that occupants are spending more time in their homes, thus an 18-metre height threshold for requiring a second staircase in residential buildings would better align with non-residential requirements. 

An 18-metre threshold would also align with definitions in the Building Safety Act, thresholds for certain provisions in the Fire Safety (England) Regulations, and the amendments to fire safety provisions within Approved Document B in relation to fire alert systems in blocks of flats with storeys over 18 metres. 

In Scotland, two staircases have been required above 18 metres for over four years. One of the reasons for this was based upon the height that most fire truck ladders can reach from outside the building for safe evacuation. 

It is unacceptable that in England occupants are still at risk of a single point of failure and lack a safe, second smoke-free evacuation route in tall residential buildings.  

In fact, anecdotal evidence from within the sector suggests that many clients are already asking practices to design in a second staircase, and architects are recommending 18 metres to clients as best practice. This reflects the shifting mindset on fire safety amongst planning departments on Gateway 1 applications, plus social housing administrators and residential developers, concerned to re-address safety standards in relation to second staircases, and pre-empts changes to existing guidance. 

We also cannot ignore the extensive existing single staircase housing stock. Introducing an 18-metre height threshold does not inherently render these buildings unsafe. But the EAG has researched how we can, and should, enhance their safety level through active and passive measures during scheduled refurbishment or maintenance. Consideration should be given to evacuation lifts, sprinklers, fire alarm systems or other fire safety measures as available retrospectively. 

Continuing to demand better standards

We continue to lobby for improved comprehensive, unambiguous prescriptive fire safety regulations – something we have been successful on in the past. Our call to introduce sprinklers in new residential buildings above 11 metres was adopted in 2020. We urge the government to listen to the EAG on staircases too.  

However, we remain deeply concerned about the slow and piecemeal approach to building safety regulations in England, which still falls short of what the public deserve. To address this, the government must undertake a full and holistic review of Approved Document B – to improve the baseline which all buildings need to meet.  

Support our call to Government

There is varied and wide support for an 18-metre height threshold from built environment organisations, including fire safety professionals, and groups representing disabled people. We all recognise its potential in helping to drive improvements in building safety, whilst improving harmonisation within the wider regulatory system.  

Second staircases are a basic requirement and seen as long-established best practice in many other countries. While no one safety measure or improvement is a panacea – second staircases in new residential buildings over 18 metres is a key target to help make them as safe as possible.  

I hope that you will support our call for government action – if you do, please share our posts on Twitter and LinkedIn. We have no time to waste. 

Latest updates

keyboard_arrow_up To top