Next year we will see the 300th anniversary of a patent (No. 458) registered in London by a German-British scientist Ambrose Godfrey (also known as Gottfried Hankwitz), a phosphorous manufacturer. His invention? A cask filled with water, chemical powder or a propriety liquid and fitted with a quantity of explosive in a tin can to which was attached a fuse. A ‘fireman’ would light the fuse, throw the cask into the room on fire and take cover: the blast and atomised liquid or powder would, hopefully, extinguish the fire and not spread it to the unaffected parts of the building! Thus was born a portable means of extinguishing fire in a building without the need to get close to the fire.

DHL Warehouse, Daventry, Northants, March 2018 Photo: South West News Service

A year after the Battle of Trafalgar, in 1806, Patent No. 2963 was registered for a formative sprinkler system which involved the manual operation of a valve that allowed stored water in a tank to cascade through a spray head onto a fire. Automation of a sprinkler’s operation came within three years when Colonel William Congreve (inventor of the rocket as a weapon) developed a fusible link that melted at a set temperature and released the flow.

So, given the gestation period of some 300 years it could be a reasonable question as to why automatic sprinklers are still not a universal life safety and property conservation component of all buildings in the UK? But (and this is a big “but”) the glacial pace of adoption has just become a little faster, with government shifting slightly in its stance to widen the range of buildings that now have a mandatory requirement to install automatic sprinkler systems. Lobbying and responding to government consultation by a wide range of fire sector and insurance bodies on the use of sprinklers appear to have worked with amendments to English Building Regulations being hailed as a success.

The National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) has been key in coordinating a national response to the Building Regulations consultation process in England. Research carried out by NFCC and the National Fire Sprinkler Network found that sprinklers are 94 per cent efficient in operability and 99 per cent effective in controlling or extinguishing a fire. Weight of evidence from a range of sources and effective responses to the consultation have led to amendments of the government’s original proposals for the threshold for requiring automatic sprinklers in high-risk residential buildings to be reduced from 18m to 11m. That should mean that blocks of flats of four storeys or more will now require an automatic fire sprinkler system (AFSS) and this should provide much needed reassurance for prospective tenants or owners in these buildings. Unfortunately, as with most of these regulations, there is no requirement to improve the fire safety of existing premises, meaning the current uncertainty around the replacement of the combustible cladding on buildings will continue until all the unsafe cladding has been removed.

Equally worrying is the possibility that flats in high-rise blocks (or medium or even low-rise blocks) may become undesirable as a dwelling type. For those fortunate enough to afford dwellings with their own front door at ground level, flats may be ignored as a type of residence, depressing market prices and possible underoccupancy or under-investment in maintenance and/or improvements.

Devolved Leap Forward

While England is about to make a significant change in the sprinkler threshold from 30 metres (the height which could be achieved by a turntable ladder) to 11 metres (the working height of a 13.5 metre ladder), the devolved governments have taken the leap in respect of sprinklers in the UK. Since April 2014, regulations in Wales requiring sprinkler installations have been applied to high-risk properties such as care homes, new and converted student halls of residence, boarding houses and certain hostels. Since January 2016, all new and converted houses and flats must have AFSS installations.

In Scotland, Building Regulations changes to the existing requirements under Building Standard 2.15 (which already requires automatic fire suppression systems to be fitted in buildings that are enclosed, such as shopping centres, residential care buildings, high rise domestic buildings, building hat for the whole or part of a sheltered housing complex or school buildings – unless impractical to do so) will mean all new-build social homes, flats, and shared multi-occupied residential buildings must be fitted with automatic fire suppression systems from March 2021.

Post-Grenfell Challenges and Successes

Chief Fire Officer Gavin Tomlinson, Derbyshire Fire and Rescue Service, is currently NFCC lead for business fire safety (and formerly lead for automatic water suppression systems) and spoke to FIRE magazine about the successes and range of challenges facing the drive for sprinklers in post-Grenfell UK and the gaps that still remain in some of the key exposures in the built environment. Whilst welcoming the changes in the Approved Document B (ADB) in respect of the installation of sprinklers in high-rise residential buildings above 11metres, he recognises the continuing difficulties facing services and others through the application of Regulation 4 (3) – the non-worsening clause – which is of particular concern in buildings converted to residential occupancy, particularly under Permitted Development Rights, which are often not brought up to current standards due to this clause.

