How to design for fire safety

Three new Practice Notes from the RIBA will help architects keep their projects safe from fire risk

The RIBA has developed a series of Practice Notes for RIBA chartered practices and chartered members, which are intended to raise awareness and encourage members to discuss with their clients the extensive public and professional debate on issues of fire safety, in high rise and higher risk buildings following the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017. 

The RIBA is publishing the following Practice Notes, the core guidance of which is published here:

  • Practice Note 1: 2019 Professional Indemnity Insurance
  • Practice Note 2; 2019 Restrictions on Combustible Materials – Building (Amendment) Regulations 2018
  • Practice Note 3: 2019 Sprinklers

These are provided as guidance to the RIBA membership and aim to provide helpful information which may be of benefit to members in their practice. 

 

Automatic fire suppression systems offer additional protection that can suppress or even extinguish a fire

RIBA Practice Note status
RIBA and its members uphold high standards of professional competence. RIBA Practice Notes set out best practice guidance for its chartered members and for RIBA chartered practices, in particular fields of application. Adherence to the Practice Notes is not compulsory but chartered members and chartered practices should use their judgment to determine when to follow such guidance and to what extent. The RIBA cannot accept liability for when and how chartered members and chartered practices apply best practice guidance published by the RIBA.

Having an audit trail showing that the member took account of the guidance contained in RIBA Practice Notes may provide a partial defence to an allegation of negligence. When seeking an independent expert report to defend such a case, the expert is likely to reference relevant Practice Notes as a measure of reasonable skill and care.

The RIBA regularly reviews its Practice Notes and Guidance material, to take into account changes in the legal and regulatory compliance environment. However, it is each member’s responsibility to ensure they keep up to date with legal and regulatory compliance regimes, supported by RIBA CPD compliance requirements and RIBA standards material as this is published and reviewed from time to time.

RIBA chartered members and chartered practices should be reminded that ARB Standards of Conduct (for Registered Architects) and the RIBA Code of Conduct (for chartered members) and RIBA Code of Practice (for chartered practices) impose requirements for holding suitable insurance to cover potential liabilities arising from negligence or breach of contract associated with professional activities.

 

PRACTICE NOTE 1: 2019
PROFESSIONAL INDEMNITY INSURANCE
Following the Grenfell Tower fire, the professional indemnity (PI) insurance market for architects is undergoing significant change, and PI insurance premiums are increasing for the first time in over a decade. A number of insurance carriers and syndicates are withdrawing from the architecture and wider construction PI market.

Although the Grenfell Tower fire has been a significant factor, there were issues before Grenfell that were beginning to affect the construction PI market, including a general increase in claims and notifications and broader economic factors. Following Grenfell, many insurers are asking more questions relating to potential exposures. There is uncertainty in the insurance industry about how to price risk in the context of a building regulatory regime and construction industry that has been heavily criticised in the Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety, and an environment where there are serious concerns about the competence of those involved in ensuring the fire safety of buildings and the quality of outcomes in building procurement processes.

Competition and capacity still exists in the PI insurance market for architects, but the RIBA Insurance Agency reports:

  • Increases in premium levels;
  • More diligent risk assessment by insurers at the point of sale or renewal of PI cover, including extensive questions relating to the use of combustible materials on high rise schemes;
  • Responses from insurers may include imposing higher excesses and limitations of cover in relation to cladding and basement claims, and cladding related policy exclusions;
  • In some cases, insurers may refuse renewal of cover in the event of significant or perceived significant risk exposure where there is a serious existing claims or notifications record.

The RIBA and the RIBA Insurance Agency offer the following best practice guidance:

  • In the current market conditions, it is essential to make early contact with your insurance broker before renewal and to submit your renewal proposal in good time;
  • Complete your proposal/renewal form properly and comprehensively;
  • Produce a covering letter/email giving the background to your practice; explain the nature of your work and your client base, and point out any good risk management procedures you have in place. practices with accurate record-keeping, good knowledge of the materials they specify, robust quality management systems, and a proper risk management process will be more attractive to PI insurers;
  • If your practice has been involved in work on buildings over 18m in height with external cladding systems during the last 15 years, you will need to document this in as much detail as possible;
  • Produce a claims history document that details at a minimum any PI claims/notifications you have had in the last 10 years, and the current status of these (name of claimant, date of loss, insurer, details of any payments/reserves, open or closed status). If you have claims closed with payments, or any still open, ensure a summary of the claim/notification is included with confirmation of the present position; it is important this document is updated at each renewal;
  • On projects involving contractor design of cladding systems, you should check that the contractor’s PI insurance policy does not have a cladding exclusion clause, and that the contractual requirements for your PI insurance are not more onerous than that offered by the contractor’s policy;
  • In the unlikely event that you are unable to obtain PI insurance (including run off cover), you should seek legal advice regarding your contractual obligations (project work). Free 15 minute consultations from the RIBA’s specialist practice consultants are available to RIBA chartered members through the members’ information line, open Monday to Friday, 10am-1pm and 2pm-5pm, 020 7307 3600. 

