There’s no doubt the Building Safety Act and Fire Safety Act are driving major improvements in the construction industry’s quality and approval processes. Despite the legislation’s initial emphasis on high-rise residential structures, it’s anticipated that it will ultimately include the whole built environment.
Therefore, specifiers should prepare for a flood of secondary legislation that will fundamentally alter the regulatory landscape and tighten fire-safety regulations in hotels, hospitals and commercial buildings.
My main worry, as a provider of high-end office partitioning solutions, is that those working in the commercial real estate industry would not be ready for the new standards’ more stringent compliance requirements. Architects, building inspectors, owners and manufacturers will undoubtedly face new standards for competency, collaboration and the digital display of connected information.
Regrettably, present fire regulations for commercial buildings are too lenient. There is uncertainty about what constitutes adequate fire-safety system management and how to get ready for the much-anticipated implementation of new and enhanced building and fire-safety regulations.
Although it’s easy to remain complacent, adopting the mentality that ‘it’ll never happen to me’ is extremely unsafe and should prompt contractors, asset owners and facility managers to join the legislative programme as soon as possible.
In the future, it’s likely to become more challenging to specify office interiors, perform regular inspections, and have a firm understanding of the fire-safety ratings for items like internal doors, panels and partitions, and having access to guidance on legislation will help improve matters. However, there is no justification for these systems to remain unaddressed, both in terms of the financial and human costs.
When specifying materials for commercial office interiors, I advise going above and beyond existing building regulations to future-proof and assure occupant safety.
The new, post-Grenfell mindset
Grenfell served as a wake-up call, particularly for building-product manufacturers and those involved in the installation, testing and inspection of fire-protection systems. Many in the industry were under the impression that products were safe for their purpose and were industry compliant with legal requirements.
However, the terrible event that day compelled the industry to revaluate a number of conventional procedures, including the efficacy, sufficiency and relevance of material fire-testing and certification, as well as the claims made about the performance of products in marketing materials. Thankfully, this re-evaluation is leading a thorough cultural change.
Fundamentally, adequate fail-safes weren’t in place prior to Grenfell, and it’s now necessary that we review each step: Which risks exist in terms of building materials and how can we make processes safer?
Data is key
Five years later, there has been a tremendous advancement in the interpretation of data, whether it originates from a direct fire test or a third-party evaluation. In light of the Grenfell tragedy, manufacturers now need to be focused on creating robust and accurate product information. For specifiers, attention to detail is key and data is vital to fact-check claims on materials and applications.
Test evidence suitability for products and systems is now being thoroughly reviewed. At its heart, specifiers want to answer the all-important question ‘Will this product perform as outlined in test results and will it work in the final build?’
The process as a whole has become more complex, reducing efficiency, which will need to be addressed as construction output increases.
Unfortunately, even the best-laid strategies can’t fully account for these questions. Due to the increased demand for test evidence of fire resistance, testing facilities are presently congested, which has resulted in significantly longer wait times. In order to provide assessments, which are now tightly related to the outcomes of relevant fire tests, more information must be acquired, and a comprehensive analysis is necessary.
As building production rises, there will be a need to address the process’s overall growing complexity, declining efficiency and speed at which testing can take place.
R&D cultivates innovation
Fortunately, solutions are at hand due to significant advancements made in the production of fire-safe products and materials throughout the industry.
More and more projects are being specified with bespoke fire-rated systems rather than just installing on a ‘one-size-fits-all’ basis as suppliers and designers work closely together.
Many built environment organisations are now investing in R&D to create cutting-edge technologies that keep people safe as they anticipate an increase in demand for customised solutions.
As a result, a commitment has been made to develop the best fire solutions possible, which translates into safer, more effective products as well as extra testing and improvements for applications that aren’t covered by current technology.
Mastering your craft
It’s important to recognise that adopting fire-rated items and materials does not make an area fire-safe by default. You must make sure that the installation and risk analysis of fire-rated items are frequently monitored when the facility is up and operating in order to establish a systems-based approach.
The integrity of a fire-rated product may be jeopardised by even the simplest adjustment, such as changing the opening mechanism of a glass door. It’s crucial to comprehend every element of the product in order to ensure that it is specified correctly. Therefore, it is imperative that both specifiers and office building managers complete extensive training and continued professional development (CPD) on the topic of fire safety.
For example, the most recent high-performance glass doors utilised in workplaces today are specialised pieces of fire-rated technology and operate quite differently from other glass partitions or doors in my opinion. As a result, it is crucial to keep improving our knowledge of fire prevention through education and CPD.
What about design?
The addition of fire-safe components to a room while maintaining compliance and preserving its aesthetic appeal is another significant challenge we confront.
Designers are increasingly aiming to open up rooms to let in natural light and promote occupant health. As a result, walls that were once solid are now specified as glass. Therefore, large glass panels that exceed the capacity of fire-test facilities must be carefully handled and installed within a custom system. Frequent collaboration with certification authorities is necessary to decide what may be appraised from the test evidence supplied.
Offices must, of course, be fire-safe, attractive to the eye and comfortable to work in. Our biggest obstacle is the daily complexity of office operations. Aesthetics are often a requirement that is added to the fire resistance of fire doors. But most of the time, there just isn’t any certified hardware available on the market.
Can beautiful design and fire safety coexist in a workplace environment? Certainly, yes. Modern sliding glass doors and partitioning systems, adaptable meeting rooms and acoustically enhanced walls may all be sustainably improved for fire safety while also offering eye-catching interior features. Many glass office partition systems permit unrestricted airflow and natural light, which improves employee wellbeing and boosts productivity.
In the workplace, I firmly believe that design and fire safety can coexist, but managing expectations effectively is essential.
Since fire safety is of the utmost importance, I am confident that as the regulations tighten, the commercial office industry will catch up with fire-safety standards, testing and reporting regimes, and continuous compliance. However, time is of the essence and we should start broadening our knowledge banks sooner rather than later.
Thankfully, incredible fire-resistant workplace solutions that are built for security, flexibility and aesthetic appeal are now readily available.
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