Government must simplify regulations, but industry needn’t wait for policymakers to address fire safety

November 16, 2017

This article appeared first in 'Building Magazine', UK on 16 November 2017.Everyone benefits when governments create frameworks to ensure their citizens have safe places to live and work. That’s why in this industry, in addition to depending upon one another to put safety first, we look to regulations to specify how buildings should perform. And that’s also why the Grenfell Tower tragedy has rightly led to a comprehensive review of how we approach fire safety in this country.

Building regulations in England require clear and urgent change. Many in the building industry recognise that the current system of fire safety guidance and regulation is insufficiently rigorous, unduly complex and too open to subjective interpretation.

The government must remove this complexity and ambiguity. We welcome the independent Hackitt Review and Grenfell Tower Inquiry, and eagerly await their recommendations. Nevertheless, clients, builders, contractors and other industry players also have a critical opportunity to act on their own to help protect public safety and promote building resilience. This can start immediately with choosing voluntarily to only use non-combustible materials in the cladding and insulation of mid- to high-rise as well as sensitive and high-occupancy buildings such as schools, hospitals and care homes (where evacuation times are longer).

The case for this change is overwhelming. The UK is one of only a few European countries to allow the use of combustible materials on the external envelope of high-rise buildings. That matters a great deal for public safety.

The use of “desktop studies” exemplifies the loose regulations and guidance that have governed façade system approval.  These studies involve paying consultants to project the behaviour of façade systems in a fire based on past data and their own calculations. With no accompanying obligation to conduct laboratory system tests, or even to publish the results, these studies have no place in a rigorous and transparent regulatory framework. We are already seeing key organisations within the construction industry reject the continued use of these studies, which we believe must be banned.

At ROCKWOOL, we propose three critical policy changes that we believe would make a significant difference to public safety. The first is to require that all mid- and high-rise as well as sensitive and high occupancy buildings such as schools, hospitals and care homes should only be clad and insulated with non-combustible (Euroclass certified A1 and A2) materials. This would remove the need for costly large-scale testing for these building types.

Second, a binary system of classification should be adopted, where building materials are classified as either non-combustible (Euroclasses A1 and A2) or combustible (Euroclasses B-F). This would eliminate the ambiguities associated with the current regime. It would also bring the UK into line with other major European countries – including Germany, France, Poland and Hungary – that have already banned combustible materials from high-rise buildings.

Third, regulations must take account of smoke toxicity alongside combustibility issues. We know that smoke is a leading cause of death in building fires and that all combustible materials produce some amount of toxic smoke when they burn; how much depends on the material, the amount of oxygen available and how long it burns. Materials testing and classification should be introduced for toxicity, taking into account the dangers posed by toxic smoke in fires.

Taken together, these measures represent a simple and effective means of protecting public safety. This opportunity must not be missed. The question we should ask ourselves is, ‘why take the risk?’ The political process will run its natural course, but we do not need to wait before taking voluntary action to increase public safety and building resilience.

That action can begin straight away by mirroring international best practice – and choosing to clad and insulate mid- to high-rise buildings in non-combustible materials.