Recently, there have been a number of developments that have been criticised when buildings such as office blocks and factories have been converted into residential flats, sometimes with very limited alterations leaving a building with large number of residents but with limited fire safety measures introduced. It is possible that for a seven- or eight-storey office building to be converted into a residential high-rise and have no sprinklers that would otherwise be mandatory if it were a new block.

Under the amended regulations it is entirely possible that a building could be created in a few months’ time (when the amendments have been approved) with fire safety standards that were applicable in 2014 with the same risk level when the Grenfell Tower refurbishments were approved. The conversion of existing buildings into dwellings may reduce the deficit in UK housing availability but is potentially creating the same problems which post-Grenfell Tower inquiries and consultations were supposed to eliminate. Once again, a crystal ball is not required to see that either greater investment in fire safety measures, particularly AFSS, is required or we will be revisiting the lessons learned from Grenfell Tower again in the near future.

The NFCC has also seen the future in which environmentally sustainable buildings will become more prevalent and timber-based buildings could form a large part of the new housing stock. European countries, probably more developed in their use of timber in their buildings than is generally the case in the UK, are making great strides in the use of timber in high-rise dwellings and other buildings.

In Berlin, plans are now underway for a 98 metre wooden tower in which the only concrete element will be those in the core and the basement of the building. Using cross laminated timber engineering, the building – WoHo (Wohnhochhaus – “live tower”) – is 25 per cent commercial office and retail space and 60 per cent homes, of which one third are rent controlled flats. There is limited space for private cars but a plethora of bike racks and electric charging units. It appears (at the moment) that balconies and roof will be decked with creeping greenery. The building and others are built under a city requirement that permission for the height to be more than 1.5 times higher than the area’s roofline, it should be “of high architectural quality and functionally sustainable”.

Again, the balance between sustainability and risk has changed and the eventual outcome in terms of increased or reduced fire risk will only emerge with time and usage of the building in a real-life context. Fires in timber frame buildings in the UK have also had their impact including the loss of 150 residential apartments in a three-storey timber framed retirement complex in Crewe in 2019. It is felt that irrespective of the materials from which buildings are constructed (but particularly where there is a significant quantity of combustible structural members), sprinklers need to be mandatory where the risk of rapid fire spread is high.

School Fire Losses

Another move forward for sprinklers in some of our institutional buildings could be achieved through the consultation on revision of the Building Bulletin 100 (BB100), the ‘Technical review of Building Bulletin 100: Design for fire safety in schools’ as part of a general government push to improve fire safety. According to Zürich Municipal, 40 schools in the UK each month suffer fires and that in 2019 over 15,000m² of damage to school spaces and classrooms occurred with almost 20,000 children suffering a loss of education for extended periods. Between 2017 and 2020, there have been nearly 2,000 fires in schools with larger fires in schools costing an average of £2.8 million for repairs and in some cases the cost was over £20 million.

Now is a propitious moment for introducing a greater number of sprinkler systems into educational premises. The government has decided to spend at least £1 billion on a school building and refurbishment programme for England. This creates an opportunity to make a strategic difference to the way schools are protected and ensure the longevity of the building stock and follow in the footsteps of Scotland and Wales where sprinklers are compulsory in all new and major refurbished school buildings.

A fire in a school building not only causes a financial impact: there is the disruption of studies, the loss of coursework, the distress and anxiety caused by the displacement of pupils from the familiar to the new school environment. There is also a social and economic impact when a small local primary school is destroyed and not replaced, possibly through rationalisation and merger with other small schools. Sometimes the loss of a school may eviscerate a town or village. For all these reasons and more schools should be protected.

Under the Labour government in 2006, the previous version of BB100 introduced an ‘expectation’ that following a risk assessment of a new school or a major refurbishment, sprinklers would be installed by the developers as a matter of course. Unfortunately, the term ‘expectation’ had no compulsion for the installation of sprinklers and as a result very few systems were installed in school premises built in the previous 15 years or so with only 30 per cent of new schools having sprinklers installed in 2017.

Zürich carried out over 1,000 school inspections to determine the inherent fire risk and found that two out of three rated as having ‘poor’ levels of fire protection systems such as sprinklers and only 14 per cent were rated ‘good’ or ‘excellent’. Twenty-four per cent of the schools were judged to be ‘poor’ for fire detection measures including smoke detectors.

