Mitch Gee, Executive Chairman
Dame Judith Hackitt’s interim report of the Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire safety was made available just before Christmas, and made for sober reading. At INCA we welcome the report and compliment Dame Judith on what is thorough and comprehensive understanding of the problems that face the construction industry. We look forward to the final report in the spring.
The changes required will be a huge challenge for the industry. As Dame Judith states, it is clear that the whole regulation process is not fit for purpose. The EWI industry must engage with the issues identified to ensure that we never see a disaster of the type and magnitude of the Grenfell tower again. But the difference between understanding the problems and making the changes that will address them, will require a transformation of culture that may exceed the influence of this report.
I have tried to summarise the report for the benefit of our members who supply and apply external wall insulation systems. Though EWI is fundamentally different from rain screen cladding it will be affected by the findings. INCA members will also wish to contribute to the industry’s efforts to improve the way construction operates, thus reducing or eliminating the possibility of a similar disaster in the future.
The report lists the key reasons why the regulations are not fit for purpose:
- Current regulations and guidance are too complex
- Ensuring the competency of key people is inadequate
- Clarity of roles and responsibilities is poor
- Inadequate systems for escalating the concern of residents
- Compliance and enforcement sanctions are too weak
- The system of product testing marketing and quality assurance is not clear
The report suggests the sector should take more responsibility for the solutions to these problems and not totally rely on regulations, but it is critical that that regulations and guidance must be simplified and unambiguous.
There is also critical need to establish a formal accreditation of those engaged in the fire prevention aspects of the design.
We, supplying products and systems into the industry, must ensure that our products are properly tested and certified, and that our marketing of product performance is clear and unambiguous.
There is a real concern around the desk top study element of approval where full scale fire tests on the proposed system have not been undertaken. How does one assess a kit of component parts that have not been tested as a whole, and what is the competency of those undertaking the assessment? The report recommends that desk top studies should be significantly restricted.
The report states that any revised system must be proportionate and not burden low risk, small scale or simple projects, with the requirements intended for high-rise or complex buildings.
Findings revealed that there was widespread confusion about what the regulations are and what guidance is.
The report makes reference to a need for a ‘golden thread’ in which all high risk building projects have a system in place which preserves the deign intent, and any changes to it are subjected to a formal review process. Currently these changes are poorly assessed and recorded.
The report provided a brief history of catastrophic failure and fires and how they impacted on our understanding of the risks and the subsequent changes in practice and regulations:
- 1973 – The Summerland fire in the Isle of Man, which resulted in 50 people losing their life. The commission highlighted how unclear responsibilities contributed to the events, a parallel which may be drawn with Grenfell.
- 1968 – Collapse at Ronan point; where changes in building regulations were swiftly brought about.1991 – Fire at Knowsley Heights also led to changes in the building regulations and the introduction of fire stopping measures into cladding.
- 2009 – Lakanal House highlighted inconsistent safety advice available to occupants and in particular the role of the ‘stay put policy.’
There has been a decline in fire incidents and casualties, from around 750 fatalities in 1982 to less than 300 in 2016, but this tells us little of the likelihood of catastrophic event. There were still over 650 reported fires in high-rise flats in the year 2016/17.
The review has highlighted areas where the current regulatory system appears weak:
- The system is highly complex
- There is a lack of clarity around roles and responsibilities
- There is an imbalance between building designers/contractors and regulators
- Confusing differences between the two types of building control processes, Local Authority Building Control (LABC) and Approved Inspectors (AI)
- Weak enforcement/sanction regime
- Little significant drive to improve the fire performance of existing buildings.
Buildings tend to be built to meet the minimum requirements in approved document B, rather than focusing on the performance based requirements. There is little evidence to show that those designing and building the building have embraced the principles of what is required to make a building safe. Instead they have used approved documents as a tick box exercise. Approved document B is confusing and contradictory to a non-specialist.
There are also significant issues in the resource and expertise available within local authorities, which is further exacerbated by the worsening age profile. With 26% of those working for Building Control Bodies (BCB) aged over 55.
There is little clarity on who needs to demonstrate compliance allowing design to change, which may result in a negative impact on safety without any formal consultation. Issuing of a completion certificate LABC is incorrectly seen as proof that the building has been built to the required standards. This misinterprets the role of the BCB and shifts the responsibility away from those involved in the construction. It should be emphasised that the responsibility for complying with building regulations lies with the person doing the work.
There is real concern that products can be marketed in way that could be seen to be misleading. Individual elements are often used as part of compound systems that are not fully tested. The desk top studies and assessments are often not made public, or even made available to building control.
There are also issues with standards of workmanship which may be critical in the safe performance of the system but are not made explicit in the approved documents.
There is no rationale for implementing modern building standards on older buildings, although the reason for this is understandable due to costs and possible impracticalities, but it does limit the scope of the law to improve fire safety in pre-existing buildings.
The fire safety order provides some clarity around responsibility, but it is not yet proving fully effective. There are a significant proportion of buildings being visited where fire and rescue services have had to issue notices covering areas such as poor compartmentation.
As a result of the Grenfell Tower fire, the risk based inspection programme has been updated to include a greater focus on high-rise buildings.
The overall regulatory system focusing on fire safety is highly complex with unclear accountabilities. The review aims to design a more effective and simpler system
Stakeholder evidence raised concerns about the tick box culture, a lack of clear guidance on the responsibility for fire safety during the build process and after handover, as well as a loss of independent oversight. As frequently there is the absence of a clerk of works, the client is left totally dependent on the building control process.
The highly competitive nature of industry has resulted in main contractors winning work at wafer thin margins in an expectation that savings will be made from ‘value engineering’ and ‘squeezing subcontractors’. With quantity surveyors possibly incentivised by making savings against budget, there is a temptation to take short cuts. With a prevalence of design and build type contracts, contractors are keen to pass on the liability to others in the supply chain, resulting in a potential fudging of responsibilities. In the absence of someone with an overall understanding and responsibility for assessing the design, what may have been perceived as small risks at the time, could impact on the overall performance of the building. These small risks can compound into a potentially catastrophic risk. But as Dame Judith points out, the report should not be interpreted that all buildings are unsafe, as large-scale failures are very rare, but as an industry it is imperative that they are eliminated.
The report has highlighted that desk stop studies may be a cost effective alternative to full scale system tests, but they have been shown to fall short of what is required, and we should move forward to a system based approach with full scale testing on all cladding systems. The prevalence of product substitution without any adequate control or oversight to ensure the replacement products performed as well as those specified, also needs to be tackled.
The report also raised concern about the privatisation of elements of building control through the widespread use of approved inspectors. This concern could also be directed at bodies such as the British Board of Agrément and Building Research Establishment.
The culture of our industry needs to move towards a greater degree of partnership and become less adversarial. This means a construction industry where there is clear responsibility and greater examination of changes in design.
The report has probably not told us anything we did not already know. We look forward to the final report in the spring and hope that it will have the influence to make the changes in the industry that are so greatly needed.