What specifiers need from fire safety product manufacturers

Words:
Matt Thompson

Architects Paul Bussey and Patrick Crocock draw up a list, but industry-wide collaboration is crucial, they say

Glasgow School of Art on 17 June 2018.
Glasgow School of Art on 17 June 2018. Credit: Michael Kobiela/Shutterstock

Both the Grenfell Tower Inquiry and Dame Judith Hackitt’s review of building regulations have trained an uncomfortable spotlight on the way that fire safety products are marketed to specifiers. They have raised all kinds of questions that, looked at in the cold light of day, show an industry prepared to tolerate poor information from manufacturers and inadequate test data and desktop studies as it muddles through.

Marchitect explored what answers specifiers would like to see from manufacturers in conversation with Paul Bussey, senior technical consultant, and Patrick Crocock, specifications lead, both of Allford Hall Monaghan Morris architects. Bussey in particular has deep insights into fire safety issues, being a member of the RIBA Expert Advisory Group and leading on a proposed Fire Safety Overlay to the RIBA Plan of Work.

Specifications are critical elements of quality assurance. They are difficult to get right, encompassing not just regulatory compliance, including for fire safety, but all the other characteristics you could conceivably need, such as acoustics, thermal efficiency, aesthetics and, not least, cost.

When new buildings are nearly always bespoke designs accounting for unique sets of circumstances, specifications inevitably crystallise by slow degrees over time, pulled this way and that until a particular product is finally prescribed. Even then the specification is not secure since the integrity and efficacy of product or system classifications are highly dependent on correct installation.

Assailed by this complexity, it is no wonder that specifiers have so little head space for the standards and testing regime described by Hackitt as ‘at least as complicated as the entire regulatory system’. Neither is it a surprise that specifiers struggle to interpret what test data mean for their intended use of the products. 'It’s all very well a single product having passed appropriate tests, but that can be meaningless when it is combined with other building elements in a complete system,' says Crocock.

Given that responsibility for the testing and quality assurance of products rests with manufacturers, you would think that they would pull out all the stops to interpret the data as clearly and succinctly as possible for their customers.

It is odd, therefore, that Hackitt reports that products are supplied ‘with specification data presented in ways which can easily be misinterpreted'. This ought to be a considerable worry for manufacturers, especially for products that form part of critical fire safety systems where failures of communication can cost lives, invalidate both project and building insurances, and, if that weren’t enough, embroil you in damaging litigation.

Hackitt recommends that ‘clear statements on what systems products can and cannot be used for should be developed and their use made essential'. She also wants ‘the scope of testing, the application of products in systems and the resulting implications’ to be more clearly communicated ‘in plain, consistent, non-technical language'.

Bussey thinks this is the bare minimum. He would like manufacturers to go much further. For him, manufacturers are at the start of one of the many fibres that make up Hackitt’s so-called ‘golden thread of information’. As an architect first and specifier second, he wants all test data, even the failures, made public and, wherever possible, third-party certification. He wants manufacturers to work with insurers upfront to produce specification information in a standardised digital format so that it can be easily shared and added to over the life of a project, perhaps through NBS Plus or similar platforms.

He says, 'The objective is to improve as an industry and to make it harder to compromise the fire strategy later through ill-informed value engineering. It should create a digital "information shadow" of the spec in the BIM model that end users can rely on to help them operate and maintain their buildings. This could also produce the evidence insurers need to calibrate their assessments of risk.'

Echoing Hackitt, Crocock dreams of a time when products all bear enduring smart labels to make them traceable in the way that components are in the automotive and aeronautical industries. 'The labels could identify the manufacturer, the performance specification, the date of installation and even who installed it,' he says.

Addressing the importance of correct installation, Bussey wants to see more critical fire safety products run approved installer schemes or perhaps specify minimum qualifications or levels of training for installers as part of their ‘information shadow’.

A more immediately achievable improvement would be better product discoverability and easier comparison between products. 'At the moment, identifying possible products and understanding their performance spec is frustratingly difficult,' says Crocok. 'It would significantly improve specifiers’ lives if manufacturers’ websites were part of a notional distributed library, all catalogued and searchable using a single classification system such as Uniclass 2015.'

Bussey and Crocock recognise that these improvements require collaboration across the industry and are not the sole responsibility of manufacturers. As Bussey says, 'Everyone in the industry has a moral responsibility to protect and think about the people that will be using their buildings. While these improvements by manufacturers, and indeed the Fire Safety Overlay to the RIBA Plan of Work, will help, it’s down to us all to collaborate to make it happen.'

7 ways to make life better for specifiers

1. Make your product easily discoverable on your website by applying a recognised classification system, such as Uniclass 2015 to all of your products.

2. Use crystal-clear, consistent, comprehensive, non-technical language to describe what fire test data you have and what standards were tested against. Describe what your test data mean in practice for how your product may be used and what their limitations are.

3. Say very clearly whether your product is third-party certified or not.

4. Make each product specification available in a digital format that can easily be incorporated into project information by specifiers and can resist unsafe substitution during value engineering.

5. Make your products indelibly traceable for the benefit of future facilities managers.

6. Link your indelible labelling to the full product specification. 

7. For products that are critical for life safety in case of fire, consider setting up an approved, quality-assured installer scheme. Make using an approved installer part of the specification.

Matt Thompson is founder of listenback.co.uk, the architect's client feedback tool.

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