It is hoped by the NFCC that the new requirements in the revised BB100 include that of installation of an automatic sprinkler system (and other fire protection measures) in all new and refurbished school premises. Some councils, including Derby City Council, have now signed a statement of intent to install AFSS in all new and refurbished schools, perhaps an indicator of a “bottom up” approach to the problem of school fires. The school rebuilding programme is an opportunity to change the way we think about protection of a key vulnerable social facility – for the sake of 1.5-2 per cent of the building cost, a school can be made “future proof”, last for generations and not be destroyed by an unthinking act of vandalism or an accident.

Spiralling Cost of Warehouse Fires

As the economic straightjacket begins to tighten as the UK responds to the fiscal impact, a “perfect storm” comprising Brexit, Covid-19 and changing climate, commerce and business will be required to become more efficient and productive than in any time in over a century. Increasingly, we are all becoming more reliant of extended supply chains and transportation and one visible manifestation of this is the growth of bigger warehousing facilities lining motorways and trunk roads across the country. While many are well protected from a fire safety perspective, they represent a vulnerability which has in recent years become almost invisible (or having a “blind eye” used) in the eyes of government.

Warehouse fires in the UK cost the economy around £230 million each year (based upon 2014 reports by the Association of British Insurers) and the problem shows no sign of disappearing soon. The financial losses can be significant – a serious fire in the ASOS clothing company warehouse in Barnsley in June 2014 was estimated to cost the company about £30 million in direct and indirect costs. On New Year’s Eve, 2018 a self-storage warehouse in Croydon containing 1,198 individual storage lockers and rooms was destroyed when fire broke out. The building was a total loss, knocked down and replaced the following year but the financial loss remains uncertain. Contents of the units were, in many cases, personal and monetarily unquantifiable but irreplaceable in many instances.

The Shurgard self-storage warehouse, Croydon, December 2018 Image courtesy of Business Sprinkler Alliance

Similarly, the fire at the Ocado robotic warehouse in Andover in February 2019 cost £132 million and caused a drop of seven per cent in the company’s share price despite having an award-winning sprinkler system fitted. Analysis carried out by the Business Sprinkler Alliance (BSA) in 2018 show that while Norway had a threshold for sprinklers in warehouses of 800m², Germany 1,800m², France 3,000m², England and Wales had 20,000m² as their threshold while Scotland was slightly lower at 14,000m². The NFCC has asked that the amendments to the Building Regulations be such that the threshold for the mandatory requirement of installation of sprinklers in warehouses be reduced to 4,000m²: the Business Sprinkler Alliance goes even further asking for it to be reduced to 2,000m². This figure was based on research by the Building Research Establishment (BRE) Global in 2014, which found that there was both an economic and environmental case for fitting automatic fire sprinklers in new large warehouses of 2,000m².

A large fire in a Warrington Warehouse in May 2020 was declared a “major incident”

Source BBC

The lack of publicly available details on the cost of warehouse fires in the UK since 2014 means that a cost benefit analysis is relatively difficult to arrive at and therefore remains somewhat controversial and debatable. Without taking into account the Ocado fire, the cost to the UK warehouse fires based upon figures produced for the BRE in 2014 indicated that ‘One in five warehouses in England, approximately 621 premises, will have a fire requiring the attendance of firefighters each year. The total annual cost to the UK economy of fires in English warehouses without fire sprinklers is £232 million’. There is a widening use of sacrificial buildings (where burn, demolish, rebuild and replace is the mantra), the environmental impact, business disruption, social impoverishment and, not insignificantly, the risk to firefighters who have to deal with the existential issue of putting the fire out, are far greater than it may seem to the company “bean counters”.

Despite there being a number of myths surrounding the use of sprinklers – the cinema trope that all sprinkler heads act in unison even if only one head operates is false (in the interests of balance, equally false is the frequently heard statement that “80 per cent of businesses having fires close within a year”, or five years or a decade!), the case for the introduction of sprinklers in all residential buildings of whatever height as well as schools, warehouses etc is persuasive.

For the most part, installing sprinkler systems in buildings gives greater control over that building and its longevity to the owner. Even if not a statutory requirement, fitting AFSS is a “good thing”. As Tom Roche of Factory Mutual put it: “When it comes to fire risk, we must not confuse regulatory compliance with property resilience”.