UK cladding and insulation system tests need a reality check

Sep 6, 2017 | Facades, News

Reality check on UK cladding and insulation system tests

The fire that devastated London’s Grenfell Tower about 3 months ago shocked the world and cast a spotlight on UK fire regulations and construction practices.

The speed with which the UK government established an expert panel to give advice on immediate safety after the fire is admirable.  This expert panel has now issued its final advice for building owners.

The advice has been based upon the results from seven large-scale BS8414 fire tests conducted at the Building Research Establishment in line with current domestic testing regulations.  By conducting these tests, the expert panel has concluded which combinations of façade materials meet current regulatory levels

We welcome the fact that these tests have taken place.  However, Fire Safe Europe has concerns about using these test results as the basis to advise landlords on whether or not certain façades are safe or not.  This is because of clear issues with the British BS8414 test: 

  • The large-scale fire test does not reflect real-world conditions. In the real world, façades are not installed perfectly, there are breaks in the façade caused by air ducts, and ultimately systems and materials do not always perform as they might in a laboratory.
  • The large-scale fire test does not include windows. What made the Grenfell fire so devastating is the fact that the fire re-entered the building at every floor, spreading the fire to all apartments. This risk can only be fully evaluated by including windows in the tests.
  • The large-scale fire test does not include measurements of smoke development and smoke toxicity.  We already know that toxic smoke had a devastating effect at Grenfell, with many survivors treated subsequently for cyanide poisoning.

Whilst it might help with the management of public opinion in the short term, it would be irresponsible to conclude that systems that include combustible materials are safe based on these tests alone and that therefore this matter can be safely closed.

Fire Safe Europe believes that the only way to guarantee that tall buildings above a certain height are safe from the risk of rapid fire spread is to require the use of only non-combustible construction materials on façades, including insulation and cladding.  This is already the law in the many European countries; it is essential that the UK now follows suit to ensure that UK citizens are at least as safe in their tall buildings as those in other countries within Europe.