Last year, it became very clear from Dame Judith’s findings and also the first phase report of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry by Sir Martin Moore-Bick that existing building regulations and fire safety standards are not working effectively and ‘need to be overhauled’.
While the government is currently working hard to make much-needed changes, I believe that meaningful change – particularly across the housing sector – requires many of the current reviews and consultations to go one step further.
This includes the latest government fire consultation, which was seeking views on the proposal to reduce the building height requirement for the use of sprinklers from 30 metres to 18 metres, as well as improving signage and evacuation alert systems. While the premise of the consultation intends to review and optimise safety recommendations concerning sprinklers, I believe the consultation – and crucially the next steps by the government – should take a broader view.
Fire safety engineering
The opportunity is not to focus on one technology and the current regulations surrounding it. Instead this should be the time to really refine fire safety guidance and explore how housing providers and their suppliers can best protect buildings and their residents. This means investigating new solutions, alongside revaluating the viability of traditional ones, like sprinklers, to reduce the number of fire-related deaths and injuries.
Now, more than ever, housing providers and local authorities want to improve the safety of their housing stock but are unsure how to make the biggest impact. Compliance with the Building Regulations alone is not necessarily sufficient to address the protection of residents from fire. For me, I believe a universal shift in culture is required around fire safety engineering to truly support the delivery of buildings that are safe, both now and in the future.
Rather than condensing this form of engineering into a handful of fire safety options for best practice, we should be imploring designers to skilfully apply the same scientific principles to every building, as other engineering specialities champion – such as structural engineers.
None of the above can be carried out effectively if there is limited fire safety expertise available to make the right decisions without the exclusive reliance on common practice and so, this requires both a reduction in the descriptiveness of guidance documents and an increase in the verification of the competence in the fire engineering profession.
For example, to date, there has been confusion over the scope of voluntary guidance set out in the Fire Safety: Approved Document B. Here, many individuals have questioned how it relates to those who live in flats and, indeed, to what extent, if any, this legislation can require improvements beyond the entrance doors of flats. These are just two of the questions raised by those seeking to apply and enforce it.
The application of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (FSO) to general needs housing blocks of flats and specialised housing has also proved problematic. It has led to widely varying outcomes. In some buildings, significant work to upgrade fire safety standards within the common parts has been undertaken to satisfy this legislation. In others, none has been considered necessary.
My view is the same as the one raised repeatedly by Dame Hackitt and in the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) Fire Safety in Specialised Housing guide. Rather than being encouraged by safety regulations to simply tick a box and use a one-size-fits-all solution, like sprinklers, housing providers should be encouraged to explore the best approach on a case-by-case basis. By doing this, housing providers can ensure that every resident is protected no matter their age and mobility or whether they are a single-person or a family.
In its Fire Safety in Specialised Housing guide, the NFCC goes a long way in recognising the need for taking a more focused and tailored approach for individuals. Enforcement agencies are naturally in favour of a limited number of tried and tested solutions to make their role more effective in determining compliance. However, descriptive guidance has traditionally both limited innovative solutions and hindered the development of a breadth of expertise.
An intelligent fire safety approach sees housing providers choosing from a menu of options, something a handful of large housing associations are trialling, to consider the fire protection of each individual dwelling and choosing the solution depending on the need of that building. For example, a sheltered housing block may require a different fire safety approach than a neighbouring tower block.
This may take the form of a thorough review to ensure all existing fire safety and firestopping measures are in place and can be relied upon. It may be a waking watch system, or installation of a fire suppression system such as misting. It may even be a comprehensive and adaptable evacuation policy.
To rebuild the trust needed by residents across the social housing sector, I urge the government to highlight the importance of reviewing the best and effective solution for each dwelling and its individual residents, to minimise the possibility of another tragedy like Grenfell Tower or Lakanal House ever happening again.
By encouraging housing providers to go beyond meeting benchmark standards and carefully consider the individual specifications of the building in question (and its occupants) when defining their strategies for fire safety, we can mitigate the chances of any updated building and fire safety regulations being presented in the form of prescriptive codes – this was something Dame Judith explicitly criticised in her report.
- https://www.nationalfirechiefs.org.uk/write/MediaUploads/NFCC Guidance publications/NFCC_Specialised_Housing_Guidance_-_Copy.pdf