Two years ago to the day, a fire broke out in a flat on the fourth floor of Grenfell Tower in North Kensington, just before 1am. The blaze spread rapidly thanks partly to the aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding panels that had been fitted to the 24-storey residential block just one year prior to the fire. Ultimately, 72 people lost their lives and more than 70 were injured.
The response to the tragedy inevitably focused on the cladding. On 21 December 2018, a ban on the use of combustible cladding on residential buildings came into force. The ban applied to new buildings over 18 metres tall containing flats, as well as new hospitals, residential care premises, dormitories in boarding schools and student accommodation over the same height.
While the ban was widely welcomed, it is no silver bullet. As Jon O’Neill, managing director of the Fire Protection Association, puts it: “In two years since Grenfell, what have we seen in terms of changes? There is a ban on combustible materials on buildings over 18 metres. Other than that, I could build a building in exactly the same way as was the case two years ago.”
What’s more, it would appear that the property and development industry’s problems when it comes to fire safety are not restricted to ACM cladding – as was demonstrated all too clearly just this week when the De Pass Gardens development in Barking caught fire. And neither are the issues restricted to the residential sector. So what are the big issues and what needs to be done about them?
Understandably, perhaps, many people in the industry do not want to comment on any issue relating to Grenfell. One building surveyor, however, is prepared to talk candidly about his experience of working with landlords to review fire safety in their buildings. The reason he is keen to speak out is because what he has seen has shocked him to the core.
In the aftermath of Grenfell, Matthew Clare, executive director at Trident, was approached by several major property companies, many with big commercial assets in central London, because they were worried that they had buildings clad with the same material as Grenfell. Rather than simply paying a visit and checking the cladding, however, Clare suggested that it would be more appropriate to conduct a broader fire safety management review.
“What we talked about was that actually with some of the buildings, cladding wasn’t the main concern,” he says. “Some of the buildings we looked at initially were period, brick-built buildings without any hint of rainscreen cladding on them. But they still had fire-related issues. We looked at all of their record keeping and testing, checked that they’d had a fire risk assessment done within a reasonable period of time and checked that any recommendations had been implemented. We also did a walk-around of the building to get an overview of all the issues.”
”Actually with some of the buildings cladding wasn’t the main concern”
Matthew Clare, Trident
The buildings were managed by leading agents and, as would be expected, Clare found that general administrative tasks such as record keeping, weekly fire alarm tests and so on were up to scratch. However, he adds that he has not visited a single building where there were not problems – often serious problems.
“We found missing seals on doors and missing or incorrect fire escape signage,” he says. “In one instance, we found the final means of escape in a four-storey office building had actually been locked shut because they’d had security breaches from the outside. So you couldn’t get out and it was the principal means of escape.”
While the issue of a locked fire door is an obvious red flag, other issues Clare uncovered would be more difficult for a property manager to spot. For instance, modern buildings are designed to be compartmentalised so that a fire cannot spread throughout a building. However, Clare discovered multiple instances of compartments that were compromised.
“Problems are typically things like a third-party contractor coming in to do work that travels necessarily through different fire compartments, so either from the common parts into the office or from office to office,” he says. “So wherever there is a fire compartment that shouldn’t be breached, these services need to breach them, but they are being installed in a very amateur way.”
Another leading fire safety expert, who asked not to be named, agrees with Clare that fire issues in the property sector are not just restricted to cladding; nor are they restricted to a single asset class. “The issue is much broader than people appreciate,” she says. “I have been saying for years that the fire problem is really broad and goes into every corner of our building portfolio throughout the land.”
She adds: “One of the things I think about the response to Grenfell is that while a lot of work has gone into identifying buildings with ACM on them, loads of buildings that are high risk for other reasons are missing from [the government’s] radar. I get to go around lots of different types of buildings and I see poor fire safety all the time.”
According to another commentator, it is understandable the focus has been on residential towers in the wake of Grenfell. However, he points out that people are just as vulnerable in places of work. “Offices can have hundreds or even thousands of people inside them,” he says.
“They are also likely to have a number of users who have additional needs in there who they couldn’t evacuate quickly. There are other buildings that have ACM cladding on them or that have very poor fire doors or breaches in passive fire protection, meaning the compartmentation is shot. Say you’ve got a care home, you have to have a ‘stay put’ policy, so compartmentation is essential.”
Defective compartmentation is also an issue in relation to cladding, which must be fitted carefully if it is to perform correctly in the event of a fire. If it isn’t, it can actually make matters worse. “These systems rely very heavily on the compartmentation that is done in the form of cavity fire barriers,” says Clare. “There is by necessity a cavity in these systems for ventilation purposes, but it needs to be closed in the event of a fire.
“What we’ve seen is inappropriate materials being used, materials being inadequately installed, wrong products being used together and wrong fixings used. In some instances, the presence of the fire barrier makes it difficult for the cladder to fit the aluminium sheet over the top, so what they do is pull bits of the fire barrier off or cut it away to make it easier to get the external envelope on. So straight away you have compromised the one thing that gives you a chance of containing a fire.”
Clare adds that it would be a mistake to assume that such issues only occur on refurbishment projects where cladding is added to improve thermal performance or the aesthetics of a building, as was the case at Grenfell.
“Don’t be fooled into thinking that it’s a problem just with refurbs – it’s not,” he says. “I’ve just taken another instruction on a building for a major housing association. It was completed five years ago. It’s high spec and it’s defective. They haven’t got non-combustible materials on and it’s over 18 metres. And the cavity fire barriers are absent.”
In addition to construction issues, the fire risk in some buildings has been exacerbated due to the inadequate system for training and accrediting UK fire risk assessors. “There is no requirement for third-party certification or accreditation for risk assessors at all,” says O’Neill.
“You are meant to be using competent people, but anyone can call themselves a fire engineer or a fire risk assessor. There is no way of checking it. It’s been an unregulated market and there’s no real direction on where people should go for expert advice.”
The UK’s fire risk assessment regime is currently being examined by one of the industry response groups set up in the wake of Grenfell. The group’s recommendations are due to be published imminently and Clare, who is the only surveyor on the group, says the consensus is the system needs to change.
“Everyone is in agreement that there should be a register of competence and that only people on that register should be permitted to undertake fire risk assessments, with a sliding scale of competence depending on how complicated a building is,” he says. “So you might have an entry-level fire risk assessor who is only deemed to be competent to deal with single-storey, low-risk properties.
“And then you would go up the scale, so if you were doing a fire risk assessment in a hospital or on Canary Wharf you would absolutely need to be a third-party certified competent person to do that. At the moment, anyone could do it. If you wanted to, you could do a fire risk assessment on Canary Wharf. Nobody is going to ask you for your qualification. At the moment, the industry isn’t getting it right at all.”
This is not something the industry can afford to get wrong. Property managers and landlords need to redouble their efforts because if they err on fire safety people’s lives are at stake. That is the harsh lesson Grenfell taught us.