Emma Dent Coad reports from the recent RIBA Building Safety Act conference

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Source: Emma Dent Coad

Emma Dent Coad in front of the Grenfell “Wall of Truth” at the Maxilla memorial and healing space

As we approach the seventh anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire, a very timely Fire Safety Conference: The Building Safety Act in Practice took place on 17 April at RIBA’s Portland Place HQ.

An introduction by RIBA President Muyiwa Oki laid out the scope of the conference, and the work RIBA has been doing, via the RIBA Expert Panel on Fire Safety, to scrutinise and boost the government’s excruciatingly slow progress on making our buildings safer.

Jane Duncan, chairing the conference and the Expert Panel, flagged the new roles of Principle Designer (PD) in the new regime and the responsibilities they must undertake, advising the packed hall that RIBA training was available. “Things are happening but they could do better”, she complained, referring to the pace of government policy.

While new regs on cladding types, sprinklers on buildings over 18m and second staircases are welcome, she insisted the government must mandate sprinklers in schools, hospitals and care homes, whether for new buildings or during refurbishment.

The guidance on Personal Emergency Evacuation Plans (PEEPs) of 2021 is “not sufficient to mandate implementation”, she added. The role of PD involves demonstrating compliance with Fire Safety regulations, meaning “architects have new responsibilities”, she said, adding they must deliver “quality over cost in procurement”.

Building safety regulatory head Andrew Moore, of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), gave a round-up of the issues that led to Grenfell Tower, “People cut corners, there was poor competence and implementation, they cut costs … the QC at the Inquiry said there was a ‘merry-go-round of buck-passing’.”

>> Also read: It’s probably going to take a year for industry to get familiar with the new Building Safety Act regime

What the HSE is demanding is that there must be approval from Building Control before works commence, which demands a ‘cultural change’. Building regs compliance is often incomplete or of poor quality, and he said the HSE is looking for narrative, not just plans. “It will be more of an exam, than coursework”, he stated. The HSE expected that designs would be complete and not subject to constant change throughout the Design and Build process.

Moore was also concerned about commercial to residential use change, and that adding additional storeys to existing buildings – which many councils are wont to do to add social housing, or to pay for refurbs – is often being proposed on buildings that have suboptimal fire safety.

For the record, this was precisely the case on some Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea buildings proposed recently for extra storeys. Fortunately these proposals were stopped after residents complained about this very issue, which the council seemed unaware of. Which is alarming, to put it politely.

Paul Bussey of AHMM, member of the RIBA Expert Advisory Group, said the PD must have an active role, arguing that they must demonstrate compliance and not just go through a tick-box exercise - ”the illusion of compliance is not compliance”. He also added that fire safety and critical life safety issues must be integrated into building structures.

Hilti Fire Protection and Façade providers had sponsored the event, and their man Caleb Smith quite appropriately promoted their passive fire protection system ‘Firestop’. This was followed by a double act from Arup, Judith Schulz and David Stowe, who went into the fine detail of their leadership in legislation, pointing out that many of Arup’s proposals are now included in legislation.

Their presentation focussed on fire safety equity, inclusive fire safety, whereby “able and less able people have the same opportunity to self-evacuate”. The provision of two cores to residential buildings, whether new or retrofitted, can ensure there can be an emergency evacuation lift available to mobility impaired people, through the installation of protected lobbies, fire curtains and other measures.

How can we answer Jane Duncan’s opening question “are you ready?”

Due to Jane Duncan’s impressively disciplined chairing, we were then treated to an extensive Q and A. Gary Neal of Skanska joined the panel and kicked off with some very assertive commentary on the reality of building contractors today. “15% of our turnover is spent on remediating defects”, he confessed.

“We need to do better - there is too much designing at Stage 5”, he said. “Everything should be nailed down by Stage 4. Contractors insist on ‘improving’ designs [during construction] - they shouldn’t”.

He also explained that PDs working with Design and Build should be working to stop “value engineering”, and that everything should be agreed as early as possible in the design process. “We should be front-loading design, getting it right first time - this is a new regime and clients must understand this. Regulations are the minimum, there should be no work-arounds”.

Drawing gasps of disbelief from the audience, Neal then commented: “I am appalled at some of the outlandish claims from manufacturers; one of them demanded we sign an NDA to see their product certification”. He continued: “testing houses and certification are not up to scratch, some products are still being sold with caveats”.

Rounding up the conference, Duncan rallied the assembled architects imploring them to “take the reins; PDs can take the project through to the end”, she said, wondering how clients will be persuaded to pay for the extra work involved. She then asked each of the panel to give a single line of advice.

Closing comments

Andrew Moore, HSE: “Take the training available, embrace Building Regs, be consistent, provide a narrative”.

Gary Neal, Skanska: “Get the right people in the right place, plan”.

Hilti Smith: “Understand the objectives, use experts”.

Paul Bussey, AHMM/RIBA EAG: “Take ethical and moral responsibility, demonstrate compliance, ensure independence from the contractor”.

David Stowe, Arup: “Be creative within the guidance”.

Judith Schulz, Arup: “Ask questions of your teams, plan air circulation and heating, provide a clear narrative”.

Nearly seven years after the worst civilian loss of life in fire since WW2, how can we answer Jane Duncan’s opening question “are you ready?”.

The answer seems to be, after seven years of contemplation and revision of building and fire safety regulations, “not quite”.