Industry needs aligned and consistent guidance to minimise time, cost and anguish, warns Andrew Mellor
This month the RICS published a public consultation seeking views on the renewed guidance on the production of EWS1 forms.
The EWS1 form was introduced just over a year ago to help the existing housing sales market by providing a more standardised process for assessing the risk of external walls of multi-occupancy residential buildings. The forms were initially intended for use on buildings over 18m but mortgage lenders have been consistently requesting the form for blocks of all heights.
Now the consultation, which closes on January 25 and aims to introduce new guidance in the spring, is proposing that EWS1 forms not be required for buildings over six storeys where there is no cladding or curtain walling and no vertically stacked balconies constructed from combustible materials.
For five- and six-storey buildings the proposal is that an EWS1 form is not required if the cladding does not cover more than 25% of the facade area, there is no ACM on the building or stacked balconies with combustible materials.
Does this mean, therefore, that masonry facade external walls will not need an EWS1 form?
I have heard of new buildings that have had polypropylene cavity trays installed instead of non-combustible versions due to Building Regulations application timing issues. These cannot now get completion certificates or, in one case, buildings insurance
For many leaseholders that new guidance cannot come soon enough. The question, of course, will be if mortgage lenders and those undertaking the assessment will agree with it and follow it.
What is required to provide greater certainty is aligned guidance. Without it, building owners, external wall assessors and residents cannot be certain that the building façade is compliant and safe and whether it will be deemed to be safe by the new Building Safety Regulator.
This aligned guidance for external walls needs to include not only the EWS1 form, but Approved Document B (ADB), the MHCLG advice note, the leaseholder remediation fund and, in the forthcoming British Standard for external wall assessments, the Fire Safety Act and the Building Safety Act.
Without aligned guidance, there is uncertainty. Uncertainty for the building owner and leaseholders means that whatever is determined now in relation to the external wall could be challenged in the future. The consequence could be new remediation works - with all the associated costs. This includes the possibility of remediating the initial remediation works if they are deemed to be non-compliant with new guidance or are contributing to making the building unsafe.
Another consideration in all of this is building insurance. Insurers are now increasing premiums where external walls of residential multi-occupancy buildings include combustible materials and, until such time as the buildings are remediated, the premiums will remain high and quite possibly it will be harder to insure the buildings. I am informed that some landlords are facing multi-million-pound increases in premiums.
Brickwork facades are increasingly coming under scrutiny. I have heard of new buildings that have had polypropylene cavity trays installed instead of limited or non-combustible versions due to Building Regulations application timing issues and these cannot now get completion certificates or, in one case, buildings insurance.
Remediating cavity trays will be a hugely costly and complex task.
This is where matters get complicated as until December 2018 ADB did not allow combustible insulation to be included in masonry façades with a non-masonry inner leaf on buildings over 18m unless a BR135 certificate was available for that wall construction. So, there are many brickwork façades that were built before the latest ADB version that did not comply with the ADB guidance at the time of their construction because they do not have a BR135 certificate or do not comply with today’s requirement for A2-rated or better cavity trays. All of these existing external walls will also have polypropylene cavity trays. Now of course the wall could not include combustible insulation at all.
Some fire engineers are stating that such masonry external walls are safe and it seems that the remediation fund is also implicitly of the same opinion as it is unlikely to fund such façades.
But what if the brick façade does not have cavity barriers installed or the cavity barriers are defective? A handful of industry experts are stating that brick external walls are still safe even with missing or defective cavity barriers. None of these engineers have any concerns regarding the walls containing polypropylene cavity trays, as far as I am aware.
Of course, we do not yet know how the new British Standard for external wall assessment or the Building Safety Regulator will consider brick façades. This leaves a dilemma for building owners in light of the conflicting guidance and opinion. Do they need to remediate masonry façades that did not comply at the time of construction with the ADB guidance on external walls and cavity barriers or do they wait until guidance on the matter is more definitive?
What is absolutely clear is that the industry needs aligned and consistent guidance to minimise the time, cost, anguish and environmental impacts that external wall safety is causing.
Andrew Mellor leads the development consultancy team at PRP. The practice has been advising MHCLG and conducting research around policy and building regulations.