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RIBA fire safety update - June 2021

An update on our work to create a safer built environment.

08 June 2021

It has now been four years since the Grenfell Tower fire in which 72 people tragically lost their lives.

In the intervening period, a great deal of evidence has been considered by the Grenfell Tower Inquiry, with hearings covering the origin and development of the fire and the response of the London Fire Brigade and the other emergency services, the primary refurbishment (including over cladding), and the testing, certification and marketing of cladding and insulation products. Module 3 of Phase 2 of the Inquiry is now underway, which looks at the internal active and passive fire safety measures, the management of the building, compliance with the Fire Safety Order 2005, fire risk assessments, and any complaints and communication with residents. The inquiry’s current projection (subject to further potential COVID related delays) is that the Phase 2 ‘modules’ should be concluded by early 2022.

The government has amended the Building Regulations to prevent the use of combustible materials in the external wall construction of residential buildings (including hospitals, student accommodation and care homes) over 18m in height, has revised Approved Document B guidance so that sprinklers are now required in new and converted residential buildings with a top storey over 11m from ground level unless alternative fire engineering solutions are adopted (reduced from the previous height threshold of 30m), and has brought forward proposals for a reformed Building Regulations system in the draft Building Safety Bill.

The RIBA believes that now is an appropriate time to clarify and expand upon its analysis of the issues relating to regulation, competence and procurement in the construction industry that have been revealed, and to reiterate and expand upon some key RIBA recommendations and actions.

RIBA analysis

If following the “linear route” to compliance in Approved Document B, which was one of the available routes to compliance under the Building Regulations (prior to the ban on combustible materials being introduced in December 2018), rainscreen cladding (or other façade materials) on a residential building over 18m had to meet the minimum requirement of Class 0 (a national standard that measures surface spread of flame and fire propagation) or, alternatively, Class B-s3, d2 or better (Paragraph 12.6 and Diagram 40 Approved Document B, 2013 Edition). Diagram 40 then provided further detail and guidance on the application of the requirements by reference to building height and boundary distances. Evidence given by the MHCLG at the Lakanal House inquest in 2013 supported that Class 0 was the required minimum standard for cladding panels.

The “linear route” also required any “insulation product, filler material…etc” in the external wall construction on a residential building with a storey height over 18m to be of “limited combustibility” (as set out in paragraph 12.7 and Appendix A of Approved Document B, 2013 Edition).

While Approved Document B was (and is) not itself the law, section 7 of the Building Act 1984 provides that following it tends to establish compliance with the fire safety provisions of the Building Regulations. Further, Approved Document B, 2013 Edition, stated that it had been “approved and issued by the Secretary of State”, and further set out that in the Secretary of State’s view, the requirements of the relevant sections of the Building Regulations “will be met” if various stated criteria were satisfied. This language, in our view, reinforced the impression that following the guidance would establish compliance with Building Regulations.

However, considering the in-depth analysis post-Grenfell into the guidance and regulations governing fire safety (and with the benefit of hindsight), our view is that Approved Document B was unclear, difficult to navigate and, in many cases, ambiguous. This may be the result of the multiple routes to compliance, complex cross referencing and opaque language and this may also have contributed to many hundreds of buildings being designed, constructed and approved with potentially unsuitable cladding and insulation, resulting in the current “national cladding scandal” and many thousands of un-mortgageable properties. Another consequence of the retrospective uncertainty has been the resultant lack of confidence of the Professional Indemnity Insurance market in the competence of architects to design in compliance with the Building Regulations - particularly Schedule B4(1) - and the reliability of the guidance in Approved Document B. Together these issues have had and continue to have a very serious impact on society and the profession, which is unlikely to improve without further action by the government, the construction industry and the insurance sector.

A full review of Approved Document B should encompass the provisions on sprinklers/automatic fire suppression systems, central alarms/evacuation sounders, means of escape and travel distances, restrictions on the use of combustible materials and toxicity in fire.

From the evidence presented in Module 2 (within Phase 2) of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry (which considered the testing, certification and marketing of cladding and insulation products), it appears that some product manufacturers may have taken advantage of the complexity and ambiguity of the regulations on fire safety, potentially misleading specifiers about the suitability of their products for use on residential buildings over 18m in height. It may transpire that testing authorities and certification bodies were also involved in such practices (either innocently or otherwise). Whilst the function of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry is not to establish liability or culpability (rather it is to find facts and make recommendations), the findings of the Phase 2 Report on these issues will likely be of great interest to the profession and the wider public.

