In the wake of this summer’s traumatic events in the North Kensington, London, the construction industry has been quick to review its responsibilities when it comes to ensuring that fire safety and prevention heads its tall building agenda. By Will Daynes

On 28th July, 2017, the UK Government officially launched one of the most important independent reviews in recent history, one that will review the country’s building and fire safety regulations. The review was announced following the failure of the first large-scale fire tests carried out by the Building Research Foundation (BRE) on cladding systems used on high-rise residential buildings in the wake of the tragic event at Grenfell Tower back in June 2017.

Led by Dame Judith Hackitt, Chair of EEF, the Manufacturers’ Organisation, the review will look at current building regulations and fire safety, with a particular focus on high rise residential buildings. Terms of reference will include, the regulatory system around the design, construction and ongoing management of buildings in relation to fire safety, related compliance and enforcement issues, and international regulationand experience in this area. It is expected that the review will present an interim report before the end of 2017, with the final report to follow no later than spring 2018.

Such is the magnitude the BRE’s findings, and Dame Hackitt’s forthcoming review, it has rightly shone a large spotlight upon the prevention of and responding to fires within tall buildings. This very topic was in fact a key focus at the recent Emergency Services Show, held on the 20th and 21st September 2017, at the NEC, Birmingham. At the show Russ Timpson, founder of the Tall Building Fire Safety Network, presented a session in the ‘Lessons Learnt’ seminar theatre on tall building fires, Angloco displayed a 45 metre Bronto FL45XRS aerial platform, the UK’s tallest aerial firefighting appliance, and the British Standards Institution (BSI) and British Automatic Fire Sprinkler Association were on hand to provide expert advice on the use of sprinkler systems in both domestic and industrial buildings.

Reaction immediately following the publishing of the BRE’s test results on cladding systems was universally welcoming from the construction sector, with some going so far as to suggest immediate changes that could be introduced to help ensure that similar incidents to that of Grenfell Tower are not allowed to reoccur. One responder was ROCKWOOLLimited, the UK’s leading manufacturer in sustainable stone wool insulation materials for fire, thermal and acoustic insulation.

First and foremost, the company, like all of its peers, welcomed the guidance that ‘one way to ensure that a cladding system adequately resists external fire spread is for all of the relevant elements of the wall to be of limited combustibility’, noting that the combination of A2 limited combustibility cladding and non-combustible stone wool insulation is a good example of such a solution. At the same time as praising the tests as being highly relevant, the company was also keen to highlight the fact that these tests were conducted under ideal conditions that do not reflect real-world construction experience, nor allow for a margin of error, either in installation or material performance over time. This means that the test results’ value as a guide for the significant regulatory changes that are required are somewhat limited.

ROCKWOOL noted that the fact that more than 95 per cent of buildings screened and covered by the BRE’s large-scale tests have now been shown to fail to meet current fire safety standards clearly demonstrates what is describes as ‘the ambiguity, complexity and confusion that exists among landlords, and local authorities, regarding compliance with the standards, as well as an urgent need for clearer guidance on UK building regulations’.

The company went on to state; ‘Current UK regulations and practices have allowed tall buildings to be wrapped in combustible cladding and insulation. We believe that to truly ensure public safety and building resilience, the UK should adopt a simple binary system, with building materials specifically classified as either combustible or non-combustible. We also believe the UK should follow the example set elsewhere in Europe, that only non-combustible cladding and insulation be allowed on mid-to-high-rise buildings. This system would be a simple, easily implemented, and effective way to safeguard lives and property.’

In advice issued on 2nd August 2017, the Department for Communities and Local Government commented that, ‘an obvious option to ensure that the cladding system adequately resists external fire spread is to replace the system with one where all of the elements of the wall are of limited combustibility’. It is the belief of ROCKWOOL, and indeed the construction industry as a whole, that this approach needs to become the standard required for all UK buildings taller than 18 metres, as well as for public buildings such as hospitals, nursing homes, and schools. Sadly, fire will never be completely preventable, but any decisions that can be taken to limit its effects can only be of benefit if the industry is to prevent a repeat of the heart-breaking scenes witnessed in London this year.