Opinion and Technical

The changing advice around <18m buildings: A fire engineer’s perspective

Workers remove aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding
Construction workmanship, particularly around the installation of cavity barriers, needs to improve says Basil Jackson, as he summarises the changing advice around <18m buildings since the Grenfell Tower disaster.

Since the Grenfell disaster in 2017 where many innocent people unnecessarily lost their lives, there has been one of the biggest disruptions to the construction industry ever seen.

With materials previously sold as meeting regulations later revealed to be unsafe and a widespread failure to follow safety regulations, putting inhabitants of high-rise buildings in danger, there have been many issues to resolve, not least for the government. First, clarifying material requirements on buildings exceeding 18m by changing the law through Regulation 7. Then a plethora of guidance documents issued by the then Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government provided clarity to building owners and professionals involved in the industry.

The government has now announced new advice regarding buildings less than 18m in height, stating that “there is no systemic risk of fire in blocks of flats under 18m”. This advice will free thousands from financial bondage which has rendered their properties valueless since January 2020.

What does the latest government advice mean?

Previously, all buildings regardless of height were being issued with an EWS1 (External Wall System 1) form to prove their compliance with the updated fire safety regulations. However, only buildings over 18m are eligible for remediation funding from the government’s Building Safety Fund. This meant that all non-compliant buildings below this height could not be mortgaged and leaseholders were expected to pay the full amount for remediation, sometimes reaching up to £100,000 per leaseholder.

The latest advice will allow these buildings to be mortgaged again, potentially saving thousands of leaseholders from falling into bankruptcy.

“A key problem is the lack of, or poorly installed, cavity barriers. These are a fundamental part of the passive protection system in an external wall, containing smoke to an area in the vicinity of the fire flat.”

Despite this positive news for those ‘trapped’ in their own properties, the government has not announced any new approach to resolving the safety issues that are identified by an EWS1 assessment, meaning these properties could still mean the leaseholder has to pay, in full, for works to be done to improve the building’s safety.

How does this affect fire engineers and building surveyors?

To cope with the overwhelming demand for external wall assessments, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) created a fast-track training route to qualify building professionals to assess the safety of properties under 18m. Only qualified members of a professional construction body, such as a chartered fire engineer, can currently assess buildings over 18m.

With this change in advice, the demand for those newly qualified surveyors may no longer be the same as before the announcement but, as is evident from what is already being revealed about buildings below 18m, there are a number of fire safety issues that must be identified and remedied across the country.  

A key problem is the lack of, or poorly installed, cavity barriers. These are a fundamental part of the passive protection system in an external wall, containing smoke to an area in the vicinity of the fire flat. Poor installation of cavity barriers means that hot smoke can infiltrate the concealed parts of the wall and ultimately enter an adjacent apartment. This undermines the principle of a ‘stay put’ policy, thereby putting lives at risk.

Looking at the type of remediation most often required, it would appear that there is a clear need for those involved in constructing our buildings to improve their standard of workmanship.  

How is remediation work being funded?

Recent comments from Michael Gove, secretary of state for levelling up, housing and communities, make it clear that the government believes leaseholders should not have to pay for any remediation work completed on their homes. The current Building Safety Fund of £5bn aims to address this problem. The announcement of a 4% levy on construction firms making more than £25m per annum in profits is being implemented to add to this existing £5bn budget. 

 The future

The government, in its latest announcement, has explained that for buildings under 18m requiring remediation, it will introduce a financing scheme. This will be established such that no leaseholder will pay more than £50 a month for the cost of remediating cladding. Further details of this scheme are still awaited, but this is good news for those in low-rise blocks of flats.

The government is also keen that risk assessments of external wall systems should be consistent, proportionate to risk and that any remediation for managing risk is cost-effective. The new advice, known as PAS 9980, is due to be released in the near future. At that time the Consolidated Advice Note (January 2020) will be withdrawn.

The approach to policy in the area of fire engineering is necessarily retrospective as we learn from notable fires that occur over the decades. A great deal has been learned from most recent history, not least because of the significant changes that have been made to construction materials.

The government had little choice but to clarify the requirements for materials being used on buildings over 18m in height. For construction professionals, work still needs to be done on buildings of all sizes. The key issues going forward would seem to revolve around design and standard of workmanship.

Basil Jackson is managing director at Vemco Consulting.

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  1. A 4% levy will cut profits so prices will rise to accommodate, thus the cost of new buildings will rise and the ultimate purchaser, be it social housing, private rental and local authority accommodation will all rise accordingly. More inflation here we come

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