Combustibles ban U-turn will risk lives

Calls for the Government to rethink its proposals to ban all combustible material in the external walls of buildings over 11 metres could put lives at risk if there is a U-turn in proposed policy.

While legislation continues to allow for potentially combustible structures for buildings where many people, including the vulnerable, sleep, any U turn would mean that we are continuing to knowingly build more and unnecessary risk into the heart of our built environment. 

As witnessed during recent fires in multiple occupancy buildings, such as the retirement home in Crewe and student accommodation in Bolton, around the UK there is a growing concern about the fire risks and structural safety of buildings constructed with combustible materials, including CLT.

The proposed new guidelines relate to external walls and will make a dramatic contribution to reducing the spread of fire and addressing the potential dangers of buildings with combustible materials such as timber. Once a combustible structure becomes involved in a fire, this adds significant fuel and increases the chances of compartmentation failing and the fire spreading and ultimately potential for collapse.

Conversely, concrete and concrete products help to keep people and properties safe by minimising fire risk as a result of their inherent material properties.  In almost all cases concrete does not require any additional fire protection because of its own built-in resistance to fire. 

Quite simply concrete does not burn. It also has a slow rate of heat transfer helping to ensure that structural integrity remains, fire compartments are not compromised and shielding from heat can all be relied upon by occupants and firefighters alike.
Lobbyists are claiming that if the improved ban goes ahead, it will restrict designers from making sustainable material choices. 

The truth is that a ban on all combustible materials in construction would not jeopardise the Government’s ability to meet its commitment to reach net zero carbon by 2050.  It is vital therefore that the debate on fire protection is informed by the facts, and not misperceptions about the carbon performance of concrete.

Concrete and concrete products are being used to construct buildings that have a low environmental impact due to better whole life performance through superior energy efficiency and reduced maintenance requirements over their long lifetimes.

A carbon comparison of an external wall, or cladding panel would be influenced by many factors but due to the simplicity and efficiency of a concrete or brick-faced concrete cladding panel, any difference in carbon to a timber solution is marginal, and if considered on a whole life basis concrete could well be the lowest carbon solution.

Concrete and masonry are the safest choice and it is vital that regulators and designers are not misled by the anti-concrete rhetoric and consequently make compromises on life safety. 

Furthermore, policymakers need to have a far greater understanding of the carbon lifecycle performance of all materials including timber.

For example, 67% of timber for UK construction is imported from elsewhere in the world and yet in comparison 95% of concrete is manufactured from materials produced here in the UK. 

The UK’s concrete industry has in fact made huge strides in reducing its own carbon output, decarbonising faster than the UK economy as a whole and as part of its role in the transition to a net zero carbon society has already reduced embodied carbon by over 30%; something that will continue through ongoing innovation now and in the future.

Concrete continues to play a vital role in meeting the UK’s ambition of net zero carbon emissions by 2050. It is the safest solution.

Change is our collective responsibility and as a construction sector we must be active participants in that process. However, the competing interests at play within the construction materials industry must not be allowed to divert policy makers and decision makers away from ensuring that buildings are as safe for their occupants as it is possible for them to be. 

This means that, despite the vested interests calling for review, the Government needs to hold firm; make the safest choice and follow through on banning all combustible material in the external walls of buildings over 11 metres. 
Policymakers need to deliver on safety because any abrupt U-turn at the eleventh hour would put more lives at risk. 

Chris Leese, UK Concrete Director