Research commissioned by UK Construction Week (UKCW) has revealed a growing frustration with the slow response from government relating to fire safety building regulations and standards, despite a promise to review regulations and drive change.
Construction industry professionals have reported that since the Grenfell Tower fire in June 2016 there have been changes in the products used for cladding, insulation and fire doors, as well as more demands for new fire testing of products. They also reported changes to the way procurement policies, tenders and contract terms deal with fire safety issues and responsibilities.
FIS has taken an active role and Iain McIlwee, chief executive at FIS, said: “During the last 18 months, FIS has worked with its members to review current product performance and specifications to help the finishes and interiors sector be fully compliant with the latest standards that address fire risks and make sure appropriate fire safety training is available.
“We continue to support this process but need to see action accelerated. We can’t just wait for regulation; indeed, this will largely fix the future, but not address a legacy of neglect. The elephant in the room is how are we going to start to pay for some of the improvements that we know have to be made?
“We can wait for the blame game to finish, but all of this time people, some of the most vulnerable in society, are potentially not sleeping as safely at night as they have a right to. This is something we would like to see addressed in the upcoming Budget.”
Comments from research respondents included:
“I just wish that action could happen more quickly”, and “Things are changing, but way too slowly.” One person said: “The government will take a decade to produce yet another set of incomplete regulations together, and will probably produce another White Paper. They need to set a clock on this.”
In the meantime, the construction industry is getting on with things itself.
Among a wide range of changes, respondents to the research are most likely themselves to have implemented reviews of all their current project designs and specifications, to have commissioned additional fire risk assessments on projects, and to have increased training on fire safety.
Indeed, when asked about their top three preferred changes to transform fire safety across all buildings (not just high-rise blocks or other high-risk buildings), the industry is not simply counting on new regulations. That comes sixth on the list of their priorities.
The first choice is greater involvement of an architect, Clerk of Works, fire engineer, the fire and rescue service itself or other professional adviser who would do a full fire risk assessment and ensure better design and specification. Many called for the end of contractor-led ‘Design and Build’ type contracts.
A close second is a change in the choice and attention given to materials being specified and used on all buildings, including many supporting the ban on combustible materials in exposed areas of a building, in particular cladding or insulation.
Third choice is the installation and regular maintenance of sprinklers and other active fire detection and suppression equipment into all buildings.
The UKCW research shows that confidence among construction industry professionals that, post-Grenfell, the UK’s approach to fire safety in all buildings will now change for the better, currently stands at 6 out of 10.
Contractors, specialist sub-contractors and building products suppliers are marginally more confident than other groups (with an average confidence score of 7 out of 10).
Nathan Garnett, event director at UK Construction Week, said: “Our research shows that the industry has taken to heart every opportunity to change its practice and is already well along a process that will change the way all buildings are procured, design, built and maintained.
“While confidence is quite good at this time, we must do all we can to maintain the positive attitude and momentum behind these changes.”
Geoff Wilkinson, managing director of Wilkinson Construction Consultants, a fire safety and building standards expert and one of the speakers at this year’s UKCW seminar on quality in construction post-Grenfell, said: “It is very encouraging to see the industry getting on with it, despite the hiatus from government. But what’s needed is an industry-wide coordinated response.
“The ban on combustible materials is long overdue. We need to be told why it has taken over a year to get to this point when a very simple changing of regulatory guidance could have achieved the same thing in days.”