The future of building regulations and fire management

A recent survey carried out by the Business Sprinkler Alliance identified that even though two thirds of participants were aware of Dame Judith Hackitt’s review, it has made little to no impact on changing their perception of sprinkler installation.

The review made many recommendations, which are designed to point the industry in the right direction in terms of building better for the future. But still more needs to be done. With the government launching a consultation and agreeing to implement the Hackitt review recommendations in full, what will this mean for the industry in practice? And does it go far enough?

The Government’s Plans

In a consultation released in June 2019, the government has offered more direction over their thoughts on the implementation of the recommendations from the Hackitt review. The review explains 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 gated process for buildings in construction and the building-work competency obligations; and it 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 a building safety managers.

A key element is better communication with, and 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 structure is designed to ensure safe buildings and to assure more power is given to those who live in the buildings, so that any safety concerns can be quickly reported and not brushed under the carpet. Safety will be actively documented, checked and managed. Those who do not follow requirements to improve safety will be held accountable by the regulator.

Scope and Detail

Whilst it is 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. But either way, running a two-tier system on the long-term will pose challenges as it will offer opportunities to play the system. It also overlooks the fact that fire safety challenges are found across the whole built environment.

A Shift to Understanding Risk 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 are 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 no injuries, but 20 families and residents will have to be housed elsewhere for many months.

Fires such as this highlight the rationale for greater consideration of property protection alongside life safety as a reasonable outcome. An expectation of property protection alongside life safety 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 and believes they should be considered more readily as a viable option right across the built environment whether it is a block of flats, a hospital, school, retail or leisure facility or commercial and industrial building.

Doing so would be in line with the ‘layers of protection’ which Dame Judith 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 per cent and that in those cases they extinguish or contain the fire on 99 per cent of occasions across a wide range of building types.1

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. Whilst it could cost a little more upfront, the buildings will be safer and more sustainable. The problem is that this is not recognised in the current property marketplace.

The government is proposing regulatory change to ensure that a segment of the built environment is safer. It is doing so by focusing on standards, competence, communication and outcomes. Whilst more detail should be provided to allow a clear understanding of the government’s plans, the broad approach is appropriate and there is also still room for debate on means to address safety across the built environment. Importantly, this includes room for debate about the desired outcomes, where the BSA would advocate that a holistic approach designed to make buildings resilient to fire – and so be both safe and sustainable – is long overdue.

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1 Efficiency and Effectiveness of Sprinkler Systems in the United Kingdom: An Analysis from Fire Service Data – Optimal Electronics May 2017

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