UK fire safety regulation review moving in wrong direction

19 February 2018

Working Group for Hackitt Review looking to perpetuate fundamentally flawed “test and study” compliance regime.

Dame Judith Hackitt’s Review of UK Building Regulations and Fire Safety takes its next step today, when its working groups begin meeting to discuss the way forward in different areas of building safety. The early signs are not encouraging.

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The products working group, for example, has an important responsibility – ensuring that materials, products, and systems are safe.  However, the first question the working group is considering is “How can we ensure that testing is appropriate for the real-world use of materials, products, and systems”? This points to little more than tweaking at the margins of the UK’s fundamentally flawed “test and study” compliance regime, as it excludes discussing whether system testing is even appropriate for tall and sensitive buildings.

This shouldn’t surprise anyone given that the working group is chaired by the Building Research Establishment (BRE), and that one of the BRE’s businesses is to conduct these system tests.

The BRE’s commercial interest in defending the status quo should disqualify it from this role.  The government should not allow a task so important for public safety to be directed by an organisation with such an obvious conflict of interest.

We should remember that these large-scale fire tests were developed to create a pathway for combustible materials to be approved as “safe” for tall buildings.  Large-scale testing has a role to play in some scenarios, though in our view, not when it comes to mid- and high-rise or sensitive and high-occupancy buildings like schools and hospitals.

There are simply too many variables and potential deviations from real-world practice to rely on testing to keep these types of buildings and those who use them safe.

The simple truth is that combustible materials burn; non-combustible materials don’t.  No amount of creative marketing can change that.

Public safety requires more than building regulation by the industry for the industry. The public deserves government leadership to safeguard people’s lives and the buildings where they live, learn, work, and heal.

We believe that a simple and effective way to achieve this is to require that all mid- and high-rise as well as sensitive and high-occupancy buildings be clad and insulated only with non-combustible (Euroclass A1 and A2) materials. Doing so would bring the UK into league with best practices elsewhere in Europe, where it’s simply not allowed to install combustible cladding and insulation on tall building facades.

Taking this approach would eliminate entirely the need to conduct large-scale tests for these types of buildings. It might also mean less business for the BRE, but it would sweep away the ambiguity and uncertainty that large-scale testing and desktop studies inevitably create, and provide a solid foundation for protecting public safety.

Why take the risk to do otherwise?

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