Six months after the publication of Dame Judith Hackitt's report, a panel of experts gathered for 'The Golden Thread - from the Hackitt review to the RIBA Plan of Work' conference
Just over six months after the publication of the Hackitt Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety, not for the first time a room full of architects and fire safety experts gathered to address how and why our buildings weren’t safe. Has any progress been made since the Grenfell Tower tragedy and could anyone guarantee, in light of new guidance and approaches, that this type of disaster could never be repeated?
It transpired, at Hilti’s half-day seminar last November at London’s Building Centre, that there was no way to be sure.
In fact, Judith Schulz, associate director, and Albert Voet, fire engineer, both at Arup, started the session running the room through the top ten ‘design specification concerns’ fellow colleagues highlighted for them. Cladding testing still came in at number one, reflecting clients’ confusion about the way materials performance was specified and tested.
'Not everybody understands properly, for example, how combustible some materials are, what fire resistance they might achieve and the mechanisms of how fire might spread over the surface of a material,' said Schulz. 'And to further complicate matters, the UK runs a national way of testing these things in parallel to the European testing methods - and they aren’t compatible.'
The lack of equivalency in testing aside, the engineers said that, in addition, a 'golden thread' through a project, or 'a consistent flow of fire safety information through all the design construction stages to hand over,' was still sorely lacking. This was a matter Paul Bussey, AHMM senior technical consultant, would expand on in his own presentation.
Other issues Arup colleagues found were giving rise to concern included a failure in new methods of construction to align with assumptions in statutory requirements; namely gaps between elements in volumetric construction that could act as chimneys, along with a general sense of inertia in the construction industry and a resistance to new ways of doing things.
But the backstop of received wisdom ‘is not an argument’, Schulz cautioned.
The resort to bad practice and makeshift solutions is all too prevalent by contractors who don’t choose to educate themselves. When firestops aren’t detailed at production information stage, contractors simply make them up, said Olga Katsanova, head of technical marketing, services and software with event host Hilti. She showed attendees a recent picture of a made-up ‘firestop’ detail of multi-cable transits and pipes seemingly ‘sealed off’ with insulation.
The solution, Katsanova added, was to identify the interfaces where different materials met using BIM and other clash-detection software, identify the specific penetration requirements and the size of the apertures needed, then get in touch with manufacturers to discuss exactly what’s required. Co-ordinated in this way, consultants will then be able to show final installers ‘what good looks like’.
‘It’s not just the firestopping elements,’ she added, ‘but the fixings that hold them in place, the sealants offering smoke protection and the supports to keep the services in place in the event of a fire.’ Her point was that effective firestopping is, in effect, a ‘systems approach’ that looks at all the elements of a penetration holistically rather than as separate components.
The quality of penetration design and installation is just one of the many areas of fire safety that Paul Bussey’s version of the Fire Safety Overlay to the RIBA Plan of Work is designed to help improve. Consulting at AHMM, he started working on the process with the Association for Specialist Fire Protection (ASFP) two years ago, before the Grenfell tragedy.
The current Plan of Work was, he candidly said, ‘totally incomprehensible’ and the replacement system that Dame Judith Hackitt has put together was ‘still very complicated’.
His team’s solution proposes to track the ‘golden thread’ of responsibility handed over through various ‘gateways’ in the construction process, including planning approval, cost-certainty, tender, final handover and Building Control approval.
This allows the team to identify two places where the current system often fails. Firstly, when occupation in residential properties was happening before final approval. Secondly, when industry carries out value-engineering after cost-certainty stage, leaving an incentive for contractors to diminish the design beyond the tender or contract once appointed and in control of the project.
To solve these and other issues, Bussey and others are trying to get all stakeholders working together at key stages in the process - client, design and construction teams and inspectors - to ‘compare inputs and [issue] approval sign-off further along in the process’.
This requires various stakeholders to provide ever-more detailed construction information throughout. His work in this field continues.
The aim, as conference chair Richard Hull, professor of chemistry and fire science at the University of Central Lancashire, said, was to create buildings that are always safe in the same way today’s cars only need servicing every 10,000 miles or today's planes seldom suffer from mechanical failure. His view was that the goal still seems a long way off.
So, by way of a light at the end of the tunnel, it was reassuring to listen to Scott Brownrigg’s Mario Vieira, project director of the firm’s Design Research Unit, delivering projects on a big scale. Vieira said the unit had made real efforts to promote best practice as a means of ensuring build quality, programme milestones and project safety. He spoke of clients signing manufacturers up to service level agreement (SLAs) 'the earlier the better' and third-party certification of installation - particularly important when the contract is broken into smaller packages.
Picking up on Katsanova’s observations, it also involved gaining certification for products used in fire safety as a system rather than as components and developing a suite of standard details for firestops that will likely include ‘80 per cent of penetrations across the project’.
It might still seem 20 per cent short of the ideal, but Scott Brownrigg’s strategy serves, for now, as a pertinent lesson to the wider industry.