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The new normal for fire safety

Josephine Smit

Close collaboration and communication will be key to improved accountability in the post-Building Safety Act regime, say experts

Better accountability, competence, information keeping and safety – central tenets of the new regime being driven by the Building Safety Act – amount to a ‘new normal’ for the construction industry, believes Jane Duncan. The RIBA past president and chair of its expert panel on fire safety was speaking at the seminar ‘Fire safety in design and construction’ last November, organised by RIBAJ in association with manufacturer Hilti.

A focus on competence across the industry was identified as central to raising safety levels. Duties for clients, designers and contractors are enshrined in the new Part 2A of the building regulations, which applies not only to high rise residential development but to all projects in England that are subject to building control approval. ‘This is all the building regulations, all the functional requirements,’ stressed Dieter Bentley-Gockmann, director of legal and technical services at EPR Architects and author of the new RIBA Principal Designer’s Guide.

Competence applies to both individuals and their organisations, Bentley-Gockmann explained, with that of individuals centring on ‘making sure you’ve got the skills, knowledge, experience and behaviours to undertake the design that you’re doing’. Both individuals and organisations ‘should only act within the boundaries of your competence,’ he cautioned.

Higher risk buildings (HRBs) – residential, care homes and hospitals of at least 18m in height – are subject to the new regulatory framework overseen by the building safety regulator (BSR), the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). The framework’s gateways 2 and 3, which came into operation last October, necessitate BSR approval before construction and at completion. To secure a completion certificate, the client needs to provide ‘sufficient evidence and assurance that the building, as built, satisfies those functional requirements,’ explained Neil Hope-Collins, BSR operational policy lead, HRB building control authority, at HSE.

On the question of what evidence should be collected and when, Hope-Collins said the design phase was where ‘the hard work happens’. That’s because, he continued, ‘at this point you have a design and you’re confident that the design, when built, will satisfy the functional requirements and you are confident that you know what evidence to collect through the construction phase in order to be able to put yourself in the best position at the end.’

What we’re doing hasn’t changed but how we’re doing it will... more collaboration and communication will be needed in future

Manufacturers are working to help the industry better plan, install and manage compliant details and raise competence levels. Hilti has long provided support in overcoming the challenges around passive firestopping in building projects, introducing tools like its Firestop Selector for specifiers. Early engagement with manufacturers can help optimise firestop designs and detect clashes and so minimise late design changes and substitutions, said Olga Katsanova, head of technical DD&E marketing for northern Europe at Hilti. ‘We need to think upfront about firestopping and how competence levels can be raised,’ she added, hinting at the company’s plans for new training support.

Change is potentially far-reaching, as seminar speakers explained. More than 4,500 practising building control professionals need to be assessed and certified by April, and regularly reassessed thereafter as competent. Maria Caulfield, operations director at Sweco Building Control, said, ‘It looks like the industry will lose 40% of building inspectors within the next 12 months,’ as many leave or retire rather than struggle to meet new requirements.  

In light of statistics like these, the seminar audience wanted to know more about how the new regime will affect client relationships, broader industry culture and, ultimately, fees. 

Alan Winterburn, associate director of fire engineering at WSP UK, said that from a fire engineering perspective, costs at RIBA stage five and six had increased. ‘It’s a lot more significant because people now want a lot more from the process,’ he explained.

‘What we’re doing hasn’t changed, but how we’re doing it is going to change,’ said Bentley-Gockmann. ‘We need to be thinking about time and resourcing in terms of what does the design process now look like? What does the procurement process now look like?’. More collaboration and communication would be needed in future, he argued.

Agreeing approaches and costs with the client was acknowledged to be potentially challenging. Benjamin Ralph, partner and head of fire safety at Foster + Partners, said: ‘One thing we’ve learned is that there are probably going to be a lot more difficult conversations than there were in the past.’ That has prompted the practice to invest in specialist training.

HSE’s Hope-Collins was optimistic about the longer term. ‘In the fullness of time, I don’t think it will cost any more than it costs now,’ he said. ‘I think it might well be cheaper, because there will be less messing around redoing things through the construction process.’ For now, however, he acknowledged that, ‘getting there is going to be difficult’. 

Be prepared

Jane Duncan’s advice to architects still looking to get to grips with the new regime is:

1. Review the legislation’s impact on your practice
2. Update your processes and procedures
3. Understand the limits of competence
4. Liaise with your insurance broker
5. Think about your fees

Hilti is on hand to help specifiers through the complexities of passive fire protection

SPEAKERS (above, left to right)

Dieter Bentley-Gockmann director legal and technical services, EPR Architects  
Maria Caulfield operations director, Sweco Building Control
Jane Duncan RIBA past president and chair of RIBA Expert Advisory Group Fire Safety and founder of Jane Duncan Architects  
Neil Hope-Collins Operational Policy Lead, HRB, Building Control Authority, Health and Safety Executive  
Benjamin Ralph partner, head of fire safety, Foster + Partners  
Olga Katsanova MEng, EMBA, head of technical DD&E marketing for Northern Europe, Hilti  
Alan Winterburn associate director, Fire Engineering, WSP UK



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