After the Grenfell tower fire in London, the UK Government launched an Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety (the Hackitt review). The final report of this review was published on 17 May 2018.
The results of the review are insufficient in their recommendations for a robust regulatory system for fire safety in high-rise and high-risk buildings. The report focuses on responsibilities and processes for securing compliance, whereas public safety requires a clear and unambiguous regulatory framework. The way forward is:
- Significantly improved test methods, based on comprehensive full scale representative testing, conducted in a transparent manner
- Strong prescriptive requirements for high-rise and high-risk buildings leaving no room for ambiguity
- Rigorous independent inspection on job-sites
This is the approach favoured by many EU countries, as it has been documented in Fire Safe Europe’s publications: Facades and fire safety: how do countries compare? and FSEU FIEP Meeting Presentations.
A flawed methodology
The review’s recommendations rely on a fundamentally flawed test methodology: the BS8414 test, which does not adequately reflect real-world conditions. In the real world, façades are not installed perfectly, there are breaks in the façade caused by windows and air ducts, and ultimately systems and materials do not always perform as they might in a laboratory. Therefore, this test cannot provide assurance to residents that the buildings they live in are safe and will remain so. At a minimum, the report should request a review of the BS8414 test to reflect real-life conditions and request the government to limit the use of this test method to buildings below 18m. The BS8414 test, the British standard test-method for fire performance of external cladding systems on buildings is currently lacking in 9 several crucial areas:
- BS8414 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.
- The surround to the combustion chamber is not specified in BS8414 but routinely comprises a protective frame, which is not resent around real-life window openings and can reasonably be expected to protect the façade system in a way that real-life installation details will not.
- Cavity barrier details, such as location and frequency, can be chosen by the test client and do not have to reflect real-life practice.
- Windows, vents and other common wall features are missing from the BS8414 test, the results of which are therefore wholly unrepresentative of façade performance in a real fire. 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.
- Mechanical performance such as system collapse and flaming pools are not included despite the obvious risks to fire-fighters, evacuees and others on the ground, as well as the potential for fire damage and spread.
- Specimen samples are not subject to any validation criteria.
- Test wall surface details are not specified, and the UK’s only testing facility uses rigs with flat and regular walls, in stark contrast to the irregular finish of existing walls in retrofit projects – an important factor which may enable fire to spread behind combustible insulation.
- Installation in BS8414 tests represents ‘best possible’ practice, which is unreflective of real-life installation
- The failure temperature and time provided by BR 135, which are too high and too short, respectively.
Consequences for fire safety across Europe
The Hackitt review not only has important implications for fire safety in the UK, it also has consequences for fire safety across Europe. The European Commission is due to publish a new testing method to assess the fire performance of building facades which is based on two tests: the British test (BS8414) and an even weaker German test (DIN4102-20). Once published, this testing method will serve as the basis for a harmonised European standard for facades.
The EU’s new testing requirement will steer Member States towards an approach that will not guarantee an adequate level of fire safety. Testing methods must reflect real-life fire scenarios and should not be based on assumptions. Ensuring fire safety of residents in high-rise buildings requires robust full-scale testing and requirements for facades. For high-risk buildings (schools, hospitals, kindergartens, homes for elderly, heritage, etc.) and high-rise buildings, there should be no room for ambiguity: strict and clear regulations are needed. Moreover, all testing information for façade systems must be transparent and fully accessible to architects, fire safety engineers and any interested stakeholder so they can make informed choices.
In October 2017, FSEU updated it study on European Fire Safety regulations for facades and identified general trends:
- Several European countries have changed or updated their regulations in recent years following large fires (e.g. DE, FR), updated to energy efficiency requirements or to correct inconsistencies between requirements for new build or renovation (CZ, SK)
- Typically, we can see a trend for requirements for non-combustible insulation materials on facades for tall buildings (A1 or A2 to EN 13501-1) – above 18/22m
- We also see a trend for mandatory requirements for fire breaks if using combustible components
- For buildings above 18m, approvals based on large-scale testing do exist, although prescriptive approaches (as above) are most common
- Large scale testing is becoming more common for small to medium rise buildings
- Engineering assessments and alternative routes to the market are rare