The past twelve months has taught us to look after our own health and safety more than most of us could ever have imagined. Yet while our focus has rightly been on battling the pandemic, the threat of fire in our homes and workplaces has not gone away.
In the year to June 2020, the fire and rescue services dealt with almost 68,000 fires in England alone. It’s therefore critical that we continue to step up the pursuit for greater safety within our built environment, making sure that we’re using the right approaches and tried and tested materials that help to protect against every fire in every conceivable situation.
With this in mind, here are five things I would like to see happening in 2021 for us to be knowingly heading in the right direction on fire safety.
1. Lessons from the Grenfell tragedy: All parts of the industry must start recognising their individual duties in fire safety. Anyone paying attention to the Grenfell Tower Inquiry will know that this has at times been harrowing to follow. If anything positive is to come from this, it’s clear from the evidence that everyone within construction needs to take the risk of fire and their responsibility for it a lot more seriously.
2. Developing a better understanding of fire risk: Building designers themselves need to develop a greater understanding and give more consideration towards fire risks. Dame Judith Hackitt’s report post-Grenfell noted that too often building regulations are seen as “a high bar to be negotiated down”. Designers must never compromise on safety standards and increasingly appreciate the importance of using non-combustible materials such as concrete in building structures to protect their occupants.
3. Why don’t we protect property as well as people? More emphasis should be put on the protection of property itself. It may seem surprising, but our current regulations are not concerned with protection of a building beyond the safe escape of its occupants. It’s time to question whether this is adequate. For example, 60 to 80 per cent of businesses fail within 18 months of a serious fire – something that can have a far greater impact for insurers than the loss of four walls.
Equally, losing personal possessions in a fire and spending time in temporary accommodation can significantly add to the trauma, with lasting repercussions on mental health. In short, the long-term cost of losing a building to fire can reach a long way beyond its initial aftermath.
4. Where next for Government fire safety policy? While the draft Building Safety Bill is taking forward reforms to building and fire safety systems, it won’t be until the secondary legislation is published before we begin to see the real detail. In the meantime, it’s been nearly nine months since the Government proposed a ban on all combustible material in the external walls of buildings over 11 metres and nothing yet has been forthcoming.
We need to remember that where legislation continues to allow for potentially combustible structures for buildings where many people, including the vulnerable, sleep, we are effectively continuing to build more and unnecessary risk into the heart of our built environment. Clearer regulation and guidance on fire safety from policymakers is essential.
5. Concrete is the lowest risk solution: Finally, and most importantly, we need to see more of an acceptance that non-combustible structures are always the lowest risk solution. Once a structure made of combustible materials such as CLT becomes involved in a fire, it adds significant fuel. This not only increases the chances of the fire spreading but ultimately raises the potential of the building collapsing.
While any doubts about combustible materials and methods remain, the only sensible and responsible design choice is to build with materials such as concrete that have a proven safety record and do not burn. In almost all cases concrete does not require any additional fire protection because of its own built-in resistance to fire.
From policymakers and politicians through to contractors, materials suppliers and their supply chains the onus is on everyone to accept greater responsibility for safer building design. As we look towards a brighter future, now is our opportunity to be proactive because we cannot any longer afford to play with the risks of fire safety.
By Tony Jones, Principal Structural Engineer at The Concrete Centre