The vast number of residential buildings now found to require remedial work to external wall systems may be persuasive evidence that many designers, building inspectors, contractors and specialist sub-contractors understood Class 0 as an adequate standard for rainscreen cladding panels, and that the lack of clarity regarding the compliance of insulation products and alternative routes to compliance (including largescale tests and desktop studies) was similarly widespread.

Architects and other design professionals, including fire engineers, building contractors and specialist sub-contractors with design responsibilities, all need to be competent in understanding the principles of fire safety, the Building Regulations and associated guidance relevant to their design input. In addition, they must also have the capability to take a view of whether the resultant designs, or their component of the design in conjunction with the designs of others, will satisfy the functional requirements of the Building Regulations in relation to fire safety. Building Inspectors must also be knowledgeable and fully competent in these assessment skills.

RIBA recommendations to the government and industry

Building Regulations and the Approved Documents for Fire Safety should be further strengthened and be made more prescriptive, where necessary, to be unambiguous and prevent any potential manipulation of the routes to compliance to facilitate lower standards.

A comprehensive review of Approved Document B remains urgent – the changes to the Building Regulations and guidance to date (for instance, the restriction on combustible materials in external walls of residential buildings above 18m and the “guidance” that sprinklers should be installed in residential buildings above 11m) do not go far enough.

Fire safety testing providers should be fully independent to prevent any influence by interested parties over their testing regimes.

Education and continuing professional development requirements for those involved in the design and construction of buildings need to be strengthened in the area of fire safety principles and regulation and mandatory professional competence requirements (see RIBA action proposal at paragraph 20) put in place.

Contract documents and procurement processes should ensure that designers and principal designers are able to maintain and offer professional advice and services to their clients and principal contractors and provide the full scope of inspection services, for any construction project, for which they have design responsibilities or responsibilities as duty holders under the new Building Regulations system, proposed in the draft Building Safety Bill.

To ensure adequate consideration of fire safety throughout the project duration, there should be a requirement for a principal designer to be appointed prior to Gateway 1 (planning approval/confirmation of permitted development rights), there should be minimum level of detail design requirements at Gateway 2 (building regulations full plans application) and mandatory full professional scope of inspections by designers of construction work between Gateway 2 and Gateway 3 sign-off (completion certification).

RIBA actions in response to these recommendations

The RIBA has published The Way Ahead, setting out the new RIBA Education and Professional Development Framework, with new Education Themes and Values and Mandatory Competences, including for health and life safety, which will become integrated into RIBA education validation and Continuing Professional Development (CPD) requirements. Mandatory Competence in health and life safety for RIBA UK chartered members will be re-validated on a periodic basis from 2022.

The RIBA will work with the ARB to ensure that its educational and CPD requirements are developed in dynamic alignment with those of the ARB, taking into account any amendments to the Architects Act, and specifically in relation to Mandatory Competence requirements in Health and Life Safety, Climate Literacy and Ethical Practice.

The RIBA has commenced feasibility assessment and business planning on the introduction of an accreditation scheme for architects who wish to act as designers or principal designers on “higher risk” buildings, in accordance with the Built Environment Competence Standards currently being developed by the British Standards Institute.

In 2020, the RIBA published the RIBA Health and Safety Guide, which covers the core knowledge base of the Mandatory Competence in Health and Life Safety, including design risk management and principles of fire safety design. We are strengthening the provision of learning materials on fire safety available on the RIBA Academy – our online CPD platform. In 2021 the RIBA will publish RIBA Fire Safety Risk Management guidance as a resource for RIBA chartered practices.

The RIBA has been carefully checking learning and specification materials delivered by product manufacturers through its CPD Providers Network, as well as advertising and promotional materials carried by the RIBA Journal, that relate to external wall construction products for use on residential buildings above 18m. This ensures that such materials are consistent with current Building Regulations requirements. Following the recent evidence to the Grenfell Tower Inquiry on the testing, certification and marketing of the cladding and insulation products used in the project, we are reviewing our commercial relationships with the companies involved.

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