As we await the report from phase two of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry, Ryan Ferguson reflects on how much the industry has learned since the tragedy

Ryan Ferguson

Ryan Ferguson, insight and innovation manager at Knauf Insulation

The construction industry’s approach to fire safety has evolved significantly in recent years. While it’s still early days for the Building Safety Act, with much of the standard practice yet to be worked out, it’s clear that this will have a transformative effect on specification behaviours – similar to the Approved Document B update from a few years ago.

But the sea change in construction runs deeper than regulation. There is now an encouraging trend for specifiers to go above and beyond minimum standards for fire safety, with many practices mandating the exclusive use of non-combustible materials for all their projects, not just in higher-risk buildings.

Recent data suggests these non-combustibility policies are fast becoming standard practice. So, how prevalent are non-combustibility policies?

We recently surveyed specifiers working on large-scale rainscreen projects, including architects in practice, specialist contractors, and facade consultants. Half of respondents said their organisations had adopted a non-combustibility policy that goes above and beyond the regulations. In most cases, this blanket policy applies to walls and roofs in all buildings, regardless of height or use.

This number is likely to rise further. 75% of respondents said they faced increased pressure or demand to use non-combustible materials beyond regulatory minimums. This data clearly shows that the industry’s approach to fire risk has changed.

There is now an encouraging trend for specifiers to go above and beyond minimum standards for fire safety

Risk mitigation is the primary factor behind the rise of non-combustibility policies, and in many cases, insurers are driving it. Specifiers told us that their insurers now view the use of combustible materials as higher risk and are making decisions about insurance premiums or whether to offer coverage at all accordingly. And it’s not just insurers – clients are equally concerned with risk mitigation and are making similar requests.

Risk is the key word here. First and foremost is the risk to life and the health of building occupants. The potential consequences of a fire are so severe, insurers and clients are rightly reluctant to take any chances. Also factored into the equation is the potential of property damage and business disruption after a fire.

Risk is also influencing this behaviour in other ways. The industry is still grappling with remediation work on high-rise buildings featuring combustible materials with inadequate fire barriers. Given the significant cost of this work, insurers and clients may seek to minimise the future risk of remediation by removing combustible materials from build-ups entirely.

And, of course, that’s all to say nothing of the risk of reputational damage for any business connected with a serious fire subsequently deemed avoidable.

In this context, it makes sense for the market to move ahead of regulations, to not take chances, and to mitigate the risks.

The other driving factor behind the rise of non-combustibility policies is availability. When it comes to insulation, non-combustible solutions are readily available. This trend does not require the industry to adopt new or unproven products or significantly redesign buildings. In almost all cases, a combustible insulation product can be easily swapped for a non-combustible one, and no significant barriers stop specifiers from adopting a non-combustibility policy.

Non-combustibility policies are here to stay, and with good reason: they reduce risk substantially for all parties involved in the construction process, and the products to deliver them already exist. For the 25% of specifiers in our survey who said they are not facing any pressure right now to make the switch, I humbly suggest that it’s only a matter of time.