 

 

Following Grenfell, insurers are asking more questions relating to potential exposures. There is uncertainty how to price risk

PRACTICE NOTE 2: 2019
RESTRICTIONS ON COMBUSTIBLE MATERIALS – BUILDING (AMENDMENT) REGULATIONS 2018 NO. 1230
On 29 November 2018, the government enacted changes to the building regulations in England restricting the use of combustible materials in ‘external walls’ and/or ‘specified attachments’ (including balconies and sun shading elements) on any ‘relevant building’; namely any building with a storey over 18m above ground level which:

  • contains one or more dwellings;
  • contains an institution; or
  • contains a room for residential purposes (excluding any room in a hostel, hotel or boarding house)

The Building (Amendment) Regulations 2018 require that materials forming part of the external wall of a relevant building, or specified attachment of a relevant building, are of European classification A1 or A2-s1, d0.

The restrictions also apply where there is a ‘material change of use’ of a building that brings it within the scope of the definition of a ‘relevant building.’ These are prescriptive requirements enacted through amendments to the building regulations and not changes to Approved Document guidance, although revised versions of Approved Document B Volume 2 and Approved Document 7, which reflect the amendments, have been approved and published.

Applying to new buildings and material changes of use of existing buildings, the amended regulations do not apply retrospectively to existing residential and institutional buildings with a storey over 18m above ground level. There were transitional provisions, and where a building notice or initial notice had been given to, or full plans deposited with, a local authority before 21 December 2018, the amendments did not apply, provided the building work has already started or was started within two months of that date.

The Building (Amendment) Regulations 2018 are now in force (from 21 December 2018), and RIBA chartered members and practices should be aware of the implications of these regulatory changes, including the applicable definitions of:

  • external wall
  • specified attachment
  • material change of use
  • relevant building
  • above ground level

There are no alternative means of compliance with these new requirements. The Building (Amendment) Regulations 2018 (2018 No 1230) includes a list of product exclusions, and this should be read in conjunction with other supporting documents including:

  • Approved Document Part B 
  • Amendments to Approved Documents B made between November 2018 and April 2019
  • Building Regulation 7: Materials and Workmanship 
  • 2018 amendment to Approved Document 7: materials and workmanship

RIBA chartered members and practices engaged in work on buildings with a storey over 18m above ground level should:

  • Be familiar with the requirements of the Building (Amendment) Regulations 2018 (2018 No. 1230), Approved Document Part B and Regulation 7: Materials and Workmanship;
  • Understand the European classification system for construction products and building elements using test data from reaction to fire tests;
  • Consider the fire performance characteristics – including the production of smoke and flaming droplets of the key products that will make up the external wall construction;
  • Check the specified products’ certification for fire performance (small differences in detail, such as thickness, substrate, colour, form, fixings and adhesives, may significantly affect the fire performance classification and may not be the same as the tested, certified product);
  • Where a building with a storey over 18m above ground level is not a ‘relevant building’, discuss with their client the option of still applying these fire performance requirements. Clients may wish to consider the potential impact this may have on funding, value, saleability, mortgage lending, insurance risk etc (various building types including hostels, hotels and boarding houses and commercial buildings are not covered by the new regulations).
Sprinklers are recommended for tall buildings by the RIBA where there are material alterations.
Sprinklers are recommended for tall buildings by the RIBA where there are material alterations. Credit: nikkytok/iStock


PRACTICE NOTE 3: 2019
SPRINKLERS
RIBA recommendation to government
The RIBA has recommended a requirement for sprinklers/automatic fire suppression systems to be provided in all new and converted residential buildings (as already required in Wales) and installed in existing residential buildings, where the top storey is more than 18m above ground level storey, as ‘consequential improvements’ where a building is subject to ‘material alterations’.

This policy recommendation is to government only. RIBA chartered members and chartered practices are required to adhere to current building regulations and are not expected to follow this policy recommendation in their designs, though they may wish to discuss them with their clients when working on relevant buildings.

Regulatory comparators
The RIBA recommendation that sprinklers/automatic fire suppression systems be provided in all new and converted residential buildings echoes the recommendations of the Review Panel of Building Standards (Fire Safety) in Scotland, which proposed extending mandatory installation of sprinklers in ‘flatted accommodation’ and in larger multi-occupancy dwellings and those which provide care.
Regulation 37A of the building regulations in Wales already requires automatic fire suppression systems on new and converted residential buildings, including care homes, children’s residential homes, boarding houses, halls of residences and hostels.

London Assembly Planning Committee: Sprinklers as the next step towards safer homes
In March 2018, The London Assembly Planning Committee published the report ‘Never again: Sprinklers as the next step towards safer homes’, which includes its findings into whether sprinklers should be made mandatory in London’s homes. The London Assembly stated that ‘the fires at Lakanal House in 2009 and Grenfell Tower in 2017 demonstrate how passive fire safety measures designed to contain a fire in compartments can fail. This means fires, hot gases and smoke can spread quickly, harming residents and firefighters and causing significant damage to property. Automatic fire suppression systems offer an additional layer of protection that can suppress or even extinguish a fire, saving both lives and property.’

The report makes eight recommendations including reducing installation cost of Automatic Fire Suppression Systems (AFSS) and working towards making AFSS mandatory in every residential building in England.

RIBA chartered members and chartered practices engaged in work on buildings with a storey over 18m above ground level may wish to discuss with their clients:

  • the RIBA recommendations to government on sprinklers in both existing residential buildings above 18m and all new and converted residential buildings, and regulatory comparators in Scotland and Wales;
  • the benefit of sprinklers, including life safety, asset protection and business continuity, alongside any insurance requirements and risks and the potential impact on non-regulatory factors, such as value, saleability, funding, insurance risk and mortgage lending. 

More information from the RIBA including Practice Notes in full

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